Workflow Automation-An Enterprise Approach to Automating Business Processes
There are many different approaches and platforms for automating business processes in the market today. And with so many different software options and different approaches available, it’s important to ask a couple of key questions before beginning to develop a workflow automation infrastructure:
- Should workflow automation software be part of specific line of business (LOB) solutions, or should it be considered an enterprise layer and leveraged as a shared service by both enterprise software and LOB software?
- What role does content management, case management, and document imaging play with respect to workflow automation?
I would advocate that workflow automation software should be an enterprise level platform that is tightly integrated with enterprise content management and document imaging capabilities. Having automated many business processes for numerous organizations, there are common requirements that lead us to believe a robust enterprise workflow, case management and enterprise content management (ECM) platform approach is the right approach.
Utilizing a common enterprise layer for workflow/ECM will facilitate cross-functional workflows that interact with many enterprise systems
Most business processes automation initiatives bring together 3 separate elements:
- Structured Data: Information that sits in enterprise applications, databases and LOB applications. This data must be referenced and updated as part of any business process logic and incorporated into any workflow automation solution.
- Unstructured Data: Information that exists in document form whether its paper, PDF documents, Word documents, e-mails, forms, etc. Unstructured information contains contextual content that is an integral part of most business process.
- Business Rules and Logic: Every process has inherent rules, data and document requirements, and decision logic. Whether the process decisions are fully automated using existing system data and logic, or must be reviewed by people participating in the process, the structured and unstructured information must be served up in the context of the business process steps to support the decision process.
A robust workflow, case management and ECM platform provides the ability to seamlessly integrate the workflow decision logic with supporting data and documents required to execute the steps of the business process.
We see this commonly in accounts payable, where business logic creates rules to hold the workflow until the system has all necessary documents in place—a purchase order, an invoice and a receipt or proof of payment. The business logic and rule-based workflow can automatically ensure the purchase order numbers match the invoice. Decision logic can also be built in to these systems to create new rules, for instance, if you need approvals from certain individuals in your business if the payment exceeds a certain amount.
Additionally, there are many ancillary functions that a robust platform can provide for automating a wide variety of business applications including:
- Digital signature integration to eliminate wet signatures
- Records management to provide a system of record and auditability for documents
- Workflow and process reporting to facilitate continuous process improvement
- Web and mobile integration so that customers/constituents can be part of a workflow process through both initiation of a request and status updates
- Electronic forms, which almost universally are the initiation point for a workflow process, often with supporting documents and data
- Business and workflow analytics to optimize and improve the process execution
Workflow, Case Management and ECM as an Enterprise Layer
Many LOB and enterprise applications have a workflow component embedded as part of their software application solution. Many of these applications also have the ability to upload documents into their system. For the most efficient implementation, organizations should look to leverage an enterprise layer to manage the unstructured content and workflow logic independently of the LOB applications.
Many business processes are cross-functional, involving multiple departments and data systems. Pulling workflow solutions out of the LOB systems and instead positioning it as an enterprise-wide solution gives businesses more control. For instance, if a business implements a financial solution that is utilized across different departments, hand-offs can get very challenging. Additionally, organizations have records management processes where documents are stored across many LOBs—in some instances this means managing four or five different systems. By leveraging these applications on an enterprise level, there is more cohesion across LOB and business functions.
Utilizing a robust workflow, case management and ECM platform that can manage the workflow process and supporting documents, as well as retrieve relevant data in context from different enterprise and LOB systems will enable seamless automation of cross-functional, multi-department business processes.
Storing documents of record in multiple different systems makes management and tracking nearly impossible. Imagine trying to implement a corporate records management policy with documents stored in multiple systems, each with its own interface for retrieving and accessing documents. Additionally, many key documents, like contracts, affect many functional parts of the business (legal, purchasing, procurement, service/support, etc.) so it makes sense to house business critical documents in a common system and expose them as needed within the context of the business process.
Many large organizations have implemented different workflow case management and ECM solutions in different departments inside the organization. The net result has been many different silos of ECM/workflow technology from different vendors. The resulting challenges include:
- IT management, troubleshooting and end-user support for different vendor solutions
- Application development requires a broad set of internal IT skills across multiple vendor platforms or reliance on external vendors to provide the necessary skills.
- Integration and software upgrade challenges for multiple platforms
- Additional end-user complexity from having to learn multiple systems
In summary, many organizations would benefit from implementing workflow, case management and ECM as an enterprise layer upon which departments can construct specific line of business workflow automation solutions integrating with existing Enterprise systems. Utilizing a common enterprise layer for workflow/ECM will facilitate cross-functional workflows that interact with many enterprise systems. Additionally, it will enable the use of a common system of record for document content shared across the enterprise. A common repository will facilitate corporate records management, auditability, regulatory compliance and control of protected information.