Firms tout Web as workflow solution

CHICAGO—Vendors of workflow and document management software exhibiting here at the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) trade show have embraced the Internet as the future infrastructure for business process automation.

New products from nearly every major imaging vendor employ popular World Wide Web browsers for viewing, managing or routing files. Most of the new software packages work with public networks and private "intranets" that use Internet technology.

Federal Interest on the Rise

Federal agencies, including the Defense Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institutes of Health, appear to be interested in the new software, as they turn to the Internet to reduce their networking costs.

"The Internet just becomes the pipe that connects users," said Rear Adm. Ernest Elliot, commander of the Defense Supply Center, Columbus, Ohio, which is adopting workflow over the Internet to automate its contacts with vendors, customers and DOD accounting services.

"No one demanded [software that combined Internet and imaging capabilities] until the Web emerged, but organizations, we see, strongly want to see it," said Brad Osborne, director of the Imaging Division with federal reseller BTG Inc., which is marketing a new Web interface to an imaging and text-retrieval package from Excalibur Technologies.

Early applications of the new software, however, are likely to be limited, as vendors search for ways to configure their products to monitor work, secure data and route traffic from Web servers. Only a handful of the applications introduced or released at AIIM support workflow automation over the Web, particularly the types of complicated processes common to many government functions.

Right now, according to Keith Ellis, vice president of document management at workflow vendor Blueridge Technologies, Flint Hill, Va., it is a matter of fitting functionality to the concept.

The Web "should serve as a good workflow platform," he said. "But it's a technical challenge."

Blueridge debuted its Optix 5.0 upgrade at AIIM. The package allows users to employ their Web browsers to retrieve files from a document management database.

Focus on Customer Service Apps

Most of the new Internet-capable workflow and document management products are customer service applications.

For example, outsiders would use the Web to view documents that are stored in proprietary databases or make requests that are later processed using an agency's internal workflow or document management system.

"Most of the federal government applications have to do with providing information to the public," said Jane Bartlett, senior business development specialist with Eastman Kodak Co., which plans to ship its All-Media Manager by the end of this year. The product uses "applets" written in the new Java programming language to retrieve thumbnail images of documents in response to user queries. With their Web browsers, users would be able to download the complete versions of the files they want.

Ann Palermo, vice president of worldwide marketing with federal vendor PC Docs Inc., Burlington, Mass., predicted that federal users of the firm's upcoming document retrieval offering for the Web, dubbed "Mercury," would deploy it for electronic publishing. Another pending product, code-named "Venus," would use the Internet to transport files as part of a PC Docs application, but users would not be able to work on these documents using their Web browsers as an interface.

These and similar products from Interleaf Inc., Waltham, Mass., IBM Corp. and others would let users retrieve documents that cannot be viewed in their original form using the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) format common to the Web or those documents that people distributing the files do not want to convert to HTML.

Role of Workflow Products

Meanwhile, workflow products, such as IBM's Internet Connection to FloMark and Action Technologies' just-released ActionWorkflow Metro, offer some routing and tracking capabilities for performing work processes using the Web.

In these applications, the Web server acts as middleware, allowing users to access task lists and initiate work processes that are controlled by the workflow server.

Internet Connection to FloMark lets users launch a work process by filling out an HTML-based form on a Web browser.

Later, through a Web gateway to FloMark, users can retrieve and perform work assignments and route tasks to the next person in the workflow.

Similarly, ActionWorkflow Metro passes commands between a Web browser and the native ActionWorkflow System. Metro uses HTML forms to initiate a workflow as well as to distribute assignments and record the status of tasks in the system.

The main benefit of these products, vendors said, is that users do not need the native application on their client machines.

"All you have to buy is the server component," said Rodrigo Flores, vice president of product management with Action, Alameda, Calif.

Vendors and industry analysts believe the first tests of this technology will be within private intranets. "We think that's where we can provide the greatest benefits," said Shirish Hardikar, vice president of marketing with ViewStar Corp., Alameda, which plans to make an Internet product announcement later in the month.

Scott McCready, an analyst with International Data Corp., said organizations that start to experiment with workflow and document management using the Web will probably deploy simple applications such as forms processing. "An intranet is lower-risk," he said, and forms processing tasks can be deployed over "a relatively wide area with relatively large volumes, but it's a relatively small, simple workflow."

Pushing the Envelope

Some agencies already see applications for the new technology that are more ambitious. The Defense Supply Center's Elliot said his agency is in the process of migrating its purchasing system to the Internet so it can more easily automate contacts with vendors, customers and DOD accounting services.

He also plans to adopt the Joint Continuous Acquisition and Life-Cycle Support (JCALS) system, a workflow and document retrieval system developed by Computer Sciences Corp.

"I look at the Internet as a product in evolution," Elliot said, adding that existing JCALS utilities will at least allow his agency to track and distribute documents, such as contracts, to others within DOD.

Other agencies are approaching Internet-enabled workflow and document management on a smaller scale. Steve Casteel, deputy chief inspector with DEA's Office of Inspections, said his agency plans to use a Web-based intranet to distribute completed files, such as investigative reports to its field offices. But at this point, his office will not use the intranet while the office writes such documents because of concerns about network security.

So far security is one of the biggest concerns agencies have with routing documents over the Internet or an intranet that has a gateway to the public network.

"If you are moving information across the Internet, you are going to want to make sure [that] when it gets back to your work site, the data hasn't been tampered with in any way," said Jim Harper, who runs CSC's information security technology program.

"It may not always be changed with malicious intent, but if it encountered a glitch on the line or a virus...it might change it in some way," he added.

At NIH, Manny De Vera, director of the agency's Computer Acquisition Center, said an upcoming imaging and workflow buy will not specifically ask for Internet-based applications, but bidders could offer the technology.

"The value that I see in imaging via the Internet is similar to the value of the Internet in general," he said. "It can allow easier access to a greater number of people."

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