Making Workflow Work and Flow for You

Workflow isn't rocket science, but it isn't magic either. While workflow can make major improvements in the way an organization runs, it achieves that goal only when its principles are applied correctly. We explain the success factors and the benefits that the process can provide.

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Big and Complex vs. Small and Simpler

Workflow tools are highly stratified. At the top are the workflow modules built into ERP applications such as SAP and standalone products like FlowWare from Plexus. Products in this class typically include process modeling, business rules engines and other features to help reengineer processes involving thousands of workers and thousands—or tens of thousands—of steps.

At the bottom or entry-end of the spectrum, applying workflow to the simplest processes requires no special tools at all. "I have pointed out to some users that what they really wanted is Microsoft Office and a little routing slip between users," says Johannes Scholtes, president of ZyLAB Technologies, a workflow vendor and consultant. "Of course, you can sell these people a $25,000 application to automate this, but they don't need it."

Ultimately, what you need depends on the size and complexity of the processes to which you're trying to apply workflow management.

Features aren't the only differences between tools. Usually the products aimed at simpler processes focus strongly on ease of use. The designers' assumption is generally that the users are nonexperts or quasi experts within the company.

For example, Quask, a workflow software vendor built its application around the concept of an intelligent form. Basically, the user develops the workflow by filling in the form, including the business rules. "Everyone understands what a form is," Freddy May, CEO of Quask, says. "It's very much a logical way of mapping paper into a piece of software. People can instantly relate to it."

The products aimed at larger projects are much less concerned about ease of use. For one thing, vendors expect that the products will be used by consultants or in-house experts.

The division between big and complex and small and simple is important, but it is also somewhat misleading. Since almost any process can be broken down into a series of smaller processes, it's possible to handle even a large, complex process by chopping it into chunks and doing it one chunk at a time.

The limitations of the simpler workflow tools become evident when they're asked to manage interprocess dependencies, handle complex database integration and handle tasks that are much more important to larger, more complex processes. The complexity cuts both ways. A really big project requires the tools that come with a big, expensive product. But if you don't need that big, expensive product, product complexity can slow you down. There is a lot of overlap in what these tools can do.

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