find it ironic that just when a sizeable number of employees are afraid that their jobs may come to an abrupt end, and morale is at an all-time low, management and IS departments are being exhorted to remember that people come first. This recommendation was made by almost every speaker at the recent workflow conference that I attended in Toronto. Workflow products can automate the flow of work and impose controls on those working with them. But they can also be used to provide information where and when it is needed and so enable staff to provide better service. As with any software, it is usually necessary to change the work process to gain advantages. Change without consultation or empowerment is perceived as stupid bureaucracy and encourages adolescent behaviour. Individuals need to be heard and to be provided with a clear picture of what the organization is trying to achieve. This level of two-way communications is difficult to attain when morale is low and scepticism is high.
When asked what made him such a good hockey player, Wayne Gretsky apparently replied, "I go to where the puck is going to be". I doubt that this is a conscious calculation. It is probably more akin to drivers subconsciously noting the spacing of traffic when merging with other traffic and driving at an appropriate speed to avoid a collision. Some of us are better at it than others, but we all know where we are going. This is not always true in the work environment. When up to 80% of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) projects fail to achieve the expected results, is it any wonder that BPR is sometimes interpreted as Bigger People Reductions, and that new technology is not always welcomed. However without changes in processing, technological advances cannot be exploited. Price Waterhouse has an equation to illustrate this: "OO + NT = EOO". Old Organisation + New Technology = Expensive Old Organization.
So where can workflow systems help staff and improve service? One example might be in a customer service department where work is frequently passed to other departments but no feedback is provided. We've probably all written systems which provide information and tracking for individual departments. We may also have automated the passing of data between departments. Unfortunately incoming telephone calls may also have to be passed from one department to another in order to track down the status of the data. A properly implemented workflow system can provide the status of any item to the originator (or other staffer), in addition to automating the flow of work and ensuring appropriate authorizations. Custom programs can be written to achieve the same results, given the time and money, but workflow software tends to build on the transport mechanisms already built into e-mail. Since some de facto standards already exist for e-mail, at least on the Internet, quicker results are possible.
Workflow software as a concept has only existed for a couple of years. There is an organization, funded by the major software companies, which is working towards standards for workflow products. Normally reaching agreement on standards is a slow process. This made the interoperability demonstration staged at the workflow conference all the more impressive. Six companies which produce workflow systems interfaced their systems to illustrate what will be achievable in the future. The six companies were in four countries, used three languages, and obviously had some cultural differences, not least being their operating systems: NT, Windows95, OS/2, and three versions of UNIX. It was very appropriate that this demonstration took place in multi-cultural Toronto! The scenario was supply chain management. Each of the six software companies provided workflow software for one of six hypothetical companies. These companies were:
Each company's clerk completed their own workflow forms and invoked processes which handed off the work to the next company which in turn automatically acknowledged receipt. Most impressive.
The demonstration was performed using a LAN with the various companies' equipment attached, but the testing had all been done over the Internet using MIME-compatible e-mail. Interest in the project gained momentum during 1995, but it was only in November that the Workflow Canada Conference in June of this year was agreed as a target. By February of this year only two of the six companies had committed to the project amidst general scepticism. One of these two had to drop out later but continued to co-ordinate the project. For each company, the risks of not taking part must have been weighed carefully against the consequences of failure.
The level of co-operation achieved by these companies
in such a short period of time is phenomenal. Remember that these
are vendors who compete vigorously in the same market place in
an emerging and potentially very lucrative field. The goal was
clear, though the means would not have been, and obviously each
of the players must have been totally committed to the goal. If
these organizations can achieve such co-ordination for the benefit
of the entire market place, then maybe there is hope for each
of us in our endeavours to build more effective systems.