Imaging Goes With Workflow

Workflow software can change an imaging system from an electronic filing cabinet into a system that automates how information is processed and managed.

by / March 31, 1996
Not so long ago, government agencies marveled at how well document imaging technology could eliminate filing cabinets, filing backlogs and problems with missing documents. But like a car without a steering wheel, imaging needs a tool to direct images to the right people at the right time. That tool is workflow software.

By combining work process changes with workflow, a growing number of agencies use imaging to its maximum potential to process information -- and execute tasks -- far more efficiently than ever. In some cases, agencies have been able to boost their productivity as much as 50 percent.

Workflow software automates the routing and handing-off of documents and tasks between workers in an office. In his book, The Workflow Imperative (Van Nostrand Reinhold), Thomas M. Koulopoulos explained that "Workflow applies many of the same concepts and benefits of factory automation and industrial engineering to the process of work management in an office environment."

Some of the those benefits include the elimination of unnecessary tasks, saving workers and management time, effort and costs associated with the performance of the tasks.

Originally used on mainframes and minicomputers, workflow software has, like so many other applications, grown in the marketplace since its acceptance as a PC-based tool. Its versatility has also grown. What began as specialty software for processing large numbers of transactions -- such as insurance claims or mortgage loans -- has evolved into a more nimble tool that can be used for automating smaller administrative and ad hoc tasks.

With the overall cost of workflow continuing to drop, the technology is rapidly gaining acceptance among a wide range of government agencies as a way to boost productivity, cut costs and improve taxpayer and customer service. Unemployment, worker disability, tax revenue and motor vehicle agencies are using workflow with their imaging systems.

However, these workflow innovators are not operating entirely without risk. A lack of standards between different kinds of workflow systems and the need for extra computing power and network bandwidth to run both imaging and workflow can create management and budget headaches. Also, workflow systems can run into database bottlenecks when the number of users and transactions grows. Finally, workflow applications won't succeed on software alone. Agencies need to hone their project management and change management skills to ensure workflow success.

Any manager can attest to the problems that plague a paper-based workflow system: lost and misfiled documents, delays in routing and difficulty in reporting the status of work in progress. With imaging, an agency can capture documents for quick and effective access, but not the process for routing and managing the documents between workers and workgroups. Workflow software solves the problem, unifying the pieces of information captured by imaging and other computer systems, and coordinating the transfer of the information that's required to support specific tasks and transactions. For this to happen, workflow systems must contain the schedules, priorities, routing paths, authorizations, security and even the roles of each individual in the work process. Because tasks and transactions can vary in volume and complexity, workflow vendors have developed products for different needs.

In general, the workflow market is divided into three categories:
* Production workflow automates complex, high-volume transactions that vary little from case to case. The work is typically process-oriented, mission-critical and requires high performance UNIX servers.
* Ad hoc workflow serves project-oriented work that involves a small number of steps that must be performed over a specified period of time. Ad hoc workflow is often used to route single document images or forms via existing e-mail systems.
* Administrative workflow automates the tasks required to process internal documents, such as time sheets, salary reviews, expense reports and correspondence. Not surprisingly, the volume of document images for administrative workflow tends to be low.

According to Koulopoulos, there are more than 70 different workflow products in a market that's been growing at a rate of 35 percent annually. Delphi Consulting Group, a consulting, training and research firm founded by Koulopoulos, estimates market revenue at $722 million in 1995 and lists FileNet Corp., ViewStar Corp., BancTec and IBM as the workflow market leaders.

All workflow software programs run on Microsoft Windows, with a fair number supporting the OS/2, UNIX and Macintosh environment. Only a handful still support mainframe and minicomputer operating systems.

A December 1995 survey of workflow products by Network World magazine found support for TCP/IP networks is almost universal among workflow software. Novell's NetWare is supported by 80 percent of the software, while more than 50 percent runs on the other leading network operating systems, such as Banyan VINES, IBM LAN Server and Microsoft's LAN Manager and NT Advanced Server.

According to the survey, SQL (structured query language) databases are a central component of most production workflow products. The databases are used to maintain underlying workflow process models and track ongoing tasks. Ad hoc and, to some degree, administrative workflow relies on e-mail messaging systems -- not database servers -- to route document images and to manage work processes.

Workflow in the state and local government market today is in the same position document imaging was five years ago. It has a toehold and not much more. But where it has been used, the results have proven beneficial.

The Industrial Commission of Arizona has been using imaging and workflow since October 1991 to manage more than 175,000 injury claims filed by state workers each year. The $1.8 million project, which included an overhaul of the commission's mainframe, was designed and built by FileNet Corp. using their Workflo software and Hewlett-Packard servers to automatically route incoming claims to a staff of 80-plus workers.

According to Larry Etchechury, the commission's director, the agency completely redesigned its business rules to take advantage of imaging technology and workflow. Where there were once as many as eight daily "hand-offs" of incoming documents between workers, now claims are scanned and indexed to the commission's mainframe database, then automatically routed to claims technicians for processing.

The technicians can easily generate documents on the case by automatically transferring data from the mainframe to the document using FileNet's Workflo software. This feature has reduced the 12-minute injury-form-completion process down to only 30 seconds. Along with other features, such as work volume monitoring by supervisors, the system has eliminated an enormous filing backlog while boosting overall productivity in the range of 33 percent to 50 percent. "This system simply would not be as functional without workflow," stated Etchechury.

The use of workflow in managing Workers' Compensation claims is no anomaly. Workflow has proven effective in managing insurance claims in the private sector, so those state agencies in the compensation business are a natural fit for workflow. Washington's Department of Labor and Industries uses workflow with its imaging system as does Maryland's Workers' Compensation Commission.

In Maryland, another imaging/workflow system from FileNet is assisting 130 workers and supervisors with claims processing. The system can automatically route disputed claims to a case reviewer who decides whether a hearing is warranted. If the answer is yes, then the claim is docketed for hearing before a commissioner. Computer-generated docket lists are provided to each commissioner's assistant and these cases are pre-fetched from the imaging system and placed in the commissioner's queue for case review and for the hearing.

Unemployment compensation, with its high volume of transactions (Maryland's Commission receives 250,000 first injury reports and 35,000 claims per year), requires production-level systems that are robust enough to handle the imaging and workflow workload. However, some government workflow applications are much smaller, but still fully capable of delivering benefits. New York's Office of the State Comptroller handles applications for disability and retirement. Every day, some 22 workers send out 400 to 500 pieces of correspondence in the form of letters and special waivers. The entire operation runs on a Lotus Notes:Document Imaging (LN:DI) application. Lotus Notes is not workflow per se, but what's known as workgroup software, which Koulopoulos defines as computing that focuses on the information being processed to enhance the worker's ability to share information within workgroups. Yet the Office of the Comptroller is able to use the software to manage workflow, especially for generating letters and tracking waivers. The system is divided into two separate servers, one for the Notes application, the other to manage the images that are routed and shared using Notes. The hardware is Intel-based PCs, including a six gigabyte RAID system for storing images.

Despite the relatively small size of the application and the group of workers using it, LN:DI has increased the staff's efficiency, according to spokesperson Cynthia Monk.

It's often said that workflow applications don't need imaging, but it makes little sense to consider imaging without workflow. Despite the fact that every imaging application really needs workflow, the technology presents users with another set of challenges. For example, workflow can put strains on existing hardware and software infrastructure, affect response time, network performance or memory requirements. Workflow databases can also bottleneck when the number of users and transactions grow.

In the New York Office of the State Comptroller, the LN:DI application has a database limitation of one gigabyte. (Lotus Notes Version 4.0 solves this problem.) To add new users and applications, the agency will have to install additional servers and databases.

Also, workflow doesn't entirely eliminate the work of routing documents, as the Industrial Commission of Arizona found out. A feature that pre-fetches document images from storage and routes them to workers' desktops proved too good to be true. "We found out the hard way that the system will continue to route documents to workers even when they are absent," said Etchechury. "Because the system isn't foolproof, it forces you to be proactive."

Standards, or the lack of them, is another workflow headache that badly needs medication. "Nowhere is the need for standards greater than in the emerging workflow market," Koulopoulos pointed out in his book. Today, the software has evolved in different directions for terminology, interfaces, methods, application integration and implementation techniques.

Despite a concern that the overzealous use of standards can stifle the emerging market for workflow, Koulopoulos and other analysts are concerned about the current gaps of interoperability between different systems because standards are not quite a reality yet. That can spell trouble and expense for any agency that has two or more systems and decides it's time to link them together. Koulopoulos urges that any workflow customer carefully evaluate vendors that provide lots of cross-platform support. Not bad advice these days.