Workflow: It’s Not Just a Process; It’s a State of Mind

LarryArt150When it’s done right, workflow greatly reduces organizational inefficiencies, saves time and money, improves customer service and generally re-engineers business processes in ways that drive profitability and create new business opportunities. So what’s the holdup?

Whether you’re an OEM broadening your service offerings or a managed service provider looking for a new revenue stream, you have to understand that there’s a bit more to it than simply adding workflow to the list of services offered on your website and then waiting for the cash to start rolling in.

For starters, as a concept and as a set of tools, workflow means drastically different things to different people. And failing to understand or appreciate how and why “workflow” means something much different to a multinational, publicly held insurance company than it does to a small-town medical group comprised of three or four physicians all but guarantees disaster — for the service provider and its customers. The disparity of their organizational size and presumed complexity aside, these two hypothetical customers also need entirely different “flavors” of workflow.

One interacts and shares business processes with thousands — probably more like millions — of third-party partners, clients, vendors and government agencies, to say nothing of the multiple divisions and business units — accounting, sales, human resources, claims, etc. — within its own kingdom. The content used to power and inform this multinational juggernaut comes in every conceivable shape and form: audio, video, digital images, social media, e-documents, databases, enterprise software applications and, yes, tons of paper too. Visualize the long and complicated road from an initial claim on a car accident to the final delivery of a reimbursement check. There are simply too many variables — claims via phone, fax, paper and mail; claims adjusters; documentation; fraud detection and prevention; database queries — and exceptions to fit conveniently within a rules-based, document-centric workflow.

The other organization is, far too often, still a slave to paper and operates, generally, in a much smaller partner/vendor/client ecosystem. We’re talking about intake forms, patient histories, office notes, hospital records, invoices, insurance claim forms … the list goes on and on. These organizations are trapped in time-consuming processes that require “unskilled” workers repeating the same tasks over and over, eroding productivity and increasing the possibility of errors and other unwanted transgressions.

That’s changing by the hour as companies and offices — some more than others — embrace the digital world. But it still requires OCR-ing the data scanned from the original print document, where it can then be used, shared, stored and manipulated in whatever fashion the staff and its collaborators require.

But in the case of the small medical group, the goal of the workflow is to coordinate the timely circulation and processing of a particular document — say, an insurance claim form — to attain the required information and approvals from the doctor, the insurance company and the patient. It’s rules-based, can be easily mapped and fulfills its utilitarian role as a time- and money-saving tool.

The point here is that while the insurance monolith surely needs the document-centric workflow that would be the near-term game-changer for the small medical office, what it really needs is another whole level of “workflow” — one that accommodates collaboration not just on the document or file itself, but the structured data, ideas (unstructured data) and interwoven supplementary software applications required to move that process or project through the organization as fast and profitably as possible.

This type of sophisticated workflow designed for so-called knowledge workers is where ECM (enterprise content management), business process management (BPM) and document management systems (DMS) tend to intersect and, often, overlap.

“Transformative applications come from applying the richness of content to the power that is workflow,” said Kimberly Samuelson, director of ECM strategy at Long Beach, Calif.-based Laserfiche. “Transactional content management, that’s the sexy thing for ECM right now — not finding and filing, but purpose-built applications that have added BPM to ECM.”

Workflow ingredients

Whether a customer requires a static, document-centric workflow or a more dynamic, process-centric flavor of workflow, it really all begins with the same type of organizational ingredients. Few are the business processes and functions that fail to live at least some part of their lives on the printed page. It’s just the way it is — at least for now.

“It’s really not about the paperless office,” Samuelson said. “There’s really no such thing. I’ve worked at LaserFiche for 11 years, and there’s still paper all over my desk.”

It starts with all the various human-created documents and forms generated for this purpose and that function. It can include rich media such as streaming video, podcasts or digital images.

Along with all this data (or files, if you prefer), there are the bazillion chunks of data created by enterprise applications — ERP, CRM, XML, etc. — all of which have to be captured to start the ball rolling. That’s where the document imaging, OCR and aggregation apps get into the game.

Once all the data has been captured, it moves into the classification stage, where the all-important indexing process takes place. This is the cornerstone of document and data management. Every step from this point forward will be dependent on the quality and comprehensibility of the indexed data.

It’s also where the earliest seeds of workflow and BPM strategy are planted, so it’s crucial to know what you’re going to want to do with the data as you’re indexing it and how the data relates to the other data and applications end users will be accessing.

Once all the human- and application-generated data or content has been indexed, it’s time to start accessing and integrating it with all your various core collaboration applications, including BPM, digital asset management, records management, Web content management, etc.

Understanding what matters and what doesn’t

This is where workflow can start delivering some real value. Some large, enterprise-class BPM applications include a workflow component, and other vendors sell workflow as a middleware-like utility that’s shared across multiple applications. Still others deliver workflow as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product hosted and managed in the cloud.

However you sell workflow, whether you’re a managed service provider, a VAR or a direct sales rep from the vendor, you’re going to earn your money here — and you’re going to do it by illustrating how workflow can be used to improve your customers’ business processes and, ultimately, their bottom line. It means getting down to the nitty-gritty of exactly how a particular task or business process is done — or should be done — so that appropriate rules and steps can be implemented to efficiently route a file, document or process through the organization.

To do it right, vendors need to become intimately familiar with exactly what role a particular document or file plays in the grand scheme of the organization’s business processes. It also requires the customer to sit down and really think about every element of the process — Who needs to act on this document? When? Why? — to ensure the workflow implementation isn’t dead on arrival.

“I think the challenge for vendors is that they need to fundamentally learn about the role a document plays in a business process,” said Ken Burns, a senior analyst for market intelligence at Westlake, Ohio-based Hyland Software. “Otherwise, they run the risk of choosing the wrong tool for the job.”

Burns said that in the world of workflow for content management, rules of process dictate where the document goes throughout the organization. The software sets the rules, those rules are very predictable, and even the exceptions are known.

“Another (type of) workflow is task-driven,” he said. “A customer service request, for example, might have rules oriented around these tasks. In this human-interactive workflow, there are too many exceptions. If you try to use the same type of workflow for a document-driven workflow, you end up with a spaghetti application.”

Once the workflow rules have been implemented, the documents can be used by multiple departments and users to start leveraging the benefits of this strategic automation of tasks and processes. They can be archived in paper or digital form; exported to databases; and stored on DVDs, tape, virtualized servers or, increasingly, in the cloud.

The document — or files, if you prefer — can then be pushed out or accessed in any number of ways, including the Internet, a corporate intranet (especially handy for mobile users), email or, coming full circle, printed out in paper form.

Keep in mind that most, if not all, of these potential workflow customers already have office technology equipment, software and managed service contracts. They’re looking — or should be looking — to take the next step up the document/process management ladder. And they’re going to have much higher expectations of their vendors and service providers.

How workflow is transforming your industry right now

“Workflow is hot right now,” said Mark Gilbert, a research vice president at Gartner. “We humans are expensive compared to building software that can tell you what’s going on with a report or a claim. (Workflow) has been around for eons. You could even argue that email is a workflow. But when you get into vertical industries, it starts becoming a very serious, highly orchestrated application rather than a workflow,” he added.

Gartner predicts worldwide BPM application sales, including workflow, will increase 7 percent in 2012 to more than $2.6 billion. It’s still a relatively immature market — a good sign for fast-moving service providers and vendors that ramp up their workflow offerings and establish themselves as experts in the space.

On a scale of one to five, 15 percent of organizations surveyed by Gartner identified themselves at level one — the lowest level of engagement with BPM apps — while 75 percent were only at level two. The survey also found that cloud-enabled BPM platforms will be “mainstream” within the next two to five years.

This opportunity means that vendors and service providers will likely have to hire a new breed of salespeople — or retrain existing staff — to go beyond the current MFP and MPS universe to sell and service the next generation of office technology/document management customers.

“Education is really important, even today,” Laserfiche’s Samuelson said. “Even though I’d say workflow has been embedded in ECM for five or six years, I feel like I’m still educating the market. Different industries are at different places on that learning curve, depending on the client base and how the economy has impacted them.”

Hyland Software’s Burns said that, along with deteriorating hardware margins, the document management and imaging industry continues to feel the impact of the cultural and technological shift away from paper in favor of electronic documents.

“It’s not just document and imaging (vendors), but CRM and ERP vendors are coming in and trying to eliminate paper from the get-go,” he said. “The million-dollar issue — and I’ve seen it many times — is these companies hire a certain type of salesperson to do what they’ve been doing before, and it just doesn’t work. They’re not software salespeople. They’re hardware guys.”

Regardless of how workflow is defined — based purely on document management or instead on the coordination of work across all the elements of an organization, including people, machines and software applications — vendors and service providers must adopt an entirely different mindset to survive and thrive.

“We’ve been living in the world of managing documents,” Burns said. “It’s taken several years, but we’re getting to the point where we’ve become process management engines built on a document management engine.”


Gartner Research
Hyland Software

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Workflow.

is an editor and analyst at BPO Media.