If you look at business processes from inquiry to final delivery, many intermediate steps have to be coordinated by a company to get to the point of delivery. The steps are different in each industry, depending on the processes. However, quoting, production planning, sharing, quality, delivery and invoicing are common to many. In the media industry, specific tasks within a process could be as follows:
- Budgeting and planning
- Editorial work
- Material creation/compilation
- Involvement of suppliers, customers and freelancers
- Recording, editing and conversions
- Audio/video encoding (in various resolutions/formats)
- Graphics navigation and chaptering
- Content preparation and feedback
- Authoring, programming and testing
- Send, upload, marking, protection and packaging
- Billing (employees, customers and suppliers)
- Payment and accounting
Sometimes there might only be four or five and sometimes hundreds of work steps that are necessary to complete a job. If there are several employees in multiple jobs, the coordination of information and tasks can quickly become quite perplexing.
The time required for the coordination of a department or an entire company then increases disproportionately. It is not unusual for more than 50% of available manpower to be used for coordinating and exchanging of information using search, e-mail, Excel, and tool use, as well as continuous meetings and telephone usage. In addition, as part of everybody's work, the hidden costs involved are not at all transparent, nor is value being added, and money and energy are wasted in large quantities as a result.
However, other inefficiencies also arise from the lack of transparency and lack of a single controller; avoidable errors reduce quality and the speed of delivery sinks.
Classical work-order software (for construction contracts) is a step in the right direction towards solving the problem but these packages are no longer current or comprehensive. They mostly present only static functions that simplify data management and storage.
A workflow system takes over much of the information-sharing and coordination tasks, freeing up staff considerably. They can concentrate on their core tasks and do not have to deal with who saved what where and when, who has to do what before when, and so on and so forth.
In this example, a workflow organizes the structured exchange of data between employees and firms so that information no longer has to be distributed in an expensive and error-prone way in mails, apps and Excel.
With a workflow management system, processes are designed so that the right job ends up with right person (or machine/software) with the right information at the right time. These are the 4 R's, which enable companies to work in more structured transparent ways, and also faster and cheaper.
After finding an error in a Check step, the user opens a read-only Correction WOF of the original Check dataset. This sub-form, which queries the individual Check steps and their results, is designed by the user himself and is not hard-coded.
In this case, each employee automatically receives precisely the information he/she needs in his/her task basket. Almost like e-mail, but completely automatic and not just text, but in a structured work order form in which he/she can also enter information. Depending on these inputs and on the completion of the task, the workflow system decides by means of dependencies or rules which subsequent steps are to be completed by whom and by when and so a new task is automatically created or activated. No one has to worry about the 'how' and 'where' or the 'before' and 'after'.
Every building block of the workflow represents a task for a resource (human or machine). The workflow coordinates every single information flow automatically and accurately, even for hundreds of projects and hundreds of thousands of tasks, and thereby relieves staff and management in the company of a massive burden of tasks.
A workflow system is not fixed software, but a platform on which arbitrary processes can be built with relative ease. Here is a brief overview of some definitions from computer science, which of course also exist in many other variations:
- A business process represents a series of activities that generates an output of value in several steps.
- The implementation of a business process into an automated system is called a workflow. This describes a coordinated implementation of various inter-related steps.
- The creative act of creating a workflow from a business process is called business process modeling.
- Information systems that enable free modeling of workflows and provide those workflows in a decentralized way to users are called workflow management systems (WfMS).
A Single Step Workflow
Even a single task, here a copy creation is, on closer inspection, a small process in which different additional employees are involved for order, delivery and billing. Even for very many small things, coordination is necessary and errors are more frequent. This does not happen with a mini workflow.
So a workflow management system controls and monitors processes — no matter what these work processes are. It would be hard to find a process that cannot be made leaner and more efficient using a WfMS. See also Workflow Specification and Implementation.
As shown here, quality is controlled by a workflow. On the left the active work step is shown in blue in the process (QA control) and on the right the associated form for the QA manager defining and distributing the specific test tasks: in this case, video and audio quality checks and, if necessary, corrections are shown below. The form is dynamic on several levels and adapts itself to the requirements of the specific work step. In the background, dynamic dependencies based on the dynamic fields generate in turn the defined tasks as orders (WOFs) for the relevant users. The form is designed according to the manager's wishes and could also look and operate completely differently.
When we talk about processes, then the integrative approach is intrinsic. That is, not just the individual functional blocks (e.g. steps) are considered a process, but how they interact with each other. A trivial example will illustrate this:
A car broken down into its component parts does not, of course, work — or rather, depending on the degree of separation, it works less well. With the wheels in the trunk rather than on the axle, it will not go so well. Only if everything is in the correct relationship to everything else, i.e. the wheels are on the axle, will everything work. The car will be more than just the sum of its parts: synergy is the result.
Business processes and IT are not fundamentally different:
- Provides passive distinct functions
- User interfaces are static or only customizable
- Does not support future requirements
- Users must coordinate their own use
- Offers only manual exchange with external systems
By comparison, process-based software:
- Provides few subject-specific functions
- User interfaces are completely generic
- Allows arbitrary new processes to be represented
- Actively controls the entire process
- Integrates automated external systems
Lean value creation is only possible when all the functions and steps link smoothly into one another.
Users and Systems
The blue sample workflow in the middle provides tasks for users (green and yellow areas shown above) and integrates external systems (below in gray) via adapters (red). Both tasks for employees, and the interfaces to the external systems, can be arbitrarily defined according to requirements. The workflow will then coordinate the processing of the individual tasks by using the dependencies (blue lines), which are defined as part of the workflow.
A workflow system has two types of functions to be integrated:
- Tasks for people which are carried out manually or by using other functional systems, and
- Tasks for machines or software systems that are completely automated without human intervention
Both are available in different variants and hybrids.
The efficiency of a process thus depends on two factors:
- The individual functions (e.g. manual, creative, process steps or functional use in tools or software systems), and
- The integration of many different functions into a consistent and uniform process
The first is often already done: modern tools for production are available. The latter is usually lacking and this is the task of a workflow system. In addition, however, the CEITON workflow system also makes available its own core functionalities, including, for example, order management and resource scheduling.
Function Design 1
A form designed to support the equipment output. Conventionally programmed, the implementation would be more expensive, would not cover a workflow and would be complex to change and distribute. With conventional customizing of mainly static software packages, no individual, specific functions can be represented, only at best some small changes to existing forms.
To meet individual requirements, companies are often in a dilemma between in-house development, which is not sustainable long-term, and 'customizing' a limited fixed software from a manufacturer. Workflows are, subject to certain conditions, a way out of the dilemma.
If the cooperation of people and information distribution are priorities of the required application, individual applications can be designed as workflows. Then neither database structures, nor application or interface logic have to be programmed. Just the user forms and their interdependencies are defined. The workflow platform takes over everything else automatically.
Rates of Change
Asked the question 'How often do business requirements change' almost 90% said at least annually. Therefore, flexibility of modeling is required instead of old-fashioned software.
IDC asked in a survey in 2007 'How often do you want to customize the business rules in your software' 90% reported they try to change it annually or more frequently. 34% of respondents said monthly — see the graphic on the right. A conventionally programmed software package can seldom be reprogrammed this often — whether internally or externally developed. Workflows can be adjusted daily, if necessary, however, because the changes can be implemented easily and reliably without programming.
Function Design 2
Workflow systems do not just depict processes better but also replace a large amount of conventional programming which enables the free modeling of requirements. In this simple example, a check of files takes place after ingest is finished. The Work Order Forms can easily be changed as often as required.
Conventional Programming Approach:
- State-of-the-art 'customizing' (add, hide, move fields)
- Only partially modifiable programming of workflows and functions through 'embedded workflow engines'
Modern 'software as a platform' approach:
- Modeling instead of programming
- No limitation by existing structures
Complex yet simple processes can be automatically coordinated. Benefits arise from the following advantages:
- Increased transparency
- Reduced communication costs
- Improved management
- Improved cycle time
- Avoidance of errors and missed deadlines
- Independence from employee absence
- Increased flexibility (in/outsourcing)
- Accurate billing
- Automatic archiving of all processes (documentation)
If we can affirm one or several of the following points, it is worth introducing a workflow system:
- Employees need to share information (internally/externally)
- Processes are complex and dynamic
- Recurring processes
- Priority processes (for events)
- Quality is the highest priority
- Data acquisition is distributed
- Processes change with time