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
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.