About a year ago, Kevin Hinderleider, IT director for the city of Avondale, needed to solve a particular problem. He had more than 20 projects going on at any one time and was looking for a portfolio-management solution to ensure none fell through the cracks.
His research led him to Daptiv, a Seattle-based company that provides on-demand collaborative business software solutions. Hinderleider decided Daptiv was not only the most comprehensive program for his needs, but also was easy to use and reasonably priced. After signing up for the hosted software, he discovered an unexpected bonus.
“What we got out of it was an enhanced kind of workflow that we weren’t really anticipating,” Hinderleider says. “We’ve come to find out that it has the ability for routing of approvals for documents, routing of approvals for projects so someone can initiate a project request and it gets approved based upon the level of complexity of tracking the project, the resources available, staff, money — all that kind of standard stuff.
“We didn’t have a specific need for workflow upfront. What I did have upfront was the necessity to be able to make sure we kept the documents and all the tasks about a project together. What was a benefit in the end was it had that workflow.”
Workflow management is exactly what the term suggests. It’s a process by which work flows through an organization. It’s also something that has caught the attention of major software companies such as IBM, Xerox and Microsoft, as well as a plethora of smaller firms that offer everything from Web-based solutions to industry-specific programs.
Workflow has become an essential part of business software suites, along with document management, project management and other key applications.
Matthew Bather is the Synergy product marketing manager for Exact Software North America, which is headquartered in Andover, Mass., and counts several Arizona companies among its clients. They include Boon Inc. in Chandler, American Beverage Systems in Phoenix and Regenesis Biomedical Inc. in Scottsdale. Bather uses the example of an expense claim to demonstrate how an automated workflow tool simplifies a basic process.
In the past, an employee might have to fill out an expense form, package it with receipts, send it to the accounting department and wait for reimbursement.
“Now the delivery of that mechanism is entirely possible through the application, such as Synergy, where that business process of an expense claim has a certain workflow behind it,” Bather says. “You submit that expense claim and you can see where it is down the stream as it flows through the business process.”
One common misconception is that the more micro-based workflow management and business process management, or BPM, are one and the same.
“Business process management is more holistic in nature,” Bather says. “It strives to improve the performance and efficiency of the organization as it relates to the entire process. … But there is a lot of gray area. Some organizations say workflow when they mean BPM and vice versa.”
Both capabilities are typically included in business suites, as is the case with the Web-based Synergy program.
Dirk Karsten Beth, president of Mission3 in Phoenix, has a life sciences industry-specific suite that helps companies manage their entire product development process. Although workflow is part of Mission3, Beth warns that it can be problematic.
“I’ve implemented all the major workflow systems out there in the past and that was one area where I found that there were a lot of areas for failure if it wasn’t implemented right,” he says. “Which means it’s great for really rigid processes, but once there’s a diversion from that rigid process it can fall apart.
“So if you try to add workflow to every area of your business, it’s going to be really challenging. But if you use it judiciously, especially in areas where it’s required and you have to document everything you’re doing, then it works really well and can add real significant value.”
He’s a proponent of service-based online software solutions because they allow users to work with it, grow with it or transition out of it if it doesn’t meet a company’s needs.
With so many options available, deciding what will work best for your situation can be overwhelming. Pat Sullivan, CEO of Flypaper Studio Inc. in Phoenix, has an impressive track record in business software, starting as the driving force behind such programs as ACT! and SalesLogix. Today, he sits on the boards of three emerging software companies. He offers sound advice for anyone considering a software purchase.
“It’s generally fairly easy to find unbiased reviews from customers who are actually using the product,” he says. “On various forums, on even the vendor’s Web site or related Web sites, you generally are able to read what real people have really said. That is what I look for.”
He also suggests getting demonstrations and visiting businesses that are using the product in question to seek feedback from those actually working with the software. “That’s probably better information than you’re ever going to get from the (software) company’s Web site or the company’s salespeople,” Sullivan says.