Workflow automation conjures images of assembly lines, factories, and robots, but we deal with the concept all the time even if our jobs don't involve manufacturing. Just as organizational charts show how responsibility flows throughout an organization, workflow automation (WFA) governs how information and work move from start to finish. An element of a newer and broader concept known as business process management (BPM), WFA's a subtle but powerful concept that can have far-reaching effects on the success and survival of your business.
There's been a long-running argument regarding where WFA and BPM overlap, according to Jon Pyke, CEO of The Process Factory, a consultancy that specializes in the topic. "Where they are different [is in] which mathematical models to use, which standards are applicable to which part of the technology stack, and all that associated puff," Pyke wrote in Beyond BPM: Knowledge Intensive BPM, a November 2006 white paper. "The problem stems from the fact that most workflow products were flawed and as a result, the problem in the gene pool has rippled through to the new BPM species."
The simplest statement of workflow automation's value comes from Jim Manias, vice president of marketing and sales for software engineering firm Advanced Systems Concepts: "Imagine if the financial industry processed payments before deposits." The world would be awash in overdraft fees because of that tiny transposition, taking funds from accounts that didn't yet have them because the relevant checks were not yet processed.
Workflow automation is supposed to simplify and streamline business. "Historically, everything was date- and time-based for workflow," Manias says. "There were built-in wait times at every step to allow people to account for problems that might crop up, whether they did or not. Now we can use events to trigger workflows, including triggering them on the completion of the previous step." Technology lets us remove unnecessary waits and mismanaged handoffs.
There's more to WFA than just technology, of course, and thinking of it as such would miss the point, says David Straus, senior vice president of worldwide marketing for Corticon, a BPM vendor. "BPM is a behavior, a discipline. It's thinking about, in a structured way, how information moves through your company," Straus says. "There are tools for enablement, but it's consciously thinking about how work moves, and how you can guide it."
The key elements of workflow automation are the decisions made regarding activities and tasks. "There are two ways to handle decision-making," Straus says."Either you give control to a person who reviews the company policies and clicks the approve/deny button, or you give it to a computer that has the policies programmed into it."
People cause problems, whether through misremembered training, simple errors in looking at data, or even through malicious intent. Computers drive down costs and are more reliable if programmed correctly, Straus says, "but they don't deal well with sophisticated processes, or with change." The best answer here is a combination: Automate decisions when doing so improves throughput, and make sure humans are handling anything that requires interpretation.
This hasn't always been properly addressed, in Pyke's experience. "I'm oversimplifying things, I know, but it does seem that BPM is becoming a technology solution as opposed to the business process solution it was meant to be," he writes. "Somewhere along the way, one of the key elements in a business process--a person--dropped off the agenda. "He quotes Forrester Research's finding that 85 percent of business processes involve people--"carbon-based resources" is Pyke's phrase--but that figure has been overlooked. "Many vendors will tell you that their BPM products support human interaction, but what they are talking about will be simple work item handling and form filling," Pyke writes--features that are a long way from collaboration and interaction management. …