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.

THREE KINDS OF WORKFLOW

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.