Jamie Bsales, Director- Office Workflow Solutions Analysis, Buyers Lab LLC
No matter what business you are in, it is ultimately the people and processes in your organization that will determine whether your company thrives or merely survives. That’s because even the best product or service offering will amount to naught if the information systems that underpin critical business tasks, accounts payable and receivable, sales enablement, customer service, human resources, and so on, are inefficient or, worse, non-existent. Fortunately, Workflow Management products can streamline, standardize, and even automate daily chores, helping to ensure that tasks are performed correctly according to set business rules and in a timely manner.
"Workflow Management Products Can Streamline, Standardize, And Even Automate Daily Chores, Ensure Tasks Are Performed Correctly"
The Workflow Management arena subsumes a range of product types, from Business Process Automation (BPA) platforms to Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems to Document Management Systems (DMS). While each of these has a different focus, they all share the goal of standardizing tasks, procedures and processes for knowledge workers. While the word standardize may give some CIOs a pause, no one wants someone else’s ‘standard’ process imposed upon their unique business situation. It is important to note that Workflow Management products deliver a great degree of customizability. Indeed, working closely with the reseller who places the system to communicate your current business processes and pain points will yield a solution customized to your individual situation.
From there, it is your internal workflows that will be standardized so that, for example, all incoming invoices are handled the same way to ensure timely and accurate processing. And better Workflow Management products will enable granular rules-based workflows; for example, invoices below a certain dollar amount could be approved by a manager, while those over a certain amount get routed to the CFO’s office for approval. Imagine having that sort of control over, and visibility into, all the documents and data that pass through your organization and the processes that surround them.
And here is where we see the confluence of several larger IT trends coming to bear on the Workflow Management arena. The first is ‘big data’, where companies are trying to get a handle on the volumes of information that pass through their organization on a daily basis. With an advanced Workflow Management system in place, all documents, both paper and electronic, email messages, customer information and so on can be captured into a central repository and made searchable and ‘mineable’. Better Workflow Management platforms should also leverage the trend toward mobility and the Internet of Things. Knowledge workers should be able to use any computing platform, Smartphone, tablet, or PC, to initiate or participate in workflow processes, and devices such as MFPs (Multi Function Printers), aka that copier in the corner, needs to be included in the workflow infrastructure. And for companies that are willing to embrace a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, a cloud-based infrastructure will allow you to get up and running with a Workflow Management platform more quickly and with less up-front investment, while also lessening the ongoing burden on your IT staff.
But for all its promise, adopting a Workflow Management system presents some hurdles. First and foremost are cost and disruption. Although the eventual payoff in efficiency can be great, these systems can be pricey to deploy, ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the business size and complexity and require buy-in from a range of stakeholders, from knowledge workers to IT personnel, who may be satisfied with ‘but this is the way we’ve always done it’. These obstacles, however, are not insurmountable. One strategy is to opt for a scalable solution that lets you select and pay for only the functionality you need for a targeted roll-out that starts with a particular department, such as Accounts Payable. The platform should also be flexible enough to mimic the current process knowledge workers are using to perform tasks. Well, the process is worth mimicking rather than forcing change for change’s sake. If the Workflow Management product works as it should in that key department, you’ll see a relatively quick RoI and have a department full of evangelists ready to convince HR, sales, customer service and other department about the benefits of the system.
Also be sure to select a Workflow Management platform that has its eye on the future. One important trend is the incorporation of AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology to enhance workflows and minimize the amount of human intervention required. For example, most current platforms rely on a knowledge worker to tell the system what a particular document or bit of information is, so it can be processed and slipped into the appropriate workflow. But thanks to AI, coming systems will be able to ‘learn’ what a given form or unstructured document is, what it pertains to, and where it should go, freeing up workers for more important tasks. And isn’t that the goal of Workflow Management in the first place?