From a business perspective, workflow is a way to make people, information and computers work together consistently and efficiently to produce the results the business needs. In effect, workflow applies the equivalent of systems analysis to the entire process, not just to the part done on a machine.
From a bottom line perspective, adding workflow to a process saves money, increases customer satisfaction, gets results quicker and largely eliminates things getting lost in the shuffle.
From a manager's perspective, the most important benefits to workflow are saving cost and saving time.
"With workflow, the process is really in focus," says Wilhelm Ederyd, a technical project manager at Bonver, a major Scandinavian distributor of home entertainment products, such as films and music. Another benefit, Ederyd says, is "hiding unnecessary complexity from the users."
As an example of a typical workflow, Ederyd cites building support for individuals and businesses ordering broadband services via the Internet, postal mail and e-mail. "This can be a rather complex process, with the need for the systems and personnel to interact efficiently in order to make the process slim and pleasant to the customer," Ederyd explains.
You can think of workflow as systems analysis that mixes humans, machines, documents and other information. In Ederyd's case, he designed the process for ordering and installing the broadband connection for the customer. Typically that means — given a whole raft of business requirements generated by others — working out how the process would flow from the customer's initial contact to the actual installation: who does what, what the IT system does, when decisions were made and who made them. If you were doing this all on a computer, you'd probably call it "systems analysis."
Ederyd's example is a classic case: a fairly complex, multi-step process where computers and people have to interact as smoothly and efficiently as possible. It's also a process that is exposed to the customer, and delays or mistakes can damage customer relationships.
For Defence Health, an Australian insurance company, customer relationships were particularly important. "We needed a system that would let us answer a customer's question up front rather than saying 'We'll call you back,'" says Andrew Guerin, COO of Defence Health. For Guerin, that meant having processes in place to access information as quickly as possible. Using workflow tools from OpenText, the company designed processes that combined IT systems, documents and people to get a handle on customer queries quickly.