SmartAdvice: Workflow Software Can Help Streamline Human Processes - InformationWeek
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SmartAdvice: Workflow Software Can Help Streamline Human Processes

Now that data-centric work processes are largely automated, consider that streamlining human-centric processes can provide benefits as well, The Advisory Council says. Also, if your company's IT supplier is bought, CIOs must look at the vendor's value and address the rumor mill.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers two questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to

Question A: How might workflow software improve our business processes?

Our advice: One of the main functions of IT is to improve business processes and make companies more productive (read more revenue with fewer resources). For many years, that meant converting paper shuffling to digital processing. Now that so many business processes have been computerized, the payback from data-processing improvement is declining. However, people sometimes forget that human-based business processes can use improvement as well. Workflows aren't just limited to logistics and factory assembly lines. Even something as basic as a new-hire process lends itself to the new breed of workflow-analysis tools that enable companies to capture and improve the human workflows, in addition to the data and logistics.

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It has taken a long time for software to catch up with workflow analysis. Human processes are inherently much harder to quantify and capture, because people, of course, add intelligence to their work and have less predictable behavior than a data flow. Traditional data-processing software is designed to insure that the proper information gets through the system, but hasn't excelled in capturing processes that require uncertainty, business rules, and fuzzy logic. Rules-based and parametric programs were popular in the 1990s, but they were never wholly successful outside of research communities, because of the enormous amount of computer resources required.

Computer capabilities have increased exponentially so that the processing power required for workflow analysis tools is now within reach of even mid-size companies. As program and project management has become increasingly important to the success of businesses, companies are revisiting workflow-analysis tools, but they're looking for far more sophisticated analysis than ever before. Companies want to quantify the human/machine interface and track the complex human workflows outside the traditional manufacturing and logistics arena. After all, data that's never touched or seen by a human isn't very useful or profitable.

Look at the new business-intelligence and workflow-analysis tools to see if they can improve your human/computer interfaces. Be aware that they're still complex and expensive. When shopping for workflow software you need to determine how standardized your processes really are. If they're not standardized, how much are you willing to change them to conform to the software's standards? Look for software that's targeted specifically to your industry or processes. It can be well worth the additional upfront cost in terms of development time-savings. Commercial software often has incorporated best practices from many companies, something most companies can't match with software that's developed in-house. Remember, however, that industry best practices aren't always your best practices.

-- Beth Cohen and Sue-Rae Rosenfeld

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