Are You Ready for Web Workflow?
- By Barbara Depompa Reimers
- Nov 08, 1998
State and local government staffs are intrigued by the idea of using Internet technology to improve agency workflow, but few have actually taken the plunge to commit to the beguiling new technology-at least for now.
Workflow applications automate manual tasks or processes that require input from multiple people within an organization. "The problem with most processes is that they are either overcompensated for-requiring multiple levels of approval, for example-or else there are not enough resources to properly support the process, in which case things tend to fall through the cracks," said John Schellenberger, an information and technology analyst for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office .
The main reason most organizations want to move workflow applications to the Web is scalability or acceptability. "Instead of reaching two or 10 people in a group, Web-enabled workflow expands the application to an entire department, agency or organization," said Amie White, a senior analyst for International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. "It can even be used for processes that involve customers and suppliers, otherwise known as extranet applications."
White expects World Wide Web-based workflow to become a de facto standard for applications that are especially complex or are designed to be used enterprisewide. State and local governments are familiar with workflow, using it to keep track of personnel records; processing welfare or Social Security claims; managing vital records such as birth, death or marriage certificates; processing taxes, including appeals and assessments; and maintaining court-related documents. But moving workflow to the Web is still just a goal for most government organizations. That's because the products that Web-enable current workflow tools are still relatively new. Netscape Communications Corp.'s Process Manager Version 1.0 started shipping in September, FileNet Corp.'s Visual WorkFlo has been shipping all year, and Keyfile Corp. has been shipping Web browser support for KeyFlow, its workflow product, since last summer.
"As state and local governments strive to operate more like private businesses and do more with less resources, Web-based workflow is viewed as a key technology to get them there," said Ynette Gibbs, government industry marketing manager for FileNet.Web-enabled workflow is a key goal for the Kansas Department of Transportation, which already has spent $607,000 on workflow prototype systems and plans to launch four workflow applications by the second quarter of fiscal 1999.
Sue Swartzman, an analysis and programming manager at the department's Bureau of Computer Services who is also chairman of the statewide workflow committee, said: "We have both the intranet and Internet technology in place. We just need to improve security, adding a firewall, for example, to make Web-enabled workflow applications beneficial, especially for outlying districts."
Still other states and localities already are using the Web for document management and presentation (see our review on Page 25).
Improving service without increasing the level of resources or employee support was behind Maricopa County, Arizona's decision to move the management of vital records to the Web via a FileNet application more than a year ago. "Because of space constraints and [the] volume of people wanting access to data, we were backed to the wall," said Barbara Frerichs, project leader at the Maricopa County recorder's office.
That's why the county made unofficial versions of its documents-real estate transactions and voter registration information-available on the Web. For $1 per page, the county will allow users to print official copies of the documents as well.
After more than a year of use, and several upgrades to the system, Frerichs maintains that the Web-based technology is a real time-saver. "Anyone can answer questions for themselves and do research without the need for county workers getting involved, she said. "We are doing a better job, and users have a stronger feeling of satisfaction because we present documents on the Web as we do."
Barbara DePompa Reimers is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md. She can be reached at [email protected]
Pennsylvania Attorney General Manages Expenses via the Web
Sometimes being on the bleeding edge with a Web-based workflow application isn't so bad if an organization has bargained well with its vendors and is willing to explore the limits of a new technology.
That's how the Pennsylvania attorney general's office came to be a beta tester of new Web-enabled workflow processing software from Netscape Communications Corp. And now the state hopes to put its new workflow application into use by the start of 1999.
Managing the expense reports for 425 automobiles leased by the Pennsylvania attorney general's 23 regional offices had become a perplexing and laborious task that often overran the monthly schedule set by the automotive accounting office.
Drivers were expected to file their reports by the seventh of every month. In each detailed report they had to write down the number of miles spent traveling on business and deduct commuting mileage. They also had to add in the cost of gas, maintenance and other incidental charges and then send the reports to their supervisors for approval before they were sent to the accounting office for processing and reimbursement.
"The manual process produced numerous problems," said John Schellenberger, an information and technology analyst for the Information Technology and Law section of the Office of the Attorney General, Harrisburg, Pa.
First, the process required two forms, which were detailed, complicated and difficult to read when they were filled out by the drivers. Second, there were the numerous approvals to be made before drivers could be reimbursed. The forms were mailed from the drivers to the supervisors and then to the ccounting department.
Then there was the math. Errors were commonplace; supervisors were supposed to check the arithmetic and look for inconsistencies (such as a charge of $40 for a car wash) before passing the forms on to accounting. But arithmetic mistakes and other inconsistencies often made their way to the accounting office, which then had to send the reports back to the driver or supervisor to hash out corrections.
In all, the attorney general's office estimates that it took up to 150 hours per month to process the expense reports. And the backlog of unsettled reports was growing, dating back several months as well.
But after testing an online workflow application developed by Schellenberger using Netscape's new Process Manager Version 1.0, the attorney general's office hopes to save one-third of the time and cost required before. That savings alone would enable the accounting department to refrain from hiring another employee, as was planned before this application was tested.
Rather than fill out the paper-based mileage and expense reports, employees will be able to log onto a Web page and type information into an electronic form that makes all needed calculations and stores report data on a server. Once an employee fills out the information, a supervisor receives e-mail notification that the form needs approval. It can be accessed via the Web site, using an employee's browser. Similar routing and notification can be set up for any number of supervisors who need to be involved in the process, Schellenberger explained.
According to Desten Broach, Netscape's senior product manager, Process Manager includes visual tools and components to help developers build browser-based forms and set up workflow sequences. Users can drag and drop blocks of pre-built code and point and click to define rules for business processes they want to automate. In early 1997, Attorney General Mike Fisher had set up a small internal organization, headed by Schellenberger, to explore new technologies and their usefulness in the state's operations.
Schellenberger had been examining workflow software for the attorney general's office for more than a year but was discouraged by the complexity and piecemeal nature of Web-enabled workflow systems. Netscape presented Process Manager to the office in May, "and before the end of the month, I was beta testing the software," he said.
Not only does the new system eliminate mathematical calculations, which cuts the time to approve and process these reports dramatically, but it also keeps track of user information and ending mileage. That way, starting a new form each month is easy because there's no digging for last month's reports.
The new system also eliminates "snail mailing" of documents and the cost of printing and copying forms for each of 23 regional offices. And because the technology is browser-based, there is no deployment cost. Users don't need special training to use the system.
Schellenberger's next goal is to automate the complaints that come into the attorney general's office via phone, fax and handwritten notes. He plans to set up a complaint-tracking system to reduce the number of complaints that fall through the cracks. He also plans to use Process Manager to assist the attorney general's human resources hiring operation. Each new employee needs a computer, a user identification, a background investigation, a phone and several other things. Schellenberger plans to set up an e-mail-prompted process to notify the supervisors and supply personnel of each new hire's needs.