Going with the flow
- By Heather Harreld
- Oct 03, 1999
Responding to the federal government's move toward a paperless environment, workflow automation vendors are moving to tap the need to manage and store the massive amount of electronic documents generated by agencies.
As electronic documents increasingly supplant the paper forms that traditionally have defined federal government bureaucracy, and with a looming mandate to store their documents electronically, agencies must find a way to manage the movement of documents in electronic form.
Workflow automation tools can help. They electronically monitor and control the flow of work through an organization, keeping track of where a task stands and where it should go next. Consequently, those tools increasingly are being tightly integrated with other systems, such as records and document management systems, to aid internal agency applications.
In addition to records management, workflow vendors also are maneuvering to merge workflow tools with common desktop applications, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange, in order to enhance worker productivity.
Charley Barth, project manager for the leading-edge services group in the Navy's CIO office, said records managers are interested in workflow automation to assist their records management efforts.
"If you don't have document management under control, it's much more difficult to perform records management at your agency," Barth said. "It's going to be each individual at the desktop using the workflow [tools] that's going to help records managers."
The Defense Department has a team studying the feasibility of an enterprisewide records management system coupled with document management, and many other federal agencies are piloting similar uses of the technology combination, Barth said.
Still, he noted, the government is in the very early stages of integrating the technologies.
"Some are afraid to make the full investment across their agencies," he said. "Others can't afford to invest across their agencies."
Industry has noted the trend, and new products are appearing. For example, Universal Systems Inc. has coupled document and records management functionality with a workflow tool to offer e.Power, which provides automated access to database and application information and automates workflow processes.
Steve Hofinger, operations center manager of Universal's Defense Technologies and Services Group, said that combining workflow automation and records management provides agencies with an automated method to determine that a document should be managed as a record.
"When you have the document already in the repository that meets its retention date, the workflow [tool] automatically moves it into records," Hofinger said. "The computer automatically knows what to do with that record throughout its life cycle."
Infodata Systems Inc. has merged correspondence management with its workflow tool to help eliminate 70 percent of the steps required for correspondence management at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. The company offers a core document management product that can be coupled with workflow automation and records management features to offer a framework that can be customized.
Richard Tworek, chief technology officer of Infodata, said agencies must tackle the fundamental questions associated with workflow automation before jumping into the fray.
"The trend clearly is records management," Tworek said. "That doesn't have to be as onerous if people spend a little bit of time looking at their business processes. You've got to figure out what it is you're trying to solve. You don't want to artificially force a process that might not be accepted, because that's not how people work."
Vredenburg Information Technology Group specializes in helping government agencies integrate electronic records and document management systems with workflow automation. Larry Den, vice president of the organization, said that some of the biggest challenges to coupling those technologies are related to internal agency policies.
Den said officials at various levels within agencies must establish policies that determine when an e-mail becomes a record with a life cycle, who owns the document and what type of document is it.
"When people talk about records management, it's not just loading up [Corel Corp.'s] Word Perfect with a new save routine," Den said.
Steve Weissman, president of the consulting firm Kinetic Information, said that even the simplest workflow engine can be programmed to operate as a "watchdog" to retain certain records for a predetermined time. However, when records management systems have been tied to a workflow engine, it sometimes can be extremely difficult to reconfigure the system when a records policy changes, Weissman said.
"As the laws change, how hard is it to adjust things that are already in process?" Weissman said. "Some of the systems are a lot more rigid than others. In some cases, it's virtually impossible - you have to basically stop the system and restart it."
Pat Turocy, a research analyst at Doculabs, a consulting firm that tests workflow tools and related products, said users interested in the integration of workflow automation and document and records management software should try to purchase a package from a vendor that already has the features tightly integrated. If the solution is not integrated, users run the risk of purchasing products developed at different times and with a different back-end infrastructure, Turocy said.
In addition, users should be aware that coupling separate document and records management solutions together requires a separate programming interface, she said.
The General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service (PBS) is tapping the power of workflow automation coupled with document management in a new system to route changes in the measurements or statuses of various buildings to multiple GSA employees who update the computer-aided design drawings of the buildings.
"We need to route any changes in the space through to the people who have to deal with it in a business process," said Hal Piper, a technical development manager who runs the CAD center for PBS. "If we don't route those drawings back to where we can make sure the data is accurate, we essentially have wasted our effort to remeasure [buildings]."
Piper said he envisions GSA using workflow tools coupled with document management for many work processes within the agency as paper documents are replaced by electronic documents.
"It routes things from one person to another to make sure the right people see it, so the final product reflects the best business perspective," he said. "You just do your work and put it back in the queue."
At the behest of GSA's records management office, Piper included records management capabilities in his requirements for the new system. However, that capability is not being used because the federal requirements for electronic recordkeeping have not been finalized, he said.
In addition to addressing records management requirements, vendors are unleashing the power of workflow automation
for other emerging federal agency applications, such as electronic commerce. Keyfile Corp. has integrated document management and workflow automation into its e-commerce platform, a coupling that Gary Ambrosino, Keyfile's vice president of marketing, said could meet several government agency requirements.
For e-commerce purchases, government users may need to view the contract that governs a specific purchase before they procure the item, Ambrosino said. With the integration of document management and workflow, a user automatically would be presented with the contract at the time of the purchase.
This technology integration also could be used for correspondence control. Agencies are beginning to electronically receive correspondence from the public that needs to be routed, reviewed and stored. By using a combination of workflow and document management, agency officials can set up a point-and-click process with a predefined workflow design that will relay the correspondence to the most appropriate employees.
The product enables users to ascertain the status of documents and to create an audit trail of who has looked at the documents, Ambrosino said.
Eastman Software Inc. has integrated its workflow and document management technology with Microsoft Exchange to provide its Work Manager suite. A.J. Devincenzi, director of national alliances for Eastman, said the product provides a "digitized version of a manila folder" for internal agency collaboration.
The Eastman solution essentially replaces the traditional workflow paradigm—which is based on a set of fixed business rules for routing documents along a predetermined path—with a concept the company calls "work management." This enables any user within the Exchange directory to access the public folder and to store in the public folder any object registered to the Exchange environment. It also allows threaded discussions to be captured in one location.
"The sequence in which people do their work isn't as important as ensuring that people do their knowledge work on that item," Devincenzi said.
As workflow automation matures, vendors also are moving to add security features to enable users throughout the process to sign off on an electronic document the same way they would a paper document—with a signature.
Federal agencies already are using these features. The Joint Chiefs of Staff has coupled electronic approval software from Silanis Technology Inc. with a custom document management/workflow application to alleviate the need to print paper copies for signatures.
The Environmental Protection Agency is using workflow coupled with the electronic signature capabilities provided in Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes to route electronic procurement requests and personnel forms to 8,000 desktops throughout the country.
George Hesselbacher, Lotus Notes program manager at EPA, said the electronic signature feature within the workflow system enables the agency to identify the user who has taken action on a document routed to a mailbox shared by several users.
"We've been able to build trust into the system through the electronic signature capability," Hesselbacher said. "We can validate the contents and who the originator and the approvers were."
The trend toward meshing document and records management with workflow features will continue as agencies strive toward the ultimate goal of knowledge management, said the Navy's Barth. "I see a total meshing of all these sciences," he said.
-- Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.