Workflow management systems: classification and current trends

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If the sheer number of available workflow management tools is any indication, business process improvement through workflow automation is a popular business strategy.

The BPM (business process management) space is on a continued growth trajectory and based on TechNavio’s market research in the next two years, the market is expected to grow by nearly 14 percent, largely because firms are seeking to boost their efficiency through system upgrades.

A typical workflow comprises the series of steps people take to accomplish a business goal. For instance, business processes like billing, insurance claims processing, contract signing, hiring and loan approvals etc follow certain steps to come up with an outcome.

A workflow management system (WFMS), on the other hand, is the software that coordinates and streamlines such processes by providing an infrastructure to set up, execute and monitor the steps taken in an organised way. A WFMS is thus the computerised environment, set of tools, applications and interfaces where users design and define workflow processes, organise and specify their exact order and manner of execution until completion.

WORKFLOW SYSTEM CATEGORIES

The most common and globally accepted categorisation of workflow systems was inspired by James G Kobielus’ book, Workflow Strategies, where the categories are distinguished through the transport mechanism or underlying technology used for routing. The Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University of Albany in the US redefined these categories as:

Production workflow systems

Transaction or production workflow systems are those that move documents or information through terminals following a workflow process model. Insurance claims and loan applications are typical examples. They make use of a central repository and a monitoring scheme for check-in/ check-out and versioning, as different types of forms and documents are routed throughout the organisation through folders. Production workflow systems can be run in a broad range of computing environments and generally allow for better customisation. A big disadvantage is the relatively high cost involved, as development and integration call for external support. Since this type of system services a variety of people and organisations, the interface is also typically large-scale, diverse and complex.

Messaging-based workflow systems

Also called administrative workflow systems, this category allows users to keep track of what individuals are doing and assign new tasks according to some set of rules. They are mainly made up of stand-alone tools that route messages, instructions and various documents, such as forms and other file attachments, through integration with existing email systems. Since these systems utilise an already existing messaging system, products in this workflow category are generally low-cost. The focus is on enabling quicker implementation through simplification and processes are modelled with the end-user in mind. But what this category boasts in user-friendliness, it usually lacks in overall scalability and flexibility.

Web-based workflow systems

As the name suggests, systems under this category utilise web clients and servers to carry out process workflows. Web-based workflow systems make telecommuting and other flexible work options possible. Collaboration is not confined to the workplace and even users who are out of the office can easily participate in time-critical business activities. All the technical, networking and development work is done online, thus information technology (IT) troubleshooting and update costs are minimised. On the downside, since most of an organisation’s content is in the cloud, data security becomes a concern, particularly as large volumes of documents are delivered on a global scale.

Suite-based workflow systems

WFMS products under this category offer a ready-made suite of applications that include word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools and email. Well-suited to support ad hoc processes, unplanned or one-off actions, suite- based workflow systems can be bought off the shelf and ideally do not require outside consultant assistance to implement. However, this system type is characterised as high maintenance and built-in applications, particularly, those in the low-end bucket, may be too unstructured to adequately address an organisation’s workflow needs.

CURRENT TRENDS

The dramatic shift in the work landscape; i.e. globally distributed teams and increasingly mobile workforces, along with the growing clamour for businesses to rapidly address customer concerns, play a role in the shift to more organisations adopting new and adaptive workflow management solutions. The current trend reflections suggest systems that:

● have ready-made templates that can be used right out of the box

● provide a flexible framework for the creation of custom workflows

● can be configured on the fly to support ad hoc processes

● use drag-and-drop and graph-based technologies to optimise user experience

● support document integration and generate reports in real time

● push auto notifications and custom alerts for workflow continuity

● allow user access depending on role-based assignments

● can be cloud-based or on-premise based

● have ready-made integrations with commonly used applications like Outlook for a more seamless information flow, and

● offer API (application programming interface) clients for easier integration with legacy systems.

Each WFMS category has its share of pros and cons, and the decision to choose relies heavily on the particular business or purpose for which the system will be used. While a lot of improvements have already been seen in the new breed of workflow management systems we have today, this concept still applies. Good reviews and stellar ratings do not guarantee that a workflow system that works well for one organisation will work well with all.

Prior to implementing a workflow management solution, sit down and analyse the state of your workflow situation vis-à- vis the choices available to you. Choosing the wrong software can only be detrimental to your organisation’s success.

Maricel Rivera is the content manager of Comindware.

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