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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Workflow from the Bottom

Unlike ERP, workflow tends to use a bottom-up approach to reorganizing the enterprise. It essentially works one process at a time, although you can use it on several processes simultaneously.

In a typical organization, workflow implementations are atomic. That is, while a process may be connected to other processes in an elaborate chain or network, each process is, in effect, a separate project. This is in contrast to something like ERP, which tends to deal with the organization as a whole—and the "whole" should be carefully modeled before making changes.

For more on ERP, see ABC: An Introduction to Enterprise Resource Planning

The disadvantage of the workflow approach is that it takes a while to fully reengineer an organization. ERP is like trying to swallow an elephant in one gulp. Applying workflow to an entire organization is like eating an elephant one bite (process) at a time.

In fact, if the organization is large enough, you may want to consider some of the more advanced business process management (BPM) tools.

The difference between workflow tools and BPM is a semantic distinction, but an important one. The bigger, more elaborate standalone BPM vendors loudly insist their software is not a workflow product, and call their stuff BPM or Business Rengineering. But workflow is at the heart of all these tools. While the formal difference between workflow and business process management is anywhere from murky to nonexistent, in most cases vendors who sell applications labeled as BPM are aiming at bigger and more complex projects.

Also, BPM vendors are likely to offer elaborate software supporting even more elaborate methodologies, modeling, collaboration methods, process definition modules, and on and on and on. The distinction isn't hard and fast by a long shot, but it is useful.

For more on BPM, see ABC: An Introduction to Business Process Management.

The advantage of the workflow approach, compared with ERP, is that you're not as locked in as you implement. You can make changes to a workflow process quickly. "Once the system is in place, it's not the be-all and end-all," says Craig Cameron of Web and Flo, a Melbourne, Australia workflow consultant and maker of workflow software. "Things will change in the future and you need to have a system that is easy to change."

The process is going to change. That's the whole point. You want to improve your processes over time.

Another advantage of a well-designed workflow process is that it can serve as a template that can be applied quickly to similar processes. "Once you're comfortable with workflow in your organization, it will allow you to implement new business models much faster than [do] your competitors," says Bonver's Ederyd. "The cost and complexity of doing so is now manageable."

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