Use workflow automation wisely--and know how it differs from BPM

Editor’s Note: In this Q & A, ebizQ’s Peter Schooff and consultant Faun deHenry discuss workflow automation—including how the approach differs from BPM. deHenry is president and CEO of consulting company FMT Systems Inc. This interview, excerpted from a longer podcast, has been edited for length, clarity and editorial style.

ebizQ: Just to kick it off, what are the benefits of workflow automation?

deHenry:
Workflow, first of all, encourages more holistic thinking about organizational tasks. It promotes movement toward standardization of protocols and procedures. It also fosters business process definition and, hopefully, business process documentation as well.

When you start looking at workflow automation, I think it breaks down into two really big categories: One is cost reduction and the other is operational efficiency. Both of these can also result in better customer experiences, which is, of course, what many businesses want.

Automation, from a cost-reduction perspective, can reduce the human error factor. It handles redundancy far better than humans do. It also enables better management through metrics. When you automate a workflow, you can actually measure it as well and began to get an idea of where you can improve. Workflow automation also ensures that work moves forward in a timely fashion and is executed by the appropriate individuals, and that’s on the operational efficiency side.

One of the best things about workflow automation is that it can provide for automatic task escalation. It also improves accountability through auditing and traceability. So from my perspective, if you can automate a workflow, why wouldn’t you?

ebizQ: What is the difference between workflow automation and BPM, would you say?

deHenry:
I think of workflow functioning primarily as a routing engine that exists within a single application. For example, let's take a purchasing application. Someone enters a requisition. That requisition gets routed to a manager who either approves or rejects it. If the requisition exceeds a dollar limit, for example, then it goes to the next level up. That's an example of workflow. It literally just routes.

I think of business process management as an end-to-end solution for processes, and it involves a lot more. It involves modeling, it addresses business rules, simulation and, most importantly, integration across enterprise applications.

So let's go back to the purchasing example for a moment. With BPM, I might be able to integrate not only the purchasing workflow automation but also the payables, the inventory, as well as other involved events associated with that.

WORKFLOW VS. BPM: ANOTHER ILLUSTRATION

deHenry: I got a really good example of the difference between workflow and business process management from a colleague. This story emphasizes how workflow can be perfectly appropriate and yet it really doesn't address the problem, and when you add in the notion of business process management, the impact becomes so much greater.

A friend of his had a savings account, mortgage account and a credit card, all with the same bank. In addition, the family had a trust account. So this family had a sizable amount of funds parked in and being managed by the bank. He allowed his [college-student] daughter to have an add-on credit card with a lower limit. One day, a payment against her bill was delayed, for whatever reason. The bank immediately blocked her card and one of her transactions was subsequently declined.

So the father went into the bank and demanded an explanation. He started with the credit card department, and then he started talking to the trust manager, asking how something like this could happen when [the family has] so many funds in the bank. He kept talking to various managers across product lines, and it was really clear that the workflow automation was working appropriately in each one of those product lines.

You might say “This is a customer relationship problem,” or “This is a workflow-automation problem.” Really, it isn’t. It’s a business process management problem. What BPM could have done, what that bank could have done, is integrated those various processes and workflows within the different product lines to help give the bank a 360-degree view of that customer. In that case, something like the daughter's credit-card transaction being declined would not have happened because they would have known that there were funds in the bank to cover it.

To me, that exemplifies the difference between workflow and BPM, because the workflow automation was functioning but they didn't have BPM. If they had, all of that would have been integrated and the bank would have avoided a very unhappy customer.

ebizQ: When we were first talking about this podcast and talking about automation, you said many people use it inappropriately. Can you elaborate on that?

deHenry:
Yes. If I had a nickel for every time someone wanted to substitute a business rule for human judgment, I'd be wealthy. You can insert business rules within workflow automation, but there are some tasks that require human judgment. No amount of business rules will make up for that.

[Sometimes] people or organizations want to use workflow automation to notify the world of an event. Our consultants are constantly saying, “No, notify only the people who need to know.” You don't need to send an e-mail notification to every manager in the division. [If] only two managers need to know, send it to them.

The other thing that I've see people try to use workflow automation for is to control behavior [for instance, preventing a particular employee from entering a requisition]. That's really not an appropriate use of workflow automation. If you want to create security rules, create security rules. But don't use workflow automation to control behavior. It just doesn't work.

ebizQ: What would you say are some of the keys to successful workflow automation?

deHenry:
I tell people there are four Ws and an H: who, what, when, why and how.

--Know who must be in the room to talk about and work out workflow automation. There has to be collaboration, accountability and training.

--Know what the "as-is" workflow definition and the "to be" workflow definition look like. If you don't do requirements analysis and documentation, you'll never succeed; it won't happen.

--Know when the workflow automation must be complete. That's your project plan; stick to it.

--Know why you're automating your workflow. This is probably the one of the most important items.

People talk about needing to automate this approval process or needing to automate this on-boarding process. Well, why? Why do you need or want to automate it? The “why” will direct the “who” and the “what” and possibly the “how.”

So know your goal and know what your desired outcome is and then know how you're going to accomplish the automation. More importantly, know how you're going to maintain it. There must be planning and you must understand the level of effort [required].

ebizQ: Conversely, what are some of the key mistakes that you've seen companies make?

deHenry:
Companies forget the basics. Another mistake is that they focus on technology instead of people and processes. They also underestimate the level of effort involved in workflow automation.

So let's look at the basics. What am I really talking about there [is accountability]. Somebody has to own the workflow and the workflow automation. When you start talking about a particular workflow, everybody has to be in the room. If you have missing participants, it's not going to work.

The other thing I see a lot of times is impatience. People want it done. [The attitude is,] “I just want this done. I don't want to have to wait two months or three months. Do we really have to test it?”

Yes, you have to test it. I've seen organizations put automated workflows into a production system and not test them, and I'm sure you can imagine what the results were. So impatience is a real serious mistake.

Lack of metrics [is another basic mistake]. You need to know if you can improve the workflow automation. You need to be able to measure it. If you don't measure it, it isn't managed.

FOCUS ON PEOPLE AND PROCESSES, NOT JUST PLATFORMS

deHenry:
[Remember that] people need communication and training. Sure, the workflow is going to be automated, but I've yet to see automated workflow that doesn't involve human interaction at one point or another. People need to know where they touch the workflow and what's expected of them. The workflow and the process need to be documented.

[Finally, there’s] under-estimating the level of effort [and cost] involved. That really breaks down into two areas. [First,] the initial cost: the workflow participants, the analysis, the developer--all of that needs to be taken into consideration when you look at your initial cost.

But also, and equally important: That workflow automation must be maintained. Understand that there will be maintenance costs and prepare for that. I don't see companies doing that. I see them looking at the initial cost—and, of course, they do under-estimate that, typically. But they forget about the maintenance costs.

READER FEEDBACK: Have you used workflow automation? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.



About the Author

Peter Schooff is a former contributing editor for ebizQ, where he also managed the ebizQ Forum for several years. Previously, Peter managed the database operations for a major cigar company, served as writer/editor of an early Internet entertainment site and developed a computer accounting system for several retail stores. Peter can be reached at pschooff@techtarget.com.

More by Peter Schooff

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