Workflow-management tools are designed to orchestrate everyday business processes. For example, a contractor may implement a process for submitting, reviewing and approving expense reports. Some companies may require many levels of approvals, whereas others may base increase efficiency approval on budget amounts or departmental expenditure. Either way, when done manually, the process is time-consuming and error-prone. However, workflow-management tools help alleviate these problems.
“A workflow-management system enables a company to model the process in question exactly to match company policy and have the software automate it,” said Romeo Elias, CEO of Intellect, Los Angeles.
A workflow-management system’s components vary. By and large, they consist of an interface that uses electronic forms (e-forms) and a process or workflow engine, according to E. Scott Menter, vice president of business solutions, BP Logix, Vista, Calif. The e-form enables the user to provide accurate information and then guides the delivery of that information into the system.
“For example, an e-form associated with a particular project will contain its specifications,” he said. “A project manager that wishes to update project progress will be guided by the software though the process.”
These e-forms are dynamic and able to change and validate the data as they are entered.
The e-forms feed the workflow engine that keeps track of every project and its status, so as people move through the project, the workflow engine knows the next task that is necessary for completion and who needs to perform it. Then the engine assigns it.
Over time, workflow-management software has evolved to include mobility, quick-and-easy configuration with no programming, platforms that incorporate data, forms, reporting, dashboards, notifications, business rules and logic, and mass adoption.
“Workflow tools were once used primarily by large enterprises, but, with the advent of affordable, new and easier-to-use technologies, more midsize companies can implement and benefit from them and can quickly deploy them while using fewer resources,” Elias said.
Workflow management is also merging with business process management (BPM), according to Menter.
“BPM has historically been a back- office technology used for billing, accounting functions, managing bids, etc.,” he said. “Now, however, driven by customers’ influence over everything from product design to pricing and delivery, BPM enables organizations to more directly engage with project partners, suppliers and customers.”
Pros and cons
Workplace success comes down to operational efficiency and task clarity at all levels of the company, according to Maria Kozlova, product marketing director for Comindware, Stoneham, Mass.
“Workflow-management solutions provide the flexibility that enables individuals and teams to adjust the process quickly and easily under changing conditions,” she said.
Workflow-management solutions tie together disparate parts of an organization to improve company communication and orchestrate project activities.
“Its ability to provide remote communication between field personnel and the home office better enables the company to verify that the actions to be taken are taken and to put everything in context,” Menter said.
The biggest benefit of workflow management may be in collaboration. The goal of collaborative workflow is to provide efficiency gains by removing communication barriers, minimizing organizational boundaries and enabling online social interaction to be goal-oriented, structured and measured.
“Workflow management enables everyone in the project to receive notifications of activities, communicate directly, and to have the latest data pertaining to the process in context of each step,” Elias said.
Other benefits include time savings, reduced costs, accuracy, visibility and transparency, accountability (every action is electronically signed), regulatory compliance and standardization, and reduced training time.
In some cases, corporate culture hinders wider adoption of workflow-management systems.
“Companies get used to doing things a certain way, and introducing automation and transparency sometimes creates resistance to change,” Elias said.
Finding solutions that are scalable is another challenge, according to Kozlova.
“It is important for users to be able to modify and adapt workflows to changing business and project needs,” she said.
With scalable solutions, the contractor can start at its own pace and price point and grow the system as needed.
“Workflow management will become a necessity for any company that wants to effectively compete in the marketplace,” Elias said.
The solutions that provide a consistent user experience across all mobile and desktop applications will shape the future of workflow-management solutions, and software providers that create intuitive interfaces and products that are easy to use will continue to increase their market share.