E-process: Putting workflow on the Web

The World Wide Web has changed the way many departments and agencies work, providing off-site staff members and contractors easy access to the home office.

Behind the scenes, Web applications have changed the way some managers structure workflow. Older workflow programs relied on local-area networks and e-mail to distribute and track workflow. In contrast, new "e-process" applications take advantage of the Web to offer an interactive, centralized work space for distributing, sharing and monitoring tasks — from job applications to budget requests, from coordinating the construction of a space shuttle to managing road repairs.

If you're shopping for a solution to put order and accountability into your department's work processes, there are a variety of off-the-shelf packages to choose from. These applications have several features in common:

    * Graphic design tools for constructing the steps of a project, including approvals and notifications.

    * A means of delivering tasks to individuals.

    * Administrative tools to let managers check on the status of work.

Beyond those similarities, however, the differences among the e-process solutions are marked. Some are more effective for managing document sharing, for example, while others are more effective at working with forms, such as expense reports. Some offer greater accountability for project managers, and others deliver stronger collaboration tools for end users. And, not surprisingly, prices vary greatly.

Deciding which e-process solution is best suited for your department can be tricky. Consider what type of workflow processes you want to manage. It's useful to distinguish between two basic types of workflow: forms-based or collaborative.

Forms-based workflow is most common in two types of situations: internal administrative processes and outreach processes. Internal administrative processes include processing budget requests or expense reports. Outreach processes include processing requests from clients or Web site visitors. If forms-based workflow is your main interest, you'll want to look at forms-oriented solutions, such as JetForm Corp.'s InTempo (see related story).

Collaboration workflow generally is centered on documents or other data files. A typical scenario would be a the processes needed when a department produces a report. Pieces of the report are worked on by staff members and reassembled. Then the report goes through an approval process. This kind of workflow calls for features — such as multiuser access and document versioning — that you won't find in a forms-oriented workflow program. The strongest programs for this type of workflow are those that have arisen from — or integrate with — document management programs, such as FileNet Corp.'s Visual WorkFlo.

Once you've narrowed in on the kind of workflow you want to manage, you'll need to consider matters such as platform requirements, scalability, database compatibility, development language and integration with third-party applications.

The FCW Test Center will look at a series of products that cover all the bases. Our first review is of JetForm's InTempo, a forms-oriented solution that runs on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and offers e-mail and Web access to clients.

In the coming weeks, we'll be testing other solutions. When the series is done, we'll post a comparative chart on the FCW Test Center's Web site to make it easier for you to choose the most appropriate solution for your organization.

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