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, post and email. "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 Defense 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 Defense 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.

Big and Complex vs. Small and Simpler

Workflow tools are highly stratified. At the top are the workflow modules built into ERP applications such as SAP and standalone products like FloWare from Plexus. Products in this class typically include process modelling, business rules engines and other features to help reengineer processes involving thousands of workers and thousands - or tens of thousands - of steps.

At the bottom or entry-end of the spectrum, applying workflow to the simplest processes requires no special tools at all. "I have pointed out to some users that what they really wanted is Microsoft Office and a little routing slip between users," says Johannes Scholtes, president of ZyLAB Technologies, a workflow vendor and consultant. "Of course, you can sell these people a $25,000 application to automate this, but they don't need it."

Ultimately, what you need depends on the size and complexity of the processes to which you're trying to apply workflow management.

Features aren't the only differences between tools. Usually the products aimed at simpler processes focus strongly on ease of use. The designers' assumption is generally that the users are non-experts or quasi experts within the company.

For example, Quask, a workflow software vendor built its application around the concept of an intelligent form. Basically, the user develops the workflow by filling in the form, including the business rules. "Everyone understands what a form is," Freddy May, CEO of Quask, says. "It's very much a logical way of mapping paper into a piece of software. People can instantly relate to it."

The products aimed at larger projects are much less concerned about ease of use. For one thing, vendors expect that the products will be used by consultants or in-house experts.

The division between big and complex and small and simple is important, but it is also somewhat misleading. Since almost any process can be broken down into a series of smaller processes, it's possible to handle even a large, complex process by chopping it into chunks and doing it one chunk at a time.

The limitations of the simpler workflow tools become evident when they're asked to manage interprocess dependencies, handle complex database integration and handle tasks that are much more important to larger, more complex processes. The complexity cuts both ways. A really big project requires the tools that come with a big, expensive product. But if you don't need that big, expensive product, product complexity can slow you down. There is a lot of overlap in what these tools can do.