Ian Harris and Mike Smith, The Z/Yen Group
[A version of this article originally appeared as "Workflow goes Upfront" Conspectus, (1997)]
Workflow or workflow management is a broad subject covering the automation of business processes by information technology (IT). Much of the early impetus for workflow emerged in the early to mid 1990's from the convergence of technological possibilities and the business process re-engineering exercises undertaken by many larger and medium-sized enterprises. As a result, most early workflow management activity took place in the manufacturing and service industry back office environments. We abbreviate these areas as "back end". As workflow begins to be exploited in a wider range of business activities, it is valuable to ask if the manufacturing and back office is a useful paradigm for customer oriented areas such as sales and marketing (S&M), front office environments (e.g. call centres) and consultancy. We will abbreviate these areas as "front end". New ways of working (e.g., teleworking) benefit enormously from workflow, but also suggest that it may be useful to examine critically the traditional workflow models to help those planning, building and implementing front end workflow systems to derive maximum reward at least risk.
There appear to be far more differences than similarities between the traditional back end workflow environments and the customer oriented, front end ones. Areas of similarity between the two environments are mainly the general business objectives for profitability, appropriate quality, efficiency and accountability. It is not surprising that integration of systems between front and back ends is a classical business problem and opportunity. Many of the differences between front and back end environments stem from the need for process flexibility and for specificity of response to customers (Figure 1). These differences are reflected strongly in the way that work has evolved within these environments (Table 1).
In back end environments, work and associated processes normally are clearly defined, relatively static and amenable to batch-sequential models. Outcomes are easily seen, quality and productivity can be measured accurately and economies of scale can hopefully be achieved. In front end environments, work is often amorphous and intermittent which demands dynamic multithreaded, multitasking approaches. Processes and outcomes may be difficult to define, quality and productivity are difficult to measure and economies of scale appear even more difficult to achieve. Producing tools for the back end environment is much easier and less risky because processes are easily defined and complex multitasking is not essential.
Back end environments are less demanding in terms of staff skills. Manufacturing typically employs semi or uni-skilled workers, often assisted by a substantial degree of physical automation. Back office staff tend to be uni-skilled and supported by specialised, transaction oriented IT applications and firmly defined procedures. S&M and front office staff tend to be uni-skilled, increasingly dependent on communications, particularly computer telephone integrated (CTI) tools, and supported by client contact systems. Consultants tend to be multi-skilled, highly dependent on communications, supported by client contact systems and require highly flexible "knowledge working" tools. In general, back end environment workers tend to be knowledge consumers while front end environment workers are knowledge producers. Back end environment senior and top managers tend to share many of the characteristics of consultants.
Figure 1. Up Close and Personal
Table 1. "Sixteen Gig, and what do you get?"
|TABLE 1||Manufacturing||Back Office||Sales & Marketing||Front Office||Consulting|
|Work flow||batch sequential||batch sequential||parallel multithread ed||parallel multithread ed||parallel multithread ed|
|Product||standard||standard||standard to specific||standard to specific||specific to very specific|
|Skills||semi- or uni- skilled||uni- skilled||uni-skilled to artistic||multi-skilled||multi-skilled|
|Tools||machinery and automation||transactional systems||client contact and CTI||client contact and CTI||flexible software and CTI|
|Ways of Working||physically concentrated||physically concentrated||often mobile, some teleworkers||increasingly “offshore” teleworkers||mobile, increasingly teleworkers|
|I ntensive||capital and/or labour||labour and procedure||ability and information||Information and/or knowledge||Knowledge and information|
The differences between the back end and front end environments have implications to the implementation of workflow at the front end which may be profound. Lack of good solution fit increases the risk of rejection or the possible introduction of inefficiencies. Good fit should pay off handsomely in terms of increased business benefit.
Figure 2. "Just Another Day at the Front Office, Dear"
For S&M and front office workers, the range of tools and information required may not yet be as great as for knowledge workers, although there is a significant trend in this direction (especially in enterprises such as investment banks and trading houses). There is a profound requirement, however, for multiple information sources about clients to be integrated seamlessly and delivered almost instantaneously to the point of demand. Flexibility and speed of use within the particular context is particularly important. CTI is becoming an essential technology for workflow in this environment to ensure complete integration of data and communications [Murray]. Strong emphasis may be placed on workflow to improve productivity and accountability. These aspects suggest that effective workflow systems in these areas are likely to be the result of specialised developments.
New ways of working such as teleworking, hot desking, virtual offices and physical dispersion already have profoundly affected many front end workers. Most consultants are highly mobile workers and a number of call centres and S&M units are actually located offshore. Workflow is an essential means of maintaining coherence over such physically dispersed operations. Workflow systems are also a means for the organisation to ensure that as much of the intellectual capital of the front end is captured and employed as is possible. Workflow has benefits in helping to promulgate standard organisational approaches painlessly and to facilitate the uptake and training of new staff.
An important but under-utilised workflow technology which only recently has become highly practical, both in terms of cost and technology standards, is image and physical document processing and storage. Image processing and storage offers a means for closing the final gap between manual and electronic workflow. "Hundreds of thousands of images and paper documents, in virtually any physical form, can be digitised rapidly and inexpensively" says George Farquhar of secure networking facilities provider DSSD plc. "Dozens of filing cabinets can be compressed into a single disk drive." Multiple copies of documents can then be electronically communicated throughout the organisation at high speed and without deterioration of quality, thus enhancing their value as knowledge capital. As a bonus, paper documents containing text can be converted accurately into wordprocessable form and images into electronically editable versions, further increasing their value for reuse and amendment. Documents and images become easier to find, almost impossible to lose and are much more easily accounted for and valued. Image processing is a significant step forward for workflow and a key technology for the convergence of workflow and new ways of working (e.g. teleworking, mobile workers).
Groupware is widely associated with workflow [Howlett]. This association is important but not essential, however. Much of the benefit of existing groupware platforms to workflow is that they combine integrated communications and messaging with flexible, relatively generic tools, rather than providing specific workflow solutions. Data stored by groupware typically has the granularity of documents, mail or calendars. Some groupware (e.g. Lotus Notes) can store more conventional database type records with fields which makes it a more suitable platform for transactional processing.
We believe that the manufacturing and back office paradigms are not particularly appropriate for S&M, front office and consulting/management workflow. Workflow systems at the front end require very flexible, highly integrated tools; these are used in combinations which can be configured dynamically to meet client needs. High volume S&M and front office support, particularly with its demand for CTI and multiple data stream integration, largely remain a province for specialist products. Existing groupware solutions, combined with packaged office automation products using industry standards, are beginning to meet the more flexible end of the front end workflow spectrum. Image and physical document capture and storage is becoming a key link between paper and electronic workflow systems and an enabler for facilitating new ways of working through workflow.
[Howlett] Dennis Howlett. Come together. Network World April 1997 pp 26-40.
[Murray] Ian Murray. IT route to better customer service. Conspectus July 1996 pp 30-31.
Mike Smith is a senior consultant and Ian Harris is a director of Z/Yen Limited, the risk/reward management practice.