Process Automation: Tools to Match the Job

By Jeffrey Piper posted 05-22-2012 12:41


I’ve heard on more than one occasion, workflow or process automation would be great if only it were fast, easy and inexpensive to implement. Oh, and by the way, I need to extend the end user experience to include mobile and remote workers, customers, partners and vendors. In the past, when on-premise workflow engines were the only choice, process automation was indeed slow, painful and expensive, and was darn near impossible to feasibly extend to 3rd parties or certainly people on mobile devices. With the Cloud revolution, it is now possible, even common, for processes to be automated quickly (by business users rather than IT), very economically, and to link all workers.

While the barrier to automating processes is lower, there still is the matter of picking the right approach.     After all, many process automation patterns are quite simple, and there’s no need to take out a sledgehammer when you only need to put a pushpin in a corkboard.

Four of the most common process automation patterns are:

1.  Single Action - Event Rules – One of the simplest process automation patterns, Event Rules, consists of:

  • Filters - often as basic as a folder or directory location, or specific metadata values
  • Events - adding a document to the folder, saving indices or metadata, or checking in a new document version
  • Actions – Events can trigger one more Actions, such as sending a notification email that a new document has been added, moving the document into a work-in-process state, or assigning security or access permissions.

While a simple model, Event Rules can provide a powerful way to automate processes and keep content organized.  Best of all, business users can understand and manage Event Rules, defining and updating them to fit changing needs.  

2.  Transaction – Sequential Workflow – A sequential workflow pattern executes steps in order, one-by-one. The pattern also can encompass conditional logic, looping or iteration, and parallelism. Invoice processing and approvals for things such as policy and procedures and marketing collateral are good candidates for sequential processing.

Workflows requiring little conditional logic and looping can be easily addressed through wizard-driven setups by business users, and established at runtime or as predefined templates. As complexity grows, more sophisticated tools will be needed.

3.  Intelligent Hub - Hub and Spoke Workflow – This pattern is designed with the knowledge worker (aka “intelligent hub”) at the controls. Workflow provides a structured way to move work back and forth between parties, yet allows for a single point of contact to manage the process, yielding flexible coordination among stakeholders to complete the job.  Frequently, a robust BPM tool, and one that supports integration with backend systems, is required.

Contract approval is a common use case.  Typically, a hierarchy of managers is required to edit and approve a contract; however, it is rarely the case that the contract can pass sequentially (i.e. A to B to C to D and back to A) through the approval cycle without stops and starts and questions. The contract initiator typically has to orchestrate the process in order to get it completed in a reasonable length of time. Hence, hub and spoke works nicely as the contract initiator controls the flow of the contract, getting the appropriate approval, all the while retaining good visibility and control over the process.

4.  Collaborative Decisions - Dynamic Case – Dynamic Case management brings together people, tasks and content in a semi-structured model focused on a set of specific requirements and an outcome, but with built-in flexibility on how it’s accomplished.   For example, consider a service request to on-boarding a new customer.

Dynamic Case provides the knowledge worker with:

  • A set of collaboration tools
  • A starting checklist of tasks, perhaps defined with some basic conditional logic (e.g. New customer; Existing customer with new account) and
  • A few boundaries such as a completion date or SLA

From there, the knowledge worker uses her expert knowledge to complete the process with flexibility, accounting for complexities such as risk assessment, compliance, VIPs and more.  Given time and deep pockets, you could attempt to “hard code” all the possible situations, but failure is highly likely as circumstances evolve and change, and all the business cares about is that judgment is being applied. 

Selection “To Do’s”

There are a lot of process automation tools out there; selecting the right tool for the right job is critical for efficient and effective workflow deployment.  Tips to guide your selection process, include:

  • Engage subject matter experts to gather requirements and map the business process
  • Identify the workflow pattern for today’s use, and tomorrow’s as well
  • Establish selection criteria
  • Test drive tools on the short list to ensure ease of use and appropriate feature richness, in general, goodness of fit, and services and support
  • Develop total cost of ownership and return on investment models
  • Thoroughly check references

In work processes for which automation makes sense, it also makes sense to match the tool to the job.  Poor tool selection results in workers inventing “new” ways of getting work done. This is bad innovation! Provide the right tools and you’ve laid the foundation for workers to surprise and delight the organization.

Next up, a few thoughts on bringing mobile device users into the process automation experience…



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