Workflow technology buries business processes in applications

Now that most federal agencies have developed a firm network infrastructure many are building applications that marry their business processes to that technology.

The concept is what is loosely labeled workflow in which software automates a business process and allows for tracking and control of the ongoing work. Workflow applications can become very complex but many agencies have found that the basic concept is relatively simple. Generally workflow involves tracking the flow of information through a process and ensuring that people know where the information is in that process and where it should go next.

For example the Immigration and Naturalization Service recently rolled out a workflow application for processing requests for documents and information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

"Once we worked with workflow we found out it's not rocket science " said Gregory Powell the workflow project officer at INS. "The more you understand the process the more you break it down to its most basic steps and the easier workflow is."

A number of vendors have developed software that provides the basic workflow structure but that also allows users to tailor the structure to their specific requirements. Workflow applications often include an imaging component making it possible to move paper documents through an electronic workflow process. More recently some vendors have enabled users to run workflow across their intranets.

Hot Topic

This summer federal procurement professionals identified workflow as the hottest topic in an informal survey conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Highway One which is a nonprofit industry consortium focused on forefront technologies said James Watson Jr. of DocuLabs a Chicago-based research and document-imaging product-testing firm and one of the partners in Highway One.

"Workflow is on the radar screen " Watson said. "It's more than just electronic mail. Users want to track e-mails to know how long someone has had something sitting on their desk to have some control over a simple process. Traditional production-based workflow is flat but if you take the whole enchilada there's a lot more going on."

"In the last nine months workflow capability [has become] much more strategic and linked to the architecture - beyond purchasing or claims adjudication " said Suresh V. Shenoy vice president of McLean Va.-based Information Management Consultants which has done many workflow implementations in the federal market.

In particular Shenoy cited the growing number of users and government agencies bringing in integrated applications that typically link finance to operations. In these new environments the "workflow controller is the traffic cop " Shenoy said.

These systems can either be build-your-own or off-the-shelf with prices ranging from $1 000 to $2 000 per seat for the heavy-duty production systems to $60- to $150-per-user systems that handle more routine or administrative tasks. And prices for these more generic solutions continue to fall as workflow capabilities are added to popular word processing and office suite applications.

"Two or three years ago it was pure workflow but now it's being integrated with many other technologies such as the Web groupware even object technology " said Daniel Wu a computer specialist for workflow standards in the Defense Information Systems Agency's Center for Standards Reston Va. "Delivering productivity to the user via automation of process and the management of process" is what users require today said Mark Scheffel vice president of product strategy and development for Chantilly Va.-based Universal Systems Inc. (USI) which makes workflow and imaging software.

"We're definitely seeing a convergence of document management image management and workflow [all] tied together to one piece of infrastructure " Scheffel said. "People are beginning to realize that once they have a document management system in place they need to get productivity out of it - for the most part via work process management."

As it emerged in the early 1990s workflow was highly structured software that led clerical workers through a small number of jobs. Their inboxes were filled with the same tasks such as accounting or application processes that needed to be repeated again and again.

"People's architectures have grown up and they're looking for mature products that are architected in ways to leverage their environment. That's why forms routing wouldn't really cut it in today's world " said Andrew Jackson the group product manager at JetForm Corp. Ottawa. "When you introduce a workflow server you can now do time-based control reminders and deadlines and the server can do things over the [World Wide] Web."

Internet-Enabled

Linking workflow applications to the Internet or internal intranets still seems to be on the cusp for most federal users. But the potential is tremendous for applications used to interface with the public such as student loan applications or records declassification said David S. Lipstein director of market development for McLean Va.-based Eastman Software Inc. which makes OPEN/workflow software.

While controversy remains over the security of the Internet for such transmissions - for example use of the Internet by the Social Security Administration - the technology is there to support it Lipstein said. And the technology is ideal to respond to uniquely governmental applications such as FOIA requests as well as to current federal initiatives including the National Performance Review.

This fall for example INS' headquarters in Washington D.C. will begin rolling out the FOIA Information Processing System (FIPS) which is a workflow-driven system for tracking and complying with FOIA requests. At INS FOIA requests usually required "21 or 22 different steps and there were areas where [the case] would sit in an inbox for days " INS' Powell said.

With the new system case workers each assigned 200 to 300 cases will no longer need to physically search or telephone for records needed to fulfill FOIA requests. Instead critical documents will be scanned into the system and brought together electronically once they are created. The workflow system just emerging from a pilot runs on an IBM Corp. RISC System/6000 server with an Oracle Corp. database and Eastman's OPEN/image imaging software.

While FIPS so far is limited to INS' headquarters Powell wants to roll it out to all INS offices. Expanding FIPS to the field would involve rethinking how work is processed within and among field offices and headquarters Powell said.

At the National Institutes of Health one workflow system - used by about 300 information system staff members - collects tracks and then delivers help-desk answers to the tens of thousands of NIH computer users. The application is based on the Action Request System from Remedy Corp. Mountain View Calif.

NIH needed a lot of flexibility said Lee Freeman a computer specialist in the customer services branch of the NIH's Department of Computer Research and Technology Bethesda Md. The agency needed a system that would work on multiple platforms across the organization and one in which the workflow rules could be easily changed.

"The system is useless unless you can give users the changes they want immediately. Otherwise they find ways of getting around using it " said Freeman who has developed tracking systems since the early 1980s. Freeman's group which recently took over the operations of another large help desk is now looking at the possibility of linking voice messaging to the help-desk application.

Industry analysts expect voice messaging-related workflow applications to be part of the next round of workflow products. One such application has already been introduced by Redmond Wash.-based Mosaix Inc. which was formed by the merger of ViewStar Corp. a workflow vendor and Digital Systems International which provided incoming-call managers.

Search for Interoperability

Another system showing the future of workflow is in the Legislative Affairs Office of the Secretary of Defense. The office recently upgraded an older workflow application that handles queries from congressional committees by installing USI's Documetrix WorkManager.

"The old inventory system was marginal at best - very expensive proprietary upgrades few and far between licenses were extremely expensive and hardly did anything for us " according to Lt. Col. Kevin Kirsch in the Pentagon's Legislative Affairs Office which used Apple Computer Inc. Macintoshes. "With the specialized customized applications that are being thrust on us we couldn't operate on Macs anymore."

After migrating to PCs the office was able to install the new workflow application in May 1997. The system runs on about 25 of the 40 IBM PCs in the office it is linked to Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange for electronic mail and to other applications as needed. Because most of the requests from legislators are still received on paper the first step is scanning those requests into the system where workflow software links them to other applications and to the appropriate individuals' desktops.

Bringing in sophisticated workflow software can automate processes as well as uncover work inconsistencies black holes and bottlenecks. "We found that some of our processes were broken " Kirsch said. Work is under way to connect the new system to other electronic systems within OSD and ultimately to the Internet Kirsch said.

Sign of Things to Come?

This new system may point to the future of workflow systems within the federal government. In the future agencies will use workflow to create sophisticated incident-tracking systems that could monitor the status of complex events such as fuel spills on military bases or loose bolts reported on airplanes along with inquiries from Congress and citizens.

Federal users will have the power to track an incident no matter the magnitude or where it took place within an organization said Roger Sullivan vice president of marketing at workflow provider KeyFile Corp. Nashua N.H. Using e-mail this workflow tracking can be shared with other agencies which is how KeyFile provides for the interconnection of disparate workflow systems.

Few if any agencies have tackled this need to move workflow documents from one system to another either between agencies or within the same organization.

Toward this end one industry user group the Workflow Management Coalition has been developing interface standards to be incorporated into workflow products. In demonstrations at industry shows vendors have at least shown the system interoperability that users seek.

However no vendors have yet introduced products with this interoperability built in.

Coming to such workflow standards is complicated. "It's a living effort primarily because technology evolves like the Internet and Java we address all that " said Dave Shorter chairman of the coalition's steering committee and distinguished engineer at IBM Dallas.

And what are users demanding loudest from the coalition? "Speed " Shorter said. "Like any standards organization even an industry one like we are users want [specifications and vendor adoption] very quickly."

-- Seattle-based Winkler the former New York bureau chief for Computerworld writes about technology management.* * * * *

At A Glance

Status: Workflow enables agencies to capture business processes in any number of applications.

Issues: Workflow technology is merging with technologies such as document management and imaging but interoperability between systems remains a concern.

Outlook: Good. While the technology continues to advance vendors are working together to address concerns about interoperability.

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