Making workflow less work

Most government agencies have set procedures that staff members must follow — for processes ranging from getting purchases and proposals approved to

tracking requests from citizens. And in government, even more than in business,

workflow is often oriented around forms.

That's why Metastorm Inc.'s e-work is particularly well-suited to government

agencies and departments. E-work Version 4.1 is a fairly affordable product

that melds workflow charting with forms design and lets government workers

and the public access the system with any Dynamic HTML World Wide Web browser.

Competitive products, such as JetForm Corp.'s e-Process Framework, do a

fine job of automating forms flow and building electronic forms. However,

e-work goes further with an Integration Wizard that helps you easily tie

in external databases and other agency resources.

I had no problems creating a test process that automated the application

and delivery of a hypothetical license. First, use the e-work Designer to

define the procedures. Next, build forms to be used at different points

in the process. I also successfully tested the Integration Wizard, which

lets you incorporate external systems, such as word processing and database

files.

Working with e-work Designer's point-and-click interface, you can easily

create a visual map representing the stages in your process. The milestones

include letting a client complete a Web form, instructing the system to

route the form to the department responsible for the service and having

a clerk approve the request.

Several aspects of e-work 4.1 differentiate it from competitors. First,

a folder represents each step, so you can collect and then route several

documents or other files together to keep them from getting lost. Second,

properties are clearly defined in plain terms, such as "do this," which

helps minimize design errors. And workflow processes can be defined offline

(on almost any Microsoft Corp. Windows 95, 98 or NT workstation) and then

published to a database compliant with the Open Database Connectivity standard.

The form-creation portion of e-work Designer lets you build custom electronic

forms that generally match their paper counterparts, although it would be

nice to see support for other third-party form applications.

Processes to Order

Typically, the part of workflow application development that's not so

rapid entails integrating processes with other systems. E-work's answer

is the Integration Wizard. I was impressed with how easy it was to create

procedures that printed a Microsoft Word document, sent Exchange-based

e-mail and read from a SQL Server 7.0 database.

For instance, after defining an item on a form, you can launch the Integration

Wizard and it will immediately walk you through connecting to a SQL Server

database and reading fields from a table. Similarly, Integration Wizard

can guide you through building a complex conditional formula that escalated

an overdue job to a supervisor. In all, there are about 150 commands you

can invoke, so you won't feel limited in creating involved workflows.

When preparing a workflow for end users to access via the Internet, e-work

showed good flexibility. The e-work workflow engine can run on a server

separate from the Web server and database. Moreover, the system is tightly

integrated with Novell Inc.'s GroupWise and the Novell NDS scheme. This

means e-work will automatically read user information — such as roles — from the network so that IT managers have little administration work. That

said, it would be nice to see more seamless integration with Microsoft

technologies, such as Micro- soft Active Directory.

Still, the end experience for developers and users was positive. And

that means agencies can respond to mandates to replace paper with electronic

alternatives — which translates into improved service to remote staff and

constituents, as well as lower cost. What's more, e-work's strong focus

on forms makes the product suited to agencies and departments.

—Heck is an InfoWorld contributing editor and manager

of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.

AT A GLANCE

E-work 4.1

Score: B+

Metastorm Inc.

(410) 647-9691

www.metastorm.com

The e-work 4.1 server costs $4,995; client software is $300 per seatfor a 50-user license, or $15,000. The system is listed on the GSA scheduleand is available directly from Metastorm.

E-work helps you rapidly enable most agency processes — such as routingforms or approving disbursements — for an electronic workflow. The softwareincludes a Web-based client and a graphical workflow designer to quicklymap out processes. Version 4.1's new Public Web Access lets users connectto the system and initiate procedures. This update integrates with Micro-soft SQL Server 7.0 and Oracle8 databases.

BY Mike Heck
July 24, 2000

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