Workflow Joins E-Mail and Images

Vendors are linking workflow software with e-mail to move document images around an organization. It's cheaper and more flexible than traditional workflow, but will it help government get the job done?

by / January 31, 1997
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.

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.

Several messaging technologies prevail in the distributed computing environment, most notably IBM's Lotus Notes and Novell's GroupWise. But Microsoft's Exchange has garnered the most attention from the imaging/ workflow vendors. According to GartnerGroup, an information technology advisory services firm, an overwhelming number of vendors have announced initiatives to integrate their workflow software with MS Exchange.

Why? "Because of Microsoft's continuing successful growth," stated GartnerGroup. Sullivan agrees. "Of the three vendors, Microsoft's Exchange is going to be the clear winner. Technologically, Exchange is very open and it provides the common infrastructure across an organization that is extremely difficult for stand-alone vendors to provide," he said.

In November 1996, FileNet Corp. announced that its e-mail-based workflow software, Ensemble, was available at a cost of $199 per user for a five-seat license. Ensemble will compete with a host of other message-based workflow products, including Keyfile's own Keyflow, which was introduced in April 1996.

Keyflow exemplifies the current trend toward workflow products that are less complex to install and less difficult to use than traditional workflow products based on database management systems. They also cost far less. Some, like Keyflow and Ensemble, run under $300 per seat compared to $4,000 to $5,000 per seat for the traditional workflow products.

Keyflow uses a graphical mapping metaphor for creating a work process and a workflow for automating the process. Users can monitor a workflow process by clicking on an icon to view the status of a document or task. Sullivan pointed out that the real benefit of collaborative workflow kicks in when an agency can interconnect its departmental workflow processes.

For example, if a governor's office receives a letter from a constituent complaining about construction delays for repairing a bridge, the letter can be scanned into an imaging system and -- with e-mail workflow -- routed to the bridge repair division in the state's Department of Transportation. There, the correspondence enters the division's own workflow environment, which routes and tracks the document to the correct staff for a response.

A week later, a staff person in the governor's office can click on the workflow icon and check on the status of the constituent's letter, see what kind of response was made and determine when it was made.

Exchange-based workflow software, such as Keyflow, requires 486 PCs or better, 16 megabytes of RAM and Windows 95 to run. While government agencies continue to upgrade desktop hardware, these requirements could stall some government attempts at enterprise-scale workflow as Sullivan envisions it happening. But as hardware and software costs drop and agencies begin to standardize on client/server e-mail, workflow could become government's next ubiquitous tool.


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