Feds tap work flow to manage business processes

Federal agencies, seeking to streamline such operations as making engineering changes, fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests and processing employee promotions, are turning to work-flow automation tools for help.

A variety of software packages offer users the capability to map their business processes and design procedures for routing work electronically throughout their organizations. Depending on the package—and how users tailor it—work-flow tools can be employed to organize and schedule work, track its progress and structure how information is stored in an agency.

Vendors and industry analysts predict that work-flow automation will become widespread throughout the government as agencies look for ways to cope with reduced budgets and a smaller workforce. Traditional work-flow solutions are particularly appealing to agencies that do a lot of "case processing," in which the same procedures are replicated numerous times with different documents.

And as work flow software improves, it may be able to help agencies make the most of their information technology infrastructure. "Work flow is a tool that becomes part of the infrastructure," said James Carroll, vice president, civil sector, with Universal Systems Inc., a Chantilly, Va., integrator that sells its Documetrix work-flow package to the government.

Although agencies have invested billions of dollars in networking technology, "most of the communications people have are being used for electronic mail and to send things to printers" rather than to perform mission-critical functions, he added.

"The widespread availability of data communication in the work place has made work flow possible," said Stef Joosten, a professor with the Georgia State University computer information systems department. "Work-flow management uses this infrastructure to coordinate work, so wherever coordination is a problem, such as in large government agencies, this is an option."

But although federal interest in work flow appears to be growing, many agencies have been cautious about adopting it, observed Tom Koulopoulos, president of the Boston-based Delphi Consulting Group. A major reason is that it's difficult to find a work-flow product that is robust and flexible enough to span multiple functions.

"The federal government likes to do things on a large scale," Koulopoulos said. "That is an exceptionally difficult thing to do" with existing work-flow products.

Indeed, many work-flow packages require extensive customization; meanwhile, the industry is only beginning to develop standards that will allow users to integrate different vendors offerings. Only late last year did a group of vendors calling itself the Workflow Management Coalition propose a standard that would allow users to pull data from different work-flow systems.

There are price considerations as well. The cost of installing an average-size work-flow system of 25 to 30 seats ranges from $50,000 to $90,000, according to Scott McCready, director of image systems with International Data Corp. He said that price range does not include upgrading an organization's computing infrastructure to take on work-flow applications.

Many Ways to Approach Work Flow

Many federal agencies have been introduced to work flow as a way to extend the utility of imaging systems.

Many agency work-flow applications installed today involve routing images from scanned documents to employees who process them.

The Western district of the Defense Contract Management Command initially turned to imaging to cope with the paperwork involved in keeping employee personnel files. As do all other federal agencies, DCMC keeps thick files on each of its more than 6,000 employees and wanted a way to protect this information from accidental loss or damage, said Michael Sinkinson, director of administration and information management with DCMC's Western district.

Then agency managers realized that by incorporating work flow, they could use the scanned images to give employees and supervisors faster access to the files. Using Universal Systems' Documetrix product, DCMC's western district designed a work-flow process that will, among other functions, allow the agency to speed its approval of promotions and let employees tap into their own files on-line.

"It saves money, increases productivity and improves customer service," Sinkinson said. The new system, which is being deployed this month, integrates work flow with the agency's existing e-mail and electronic forms software.

Now agencies are also discovering work flow through other technologies such as groupware and electronic forms. Those technologies employ work flow-like elements, such as electronic routing and the capability for users to work simultaneously on shared documents.

A series of alliances among work-flow vendors and groupware, forms and e-mail vendors is one of the biggest trends in the work-flow industry.

IBM Corp., for example, is integrating its FloMark work-flow package with Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes. Imaging pioneer FileNet Corp. will provide work-flow functions to Novell Inc.'s GroupWise and PerfectOffice products. And Keyfile Corp. will have its software included with Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange groupware offering.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has been working on a work-flow applications programming interface (API) that will be part of its Messaging API, which some vendors and analysts said they believe will become a de facto standard.

"These alliances, from a vendor's perspective, mean volume business" by bringing work-flow capabilities to the desktop, said Suresh Shenoy, vice president with Information Management Consultants Inc., McLean, Va. "From the user's perspective, it becomes a matter of architecture, pure and simple," with agencies looking for products that are compatible with the operating systems and office automation tools they already have in place.

John Flynn, vice president of software business with Wang Federal Systems, has seen a surge in sales of Wang's OPEN/Workflow software and said he thinks work flow may even outpace imaging in the federal market.

Susan Schwartz, program manager, software solutions marketing with IBM, agreed with this assessment. "Where we are seeing a higher growth rate is in work flow not tied to imaging," Schwartz said. Instead, users are employing IBM's FloMark software "as more of an application platform" that leverages other technologies.

Roger Sullivan, vice president of marketing with Keyfile, said that where federal customers once began their forays into work flow with a six- or seven-seat pilot program, their first purchases now range from 20 to 100 seats.

Work-Flow Challenges

One of the main complaints about work-flow software has been how difficult it can be to set up. James Watson Jr., a senior research analyst with Doculabs, a Chicago consulting firm that performs product benchmark tests for the Association for Information and Image Management, said software from major commercial work-flow vendors such as Wang, FileNet, Keyfile, ViewStar Corp., Recognition International Inc. and Optika "are designed almost exclusively to automate highly structured processes."

Doculabs found that with most of these products, it's not easy for developers to translate a work-flow map into software code and not easy to make changes later. "You can't justify a product that takes 16 months to [implement]," Watson said. "It has to be flexible and easy to connect to other products and legacy systems."

Watson cautioned that unless users have "real production applications," in which information is managed through an assembly line-like process, they should "hold off" purchasing a work-flow system. "Groupware products...are going to get more and more work-flow functionality," he said.

When the Defense Department was looking for a way to use IT to manage acquisition, engineering and documentation of major weapons systems, it turned to Computer Sciences Corp. to design a system that would meet DOD requirements for flexibility and interoperability. The result was the Workflow Manager, part of the 5-year-old Joint Continuous Acquisition and Life-Cycle Support (JCALS) program.

Workflow Manager enables users to design and change work processes and route information to any Defense facility in the world, interconnecting with a host of legacy systems.

"One way to look at it is, a lot of work-flow products are developed to support one specific application and one type of data," said Sheldon Oxenberg, senior project manager for CALS in CSC's Integrated Systems Division. "JCALS' work-flow is one you can use to implement any process you have where you need to move work from person to person."

JCALS is slated to become part of DOD's new Global Combat Support System.

Oxenberg said some civilian agencies, which he didn't name, have also expressed interest in the JCALS work-flow technology.

The flexibility and connectivity of JCALS are now making their way into commercial work-flow products. Vendors have recently begun to offer object-oriented tool kits for programming work-flow applications, for example.

And many companies are working on upgrades that will let users launch work-flow processes from remote locations over the Internet, which may improve interoperability among different systems. And some are exploring ways to use Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java software to program "applets" for steps in a work-flow procedure.

Concluded Universal Systems' Carroll: "Work flow needs to be database independent and needs to allow an organization to take advantage of applications that are evolving every four to six months in the marketplace."

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