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Knowledge Management & Intranet Solutions - Conference & Exhibition
On-line Learning 2001 Europe


Tools of the Trade


Workflow management

Gaining control of documentation flow means having control of business processes. Campbell McCracken makes the case for intelligent and dynamic forms.

workflowIt's a common situation you have a fantastic CRM system, you know all the data on your customers, but it still takes you 15 days to turn your documentation around. Why? Because you don't have workflow. In general, business processes are not well documented and can be slow. Manual processes are too dependent on paper and are labour intensive. There is a high risk that tasks can 'fall through the cracks' and there is no easy way of tracking the processes and measuring either the process time or the cost statistics. However workflow can change all of that.

So what is Workflow?

Originally the term 'workflow' was used to mean the flow of information, documents or tasks. It was associated with clerical tasks and the routeing of documents and is generally used in repetitive processes, especially in an office environment, such as banking or insurance. Examples include order processing, claim or loan approvals, new customer enrolments, customer support, expenses, timesheets, holiday requests etc. More recently, as more people have come to realise the power and benefits that workflow can bring, such as cost reduction through efficiency, improved product and customer service, gaining of a competitive edge, and aid to time sensitive operations, the term has evolved to mean 'the control of business processes'.

Three Workflow Engines

Peter Meehan

Peter Meehan

'Every organisation should expect to have at least three workflow engines,' says JetForm's managing director of UK operations, Peter Meehan. 'The first is the workflow for the masses (using Exchange, Notes, Novell, etc). Here you fill in a document and pass it from one person to another. The decision to pass it on is made by you. There are no rules, no logic, only human interventions. 'The second form of workflow is the workflow within an application, such as a CRM application.' For example, you phone a customer because you want him to request a product brochure and then come back to you to order something. Other examples could be document management, including scanning and imaging, or a mortgage processing application. 'But none of these examples extends out to the whole enterprise,' says Peter. 'That's where the third category a workflow broker comes in.' Once you look at the whole enterprise, there is scope for improving the processes by using workflow.

Nicole Kealey

Nicole Kealey

Workflow in the Enterprise

It's been estimated that 80 percent of business decisions are supported by a paper form that requires one or more signatures. 'We supply workflow solutions into banks, where they have 150 to 200 new customer enrolments a day, with documents going out the door that same day, which is 21 days ahead of where they used to be,' said Meehan. Nicole Kealey, JetForm's product and marketing manager for their eprocess group adds 'The focus is on solving the problem of integrating legacy and corporate applications with the people who need access to the data within those applications, and the processes that run the business.' The lack of interaction between people and systems seems to be a common problem. 'The Gartner Group recognised it in their report Implementing Business Applications in a Collaborative Environment' says Meehan. 'Organisations need to rapidly move from stove-piped ERP and CRM type applications to engage B2B and B2C in 'collaborative processes' (c-commerce). Many well-known players will find architectural and technological barriers that create a difficult transition to c-commerce.'

Case Study ­ Action Technologies at Lubrizol and at R.R. Donnelley

Last year Action Technologies won the silver Giga Global Excellence Award for a customer project with Lubrizol, the world's largest independent speciality chemical manufacturer for the transportation industry. Lubrizol achieved that position by accepting requests to produce custom lubricant formulations from transportation industry customers. Producing custom chemicals generates high returns and, not surprisingly, high returns invite competition. Bill Bares, Lubrizol's CEO, knew that it needed to respond faster and more accurately than its competitors, to the requests it received . It also needed to make sure that any new product development it undertook, met corporate return requirements.

In response to these changes in its business, Lubrizol decided to create a powerful, new, product approval process for taking a new customer request through planning, design, development, regulatory approval, manufacturing development, finance and manufacturing prior to acceptance. By its very nature, product approval spans many departments and functions within the corporation.

Lubrizol elected to use Action Technologies' Metro Internet-based work management system. Metro also allows Lubrizol to capture its best practice so that each time it goes through this process it can refine it and thereby embed its knowledge into the process and manage the knowledge that way.

This year Action Technologies won the gold award for a project with R.R. Donnelley, a leading North American printer and communications services company. This workflow not only spans many departments in R.R. Donnelley but incorporates the customer and the suppliers too. R.R. Donnelley realised that its educational book publishing division 'Graphic Management' was facing a growth challenge. Customers were requesting the division to produce custom educational projects with greater complexity than in previous years. For example, five years ago the number of components per project averaged between two and five pieces whereas recent projects contained up to 24 pieces.

Analysis showed that the increasing complexity was creating significant amounts of non-value-added work for key personnel. As a result, R.R. Donnelley decided to invest in developing PRISM, a web-based project management system. PRISM provides R.R. Donnelley with the power to involve suppliers and customers in collaborative commerce ­ a situation where customers, suppliers and partners create a unified business process that enables participants from across corporate boundaries to design, develop and deliver new products or services tailored to customer needs.

Collaboration

Ron Silvertson

Ron Sivertson

'There are two ends to the continuum of the processes that you could automate,' says JetForm's Kealey. 'There are the structured and formulaic processes at one end, and the very collaborative and ad-hoc processes at the other.' An example of the latter is a marketing department in a large organisation. Any piece that's about to be published would have to be reviewed and approved by a certain number of people. Workflow enables you to automate this collaborative process to ensure that all of the steps are completed properly. Action Technologies vice-president Ron Sivertson agrees. 'Collaboration is key.' Action Technologies' Metro product has been used in a number of award-winning implementations. (See Case Study Action Technologies at Lubrizol and R.R. Donnelley.) 'Metro doesn't just force the collaboration ­ it creates a framework to orchestrate how that communication should take place and whose action is next.'

Programming the Process

Before your manual process can be automated, it needs to be programmed into the workflow software. State of the art Workflow solutions will generally provide graphical programming tools, which will allow a process to be represented by a series of interlinking icons, one for each task. Each task has a 'recipient' which specifies who (either an individual, a job function, or a group) has the responsibility for carrying it out. Tasks can be linked together in series or in parallel and can be made to operate when a certain condition arises. Each step can have a form associated with it. Although forms are generally associated as being for human consumption, the metaphor of a form is also useful as a means of transporting information from one computer application to another. One of the programming devices used by vendor Ultimus is the workflow robot, or 'Flobot'. Ultimus draws a parallel with a production line, where humans perform some tasks and robots perform others. 'Workflow is an information production line ­ it processes information and knowledge,' says Ultimus' President and CEO, Rashid Khan. 'People might input the information, or handle it, or receive it. But at some stage you might want the knowledge to be translated into a Word document, fax or email message or written into a database. You can train the Flobots to perform these specific functions as part of the workflow.'

Case Study ­ Ultimus at Ultimus

Rashid Khan

Many commercial websites have a registration page where visitors can submit their details in exchange for further information, the right to download software, etc.

Ultimus did some research into online registration on the Internet and discovered that 50% of the time no-one follows up the registration ­ the information goes into a database and gets forgotten. 90% of Ultimus' business comes from the web, so it realises the importance of ensuring that all registrations are followed up quickly and effectively. To allow it to do this it created a workflow process for that part of its site.

When you register on the Ultimus site, a database Flobot process is triggered, which writes your contact information to a database. The workflow then checks another database ­ to find who the Ultimus reseller is in your area ­ and composes an email message from the salesman to thank you for visiting the site, telling you that the reseller will contact you. Next, the process informs the reseller and the salesperson that you requested information; and prints a letter and address label, to go along with the requested literature. In the background, another process monitors to check that the response to the request happens within a pre-set time. If it doesn't, the situation is escalated, automatically, to management.

Ultimus have been using this workflow process for three years and it has saved them thousands of dollars. 'There was a situation once where a customer was browsing our website, and submitted a request for a salesman to call,' says Ultimus' Rashid Khan. 'The process ran, notified the salesman, who called the customer while the customer was still browsing the Ultimus site!'

For example, suppose you need to send a letter to a customer saying that his order has been delayed for three weeks. In your database you have the delay time, the customer name, address, etc. You can put a Word Flobot step in the workflow sequence and click on the 'Train' button. This will make Word start up. You can then type in the actions you want Word to perform just like training a robot. You would type in the letter to the customer, making a Word template, and at certain points insert the workflow variables, such as the number of weeks delay, address, etc.You would then say what action to perform with the form, e.g. save it, fax it, print it, etc.

When the workflow is installed and is running the process, and reaches this new Flobot step, it will automatically start up Word, load up the document template which you created, insert the real values for the variables into the document, perform the action that was specified and then go on to the next step.

Ultimus has a range of different Flobots, including ones for Word, Excel, scripting, email, databases, XML, etc. 'We also publish an API SDK (Software Development Kit) so that if a customer wants to integrate Ultimus with their own application or a third party application, they can do so,' says Khan.

Case Study ­ JetForm at Auction Universe

Auction Universe is a pioneering online marketplace, where classified advertising and sales merge with the auction process, to create a dynamic e-commerce community, connecting people who want to sell with those who want to buy, in more than 6,000 categories of merchandise. The problem Auction Universe faced was that its customer service department was receiving more than 200 customer requests a day regarding commission adjustments, bid cancellations, etc, coming in via the Web, e-mail and telephone.

'Because of the diversity of inbound communications channels, we were concerned that not all of the information was being captured and the status of items in process could not be easily determined,' says Jim Baldis, vice president of operations at Auction Universe. 'Also, because of the business window being 24 hours a day 7 days a week, our customer service representatives were unable to analyse the overall pattern of problems in order to make customer service improvements.'

The solution was developed from JetForm technology by one of JetForm's Certified VARs. One electronic form was developed using FormFlow 99 to capture customer requests from the three different sources. Once captured, the information is stored in an SQL Server database and used to route and escalate customer requests to the appropriate person within Auction Universe. So if the request is about payment it will get routed to a different person than if it is about the availability of goods.

Interfacing to applications with XML

One area that generally causes problems in workflow is interfacing into other applications. In the past, the route chosen was to use Dynamic Linked Lists (DLLs) as the interface. However both DLLs and the modern counterpart, the interface adapter, are seen as being time consuming, inflexible and expensive to maintain. The trend now is to use XML (Extensible Markup Language) as the transport medium.

However an XML form on its own is static and does not contain all the information that it could. 'It is not strong enough,' said JetForm's Meehan. To get round this, JetForm has drawn up a specification for an XML Forms Architecture (XFA) which it submitted to the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). XFA gives forms graphics, templates, calculations, validation, scripting, picture clauses, sequencing, and digital signatures. 'It's like the three bears story SGML is too hard, HTML is too soft, but XML with XFA is just right.' The first document in the two-part submission to the W3C describes the open and extensible modelling of secure forms with high fidelity composition, automated calculation and validation, pluggable user-interface components, and flexible data handling in the first document. The second document describes a simple scripting language optimised for creating electronic-form centric logic and calculations.

'Imagine you are running your CRM business, and your workflow has to go to other people outside your department to involve them in the process,' said Meehan. 'What you can do is populate a multipage form and pass it straight out in XML format, preferably to another database. However the great thing about a form is that it's also the logical way for assembling and presenting the information to a human being. So it could go off to four or five stop-off points in the process, collecting signatures, or adding data before it's dumped into the other database. This is a very simple and elegant approach in comparison to adapters.'

Interfacing to Directories

Another big challenge is that of directories people, names, passwords and security. If you go into typical large companies, they have one department with an Access table, another with a little directory somewhere, a third uses Peoplesoft, etc. Workflow has to tie all of the people together and so ideally needs all the information together in one place. One of the technologies that has improved a lot in the last two to three years is LDAP Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. Now Microsoft, Novell and others have embraced it.

The hope is that people will start using LDAP as a standard, so that when you go into a large company all the 'people' information, resource information would be in a standard directory which various applications, including workflow, can access. 'At the moment it's still a problem, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,' says Ultimus' Khan. 'Just like XML is a big factor, we see LDAP as being big.'

Campbell McCracken

 

Links

http://www.actiontech.com/

http://www.jetform.com/

http://www.oasis-open.org/cover/xfa.html

http://www.ultimus.com/

       

 

2000 Bizmedia Ltd under licence from Learned Information Europe Ltd

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