A Little Workflow History

This guest blog was contributed by Jim Lyons | 4/25/13
As someone who has worked in IT-related jobs his entire career, the term “workflow” is certainly not one that befuddles me or defies my understanding. Just the opposite, in fact. But that may not be the case for everyone.

It seems like a fairly simple, descriptive and straightforward expression. But as more and more discussion comes up about “workflow” in printing and document management environments, I have been thinking back on where and how I was exposed to the current meaning of the term – at least from a document-oriented perspective. It’s likely something you have considered as well, whether you have an IT background or not.

As a quick aside, there is and always has been a lot of “workflow” discussion as it pertains to graphics arts and related commercial printing. This involves looking at how activities are accomplished today and understanding how they might be streamlined, with steps eliminated or combined to improve efficiency and productivity (read: meet shorter deadlines). And it’s normally deployed when new technology offers the promise of time and cost savings.

Today, the printing/scanning/document management industry’s murky definition and broad-based marketing of “workflow” is on the verge of overuse and overexposure. And I’d like to do my part to describe a history that assuages my concern – and possibly yours – that “workflow” is destined to be reduced and diluted to merely a one-size-fits-all buzzword.

My history goes back to a recollection of the first HP “network scanners” that we (I was then an HP marketing staffer) brought to market in the mid-1990s.

On the heels of the highly successful HP LaserJet printers introduced in 1984, ScanJet scanners made their auspicious debut later in the decade. They were marketed as ideal for transferring photos and other images from paper into digital form, where they could then be included with pages to be printed as part of customers’ laser-printed documents.

This was during the desktop publishing era, but eventually HP and others, including customers, started to focus on scanners. This was especially true once scanners included OCR software as a document-management tool, converting paper documents into digitized images for electronic filing, editing and archiving.

So, with a faster auto-document-feeding model complete with a network interface giving access to multiple users in an office, the “network scanner” was born. And based on leading-edge customer input, its sales pitch often included a description of streamlining office “workflow.” For example, customers could now digitize paper RFPs and related invoices and store them in an electronic and universally accessible “digital filing cabinet.”

Today, none of this sounds particularly new or unique. HP’s latest MFPs, which include those ever-faster document-feeding scanners and bundled document-management solutions, now include “flow” in their names. This branding tactic using the shortened version of “workflow” is no accident.

I’ve previously written about HP’s new products and their respective target markets (“HP Goes With The Flow.”. At the time, I asked Markus Ditzel, marketing manager for HP’s LaserJet software and solutions group, what exactly this widely used but broadly interpreted term meant to HP.

”Historically, we and others in the industry have used (workflow) rather loosely (and) in a generic way, so it could be anything where information flows,” he said. “For example, scanning something to email – that is workflow, in this sense. Really, anything involving ‘capture’ can be – and is – called workflow.”

Ditzel then did his best to distill a more specific definition. “It’s often more precisely called business process automation,” he said. “An example (of BPA) would be invoice processing, where there are many steps in the process. Here the hardware is important, but the software and solutions sides become very important.”

Regardless of how you parse the definition, workflow and/or business process automation is and will continue to be a huge trend in our industry. While it has a proud history, there is no doubt the world is changing swiftly, and mobile-oriented BPA is a fast-developing area for further exploration in future posts.

Jim Lyons

After a long career working for HP’s printer business, Jim Lyons has been writing, analyzing and blogging about industry developments since 2006. He is also a faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching marketing and economics in the school’s MBA program. In his spare time, Lyons blogs and tweets on a number of topics, including in his monthly Observations column, which can be found at http://www.jimlyonsobservations.com/. Follow him on Twitter @jflyons.