Workflow and Business Processes

I saw a slideware software demo today that really impressed me.  (I can’t disclose the source, as it was a confidential preview of an upcoming release.)  Suffice it to say that the product will live in the the workflow space.

What really got to me was how far applications like this have come.  Most people think of workflow as the standard "Fill out a form and get it signed so I can do something" scenario.  In fact extremely complex business processes inherently have workflows at their core.  There are frequent exceptions and alterations to those workflows so they can be very hard to define with technology solutions.

I worked on a project a few years ago that was supposed to implement a workflow solution for a publishing organization.  After months of whiteboarding and documenting processes, it became very apparent that the only consistent thing they did was inconsistency.  Every single instance was an exception and unique.  With the tools we had at the time to instantiate their workflow, we basically had to throw up our hands and hope that they paid the bill.

Today, the tools have gotten to the point that one-off workflows are actually a possibility.  With rich visual interfaces and drag and drop capabilities, we can build new instances from old ones in very little time.  The whole thing can [almost] be done by non-technical people (I maintain that there is a certain mindset required no matter how ‘intuitive’ the interfaces are) and it can happen very fast.

Defining a workflow inherently becomes a business process reengineering exercise.  (Dreaded BPR, the excuse for so many downsizings!)  The act of having to sit down an explain a workflow always changes the workflow.  It should be considered an opportunity to improve performance rather than a way to control activities.  And, with the new crop of available tools, it can even become a resource management exercise. If we look across all of our workflows and see that Mary is in the middle of a high percentage of them, then maybe we need more Marys.  (In any case, let’s make sure we know when Mary is going to be on vacation and plan accordingly!)

Have a thought or opinion?