Workflow: The Biggest Industry You Never Saw

Everyone knows the famed Henry Ford comment about the Model T that “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” But did you ever wonder why he chose black in the first place? Did Ford picture a nation of somber funeral hearses? Did he think that black hid dirt better (if he ever had a black car, he’d know THAT can’t be it).No. Ford chose black because, of all the paint formulations available to him at the time, black dried the fastest. Even this choice had a basis in efficiency and contributed to Ford’s legendary productivity.

As in Ford’s day, today’s best productivity tools are invisible. No one ever answered your call by saying, “Hello. Welcome to our CRM system. An automated work process is now being generated. Your low-value transactions are being routed by a software agent to various business applications so that our highly paid CSRs can deal with all your disruptive exceptions in the order in which they were received. Have an efficient day!”In a way, it’s the same message Ford was delivering with his Famous Wisecrack: “Mr. Consumer, to heck with what you want; I’m calling the shots here. It’s my business goals that are important. You’ll have to take what you get.”Imagine trying to pull that today. What’s different? At the time, Ford’s serious competitors numbered in the—let’s see if I remember—oh yeah, none.And that makes all the difference.

Flipping the Competition Coin

“Competitive edge can come from a BPM (business process management) system in a number of ways,” says Chris Preston, Director, Product Marketing North America for FileNET Corporation. “Sure, I can reduce my overall cost of doing business, because I streamline the processes. But I am also more agile. I can react to market influences as they occur.”

The two sides of the BPM coin—saving money versus better service—are actually BOTH accomplished through automation. As it turns out, both sides of the equation feed one another in a cumulative effect ... reduced costs directly yields better service, which attracts more customers, which adds profitability, which ... is something Ford did seem to care about.

“We call it ‘growing in the same footprint,’” says Tracy Shelby, DST Systems’ Officer for AWD Sales and Marketing. “We measure productivity not so much on reducing costs, but on increasing growth—how many more accounts-per-associate can a mutual fund company handle, etc.”

Productivity is thus selective. “You don’t want valuable people comparing policies, confirming approvals, verifying the suitability...,” explains Shelby. “Offload those tasks! Let the person focus on their experience. THAT lets you scale. If your costs aren’t going up, if you don’t have to add people at the same rate as you add business, then obviously, your profits increase.”

FileNET’s Preston adds, “There’s tremendous pressure on cost and revenue management right now. It’s an interesting time. We’ve actually had the technologies for some time. However, scrutiny and accountability have made them that much more critical.”

Business Process Magic

So, where on the account sheet do you place workflow, or BPM or whatever you call it this week? Is it a cost or a benefit? Is it a profit or a loss?

“If you believe,” says Preston, “that the total value of the organization is a summation of all their different processes—for example HR, accounting, finance, customer service—then how I perform those processes determines how much value I bring at the end of the day. If I’m not doing well at customer service, then how am I perceived by the outside market? If I’m not performing well on my financial and accounting operations, then how am I perceived on Wall Street? So how I perform on each of those processes determines—in the ultimate aggregate—how I deliver as a company. The ultimate point is: it’s all about the process.”

This is an old tune. Back in the ’80s, pundits were talking about business process reengineering. What’s new?

“The reason BPR didn’t work is because the idea back then was to re-engineer and forget,” explains Preston. “The one concept we all have to live with is change. Change occurs all the time, and BPR never had that built in. Business visibility is all about watching—and responding to—the changes. Gartner calls it ‘The Real-Time Enterprise.’”It’s all a matter of perception. DST’s Shelby draws it out this way: “You can calculate payback across departments and come up with a pretty specific dollar-savings figure. OR, you can take that same calculation and present it as a growth opportunity ... because of this saving, you can process X more accounts with the same people.”I guess it depends on if you’re a glass-half-full, or glass-half-empty kinda guy. But ignore it at your peril. If you don’t explore business automation, you might as well put your money, as Dilbert says, in a special kind of hole in the ground.

Andy Moore is an editor by profession and temperament, having held senior editorial and publishing positions for more than two decades. As a publication editor, Moore most recently was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of KMWorld (formerly ImagingWorld) Magazine. Moore now acts as a contract editorial consultant and conference designer.As KMWorld’s Specialty Publishing Editorial Director, Moore acts as chair for the current series of “Best Practices White Papers,” overseeing editorial content, conducting market research and writing the opening essays for each of the white papers in the series. He can be reached at andy_moore@verizon.net and welcomes feedback and conversation

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