Don’t blame me if every time I think of workflow, I think of food. Blame the Frenchman who inspired my reminiscence on the time I spent in France — and all the amazing food I had there. Pain au chocolat. Macarons. Meringues au citron. Napoleons. Eclairs. We take so much for granted when it comes to eating, but how do you think that perfect little gateau came to be?
A chef must combine a series of ingredients in a specific way in a strict order, or else it’s just mush. And in some cases — like, if it’s French mush — it will still be delicious; just think of mousse au chocolat. But even that recipe has its intricacies, like getting those egg whites whipped to the right consistency, which is absolutely key (as I found out the hard way when I tried to make it myself). And I can’t even begin to imagine how the French did it before electric beaters. Do you have any idea how long it takes to make the egg whites mousse-y even with one?
Thankfully, we have companies like Pampered Chef to make so much of the work of cooking a breeze. Similarly, we have a great number of players in the workflow industry creating the “utensils” (or technology tools) we need to help us manage the multitude of “ingredients” (aka information) we now have coming into or generated within our companies. With great recipes (i.e., processes and best practices) and master chefs (i.e., employees) to perform the task of managing information, the office workflow of today is particularly exciting because through this synergy of people, processes and technology comes the opportunity for each company to create its best dish — whatever that dish may be — yet.
Technology: the utensils of workflow
You can get a sense of how our office “ingredients” (various data and information) move in the workflow cycle — the motion from creation or capture to management, delivery and finally preservation — by reading the sidebar below. But what about these new cooking utensils, or workflow tools, that — at least in part — are making that all happen? What are they? What do they do? What, as the French might ask, is their raison d’etre? And does everybody need all of them?
How Information Travels Through a Workflow Cycle:
Creation or capture. Not surprisingly, the first step in information management is either actual in-house information generation or the capture of information created by an outside source. Whether created by human or machine, a document, image, email, tweet, audio file, video, etc., must come into being.
Management and delivery. Once information is created or captured, it must then be made useful. Various forms of decoding (character recognition, for instance), aggregation and categorization make it possible for information to be managed – not just sitting around idly without meaning or function to an organization. Information can now be retrieved, searched, shared, collaborated on, edited, approved, rejected and more. After information has been utilized and shaped into (albeit perhaps temporary) final form, it can be delivered or distributed as output via hard copy, digital file, etc.
Storage and preservation. An important key to managing information, storage (on paper, on film, on CD, in the cloud or elsewhere) provides data a home while in both transformational and end phases of its life cycle.
“If you look at the basic end-to-end workflow, what (you’re) really look(ing) at is your basic workflow (process) integrated with a basic workbench and overall governance,” said Tanvir Khan, vice president and global head of BPO at Dell. The basic workflow process refers mostly to the stacking up, prioritizing and assignment of content. Within the workbench are tools and technologies such as the Internet, the cloud, hardware (including mobile devices), various software (including tools that automate processes), productivity tools, enhancement tools, content management systems, and collaboration tools. To enable overall governance, technologies such as management tools, reporting tools, monitoring tools, and storage tools come into play.
Among all these tools, though, perhaps the most critical are those that relate to or enable automation, mobility and the cloud because these are responsible for bringing business process management into the 21st century. “Automated workflow and workflow tools are going to be the next generation of how we’re going to get more and more efficiencies as far as the workforce goes,” said Jonathan Chihorek, VP, Supply Chain Systems for Ingram Micro.
“Mobility is a huge accelerator in workflow adoption,” said BJ Santiago, president and CEO of Intellinetics. “Think about all the ways people communicate now and follow their information. It’s via their iPhone, their Droid phone, the iPad or the Galaxy tabs — all that kind of stuff. So connected smartphones and devices enable workflow participants to work anywhere anytime in a real-time service-delivery model.”
And the cloud will change the face of workflow in several ways. First and foremost, it will “enabl(e) both enterprise and SMB organizations to have a feasible way to use technology that they haven’t had access to before due to cost, complexity or lack of IT resources,” Santiago said. This could lead to global virtual teams, Khan said, as workflow systems become increasingly cloud-based — which will in turn lead to greater efficiencies, the full utilization of resources and further optimization that makes the whole business process better overall. And beyond that, “it’s going to enhance the security,” said Gary Willert, president and CEO of LMI. “In the long run, it’ll be much more secure than physically housing your data in an on-site server environment. The cloud (will) be the future. Everything will be stored and really processed (there), and the options and ideas will be unlimited, practically, as to what the capability will be. Right now, we’re just really scratching the surface, I think.”
But before going out and buying every workflow tool you can, it’s important to think about the ultimate end goals the IT environment under consideration has. “I think the hallmark of disaster is, people go out and buy hundreds of thousands of dollars for tools because they get enamored,” Chihorek said. “Someone goes, ‘This can help me,’ and they bring it into the organization, and they haven’t even thought about an overall strategy — what it means, how it’s defined, what’s an appropriate way in which this thing should be deployed, how it should work, who’s going to own it, (and) how the data is going to be managed.”
Processes: the recipes of workflow
All the things that Chihorek referenced above relate to processes — the “recipe” for success in a business workflow. “The best technologies in the world are not going to help a badly engineered process,” Santiago said. “The business practice and the engineering of the processes have to be effectively aligned with the workflow solutions or business process optimization strategy that you’re trying to achieve.”
All companies, regardless of their respective industries, have certain functions (e.g., HR, accounting, etc.) in common, so there will always be some degree of process overlap among all businesses. While everyone’s busy cooking up something profitable, though, it’s not hard to notice how different the dynamics of each company’s kitchen truly are.
It tends to be these procedural differences that define the key areas in which a company can benefit most from workflow solutions, as “a lot of processes which are really unique to companies are done as manual processes,” Khan said. Deciding what tasks can be automated and, conversely, what will remain manual is key in establishing effective workflow processes. “The moment you have a software application handling part of a process and a bunch of people doing some processes on the side which are not connected, you have all sorts of exposure (and vulnerability),” he said, so from prioritizing work items based on their business value to “matching the best available person to the best available high-value task and letting that process run through, … workflow systems are really the key to tie the two together.”
At the end of the day, “there (should be) an organizational understanding and definition of what (workflow) is,” Chihorek said. “This whole sense of what it is really needs to be clearly defined and understood by the organization. Then you can … decide how it’s going to be applied (and) cut (your) teeth on some very simple processes where (you) believe this definition would be best applied in the organization. Then you can … start investing in the tools. (Be) very conscious about it. Otherwise, you could spend a lot of money.”
People: the chefs of workflow
With all the technologies and processes leveraged within a company’s workflow, it’s easy to lose sight of the last key element in this equation: people. While many tasks become automated and many nonessential processes get eliminated during optimization, “it’s (still) going to take somebody, from a business perspective, to sit down and determine what the handling rules are for any automated workflow,” Chihorek said. “That’s really important because some people can’t even agree on certain essentials in a business environment, and then you’re going to tell them to put all these provisions down to let this tool do the walking for them?”
However, while humans will remain responsible for masterminding workflow systems and solutions, it would be remiss to ignore the obvious downsizing of the workforce due to those same systems and solutions. “Similar to printing, (managing information has been) one of those areas that’s an unaudited expense,” Willert said. “(People) just assume it is what it is, (so cost is) not being managed. That’s all changing now, and companies are realizing that that’s a very high, legitimate cost. If you can spend money … to automate processes, you’re going to be better off in the long run because of how cheap (automation) is. (Plus), you won’t have to hire people to do certain functions, you can eliminate certain functions, or you can eliminate jobs that are doing a lot of manual work. I don’t think that’s really hit, necessarily.”
Although that might sound like music to some companies’ ears, there are aspects of information management beyond mere design that will likely always require human intervention. Without a doubt, though, employee roles will change (if they haven’t already). Many basic, nonstrategic tasks will be automated, leaving employees to fill more analytical roles — what’s typically referred to as “knowledge worker” roles. “(As) simple tasks … continue to get eliminated,” Khan said, “newer, more complex tasks … are getting created — things in the space of mobility, cloud, analytics — that need advanced skills, and that is where the need for people is growing at almost the same pace at which the need for people is declining for simple tasks.” From supervising, managing risk, reviewing, regulating, monitoring or maintaining compliance, people will actively participate in the continued optimization of their work environments like never before. And beyond this, “there will always be a need for some kind of human interface” from a customer and supplier standpoint, Chihorek said.
So while it may at first feel painful, shifting a company’s workforce from, say, scrubbing dishes to designing new courses is well worth it. “If every company really took a look, got into the details of what each employee does, analyzed it and tried to figure out … a better way to do (things) — and not the old answer, ‘This is the way we always did it’ — I think that the opportunity is endless,” Willert said.
The delicious rewards of information management done well
While some of them have been hinted at throughout, Santiago provided a nice list of the many benefits of successful workflows:
- increased efficiency
- reduced costs
- improved customer service
- reduced transaction cycle times
- increased quality and consistency
- a better platform to manage and grow a given business model
- improved return on investment or internal rate of return based on a company’s internal cost metrics on critical processes
- increased throughput of information
- reduced user bias and errors through standardized, repeatable and system-driven processes
- the ability to scale much more quickly at a lower cost while maintaining a high customer service level
- prevention of falling subject to fines or legal penalties based on certain industry standards not being addressed properly
- visibility into bottlenecks and exception processing.
Beyond this — and yes, there’s much more beyond this — an optimized workflow is really what enables companies to manage big data and delve into business analytics. “You can’t do that without having the foundation of the proper workflows and business process optimization that are targeted correctly to what (you)’re addressing,” Santiago said.
Through workflow tools, “we are aggregating exceptions, classifying them and trying to look for trends or rules (as to) why this exception activity occurred, and as a process of this, we are extracting business rules from these exceptions,” Khan said. “The moment you establish an IT BPO virtual cycle where the IT system is improving a business process and the business process is improving the IT system, that virtual cycle starts driving up auto-adjudication rates.” And with high automatic response rates, work is eliminated, and costs are driven down. “That is really the power of a workflow system to transform an industry,” he said.
But Khan also reminds us that it’s the entire workflow system — including the utensils, recipes and chefs — that’s truly responsible for such a savory outcome, which is the reason for any of this, as anyone — French or otherwise — would surely know. “If you take any one piece of (the system), it doesn’t really deliver all that,” he said. “You need to have the technology, you need to have the people, you need to have the process and the workflow tied together. That is what transformation is all about.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Workflow.
Raegen Pietrucha is director of communications in UNLV’s Division of Research and Economic Development. She writes, edits, and consults on both professional and creative bases.