Imaging and workflow were supposed to sound the death knell for the paper chain. Computers would allow workers simultaneous access to the same document, ending forever the serial movement of documents from desk to desk. Issues that often created bottlenecks in the paper-driven business process, such as lost documents or missed deadlines, would disappear. Document imaging and workflow software would allow management to track every document, speed up certain tasks and eliminate others. Productivity would rise as the cost of doing business dropped.

Alas, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The two technologies have performed remarkably well in high-volume, transaction-based processing applications -- such as state Workers' Compensation claims, tax processing and wage reporting programs. But there are only a finite number of these applications, and it takes a large investment in hardware and software to make them work.

Nor are these applications capable of processing every document in an agency. According to one estimate, high-volume imaging/workflow systems process 80 percent of an organization's document transactions and account for roughly 20 percent of the processing cost. The other 20 percent of the transaction volume is made up of exceptions that don't fit the traditional image processing routine, but account for 80 percent of the processing costs.

These exceptions might involve a problem with a compensation claim, an employer's wage report or a tax return requiring special handling by staff. Documents that must pass through several discrete, departmental processes are also exceptions to traditional imaging and workflow applications. These documents may be applications for welfare benefits or a constituent's correspondence with a governor's or mayor's office, requiring a response from one or more departments. The volume of documents may be small for these exceptions, but the number of handoffs between staff can be quite high.

"While organizations will continue to need production-level imaging and workflow applications, within focused departments there are document management applications that require a different kind of workflow," said Roger Sullivan, vice president of marketing for Keyfile Corp. Calling it collaborative workflow, Sullivan believes there are a huge number of these potential applications that can help groups of workers and can save organizations a tremendous amount of money.

Echoing that view is Michael Muth, a senior consultant with Delphi Consulting Group. "Government is the third largest market in terms of implementation of workflow," he said, "but their market share has been stagnating." The problem, according to Muth, is that while government sees the potential for using workflow and imaging in their agencies, they find it difficult to implement it on an enterprise scale.

In effect, the 80-20 rule has forced government agencies to rethink what they want to accomplish. "Government agencies realized that lots of their processes are departmental in scope, not agencywide as they thought," said Muth.

Just when government agencies are pulling back to re-evaluate their workflow needs, a number of vendors have begun to release workflow software that is designed to help the low-volume, ad hoc business processes that every government agency has. Unlike traditional imaging/ workflow systems, which are based on database management systems, collaborative workflow uses e-mail as its infrastructure.

CHEAP AND FLEXIBLE

Workflow based on e-mail is not only cheaper than high production workflow, it's more flexible to use and gives the user more control. Instead of having a centralized database management system drive it, e-mail workflow is passed along with the document from user to user or server to server, and is modified each time an action takes place.

Those modifications might include: who last modified the workflow, how it was modified, what its current status and where the document is going next. Information regarding the status of any workflow ends up in an external file that can be accessed by managers verifying the status of a particular document.