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An Introduction to Workflow Management Systems

Preface

I. Functional Overview

II. Technical Overview


II. Technical Overview

Four Categories of Workflow


The boundaries for the categories in this section are inspired by James G. Kobielus as described in his book Workflow Strategies.

Workflow applications are generally divided into four broad categories, mainly distinguished by the transport mechanism used to route the work items. These are:
  1. Production Workflow Systems
  2. Messaging-based Workflow Systems
  3. Web-based Workflow Systems
  4. Suite-based Workflow Systems

Production Workflow Systems


Introduction

These systems make up the traditional part of the market. They have evolved from the first systems on the market, FileNet and ViewStar. They are sometimes referred to as filestore-based systems, document-image processing systems, and forms management systems. These systems route folders consisting of one or more forms or different types of documents though the organization. They typically store documents in a central repository and provide check-in, check-out, and version control for those documents.

Advantages

They generally support more features and functions than messaging-based tools, allow greater customization, and run in a wider range of network and computing environments. Since some of the products in this category have been around for a long time, there usually is expertise available from a number of sources.

Disadvantages

These systems are generally more expensive than other systems. The usually require expensive application development and integration services from an external consultant. They are sometimes not open, and might be dependent on certain machine platforms.

Background and functionality

Workflow systems are similar in their desire and need to reduce the volume of back-office paperwork in daily operations. Systems in this category are based on the idea that an organization should only have to touch a paper document once, when it is received by the organization and scanned into electronic form. Thereafter, it is routed through the work processes needed to finish the treatment of the document (such as making a decision,calculating the tax for a citizen, or any other work-process that the organization focuses operations around).

The core capabilities supported in most of today’s production workflow solutions are: image management, database management, document management, forms management, object management, product data management, project management, computer-aided software engineering (CASE), electronic messaging, directory services, Internet/Intranet services, and electronic commerce services.

This category is closely aligned to the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC’s) Reference Model as mentioned in the section on standards.

Messaging-based Workflow Systems


Introduction

This category, sometimes called administrative workflow systems, comprises the lower-end segment of the market. The products contained herein are stand-alone tools that route documents over existing email systems. This category started with the FormFlow product, and products in this category primarily route electronic forms and file attachments.

Advantages

Because messaging is based on an existing email system, products in this category are usually low-cost. They support rapid definition and activation of simple business processes, usually of a sequential or parallel nature. The implementation and use of the products are designed to work with a minimum of training and customization.

Disadvantages

Systems in this category are not as comprehensive and flexible as systems in the production workflow systems category. Systems in the messaging-based workflow category typically lack document-image processing and management capabilities. Some government organizations do not yet have email systems that can be used with workflow applications.

Background and functionality

Messaging-based workflow systems are designed to support typical ad-hoc business processes: a workflow with minimal preplanning, few participants, and simple routing rules that are being redefined from day-to-day depending on what works.

These systems provide such capabilities as sequential routing, cycle back to originator, and rule-based message management. Messaging-based workflow systems can be split into three parts: electronic messaging technologies, forms management, and database management. Electronic messaging is done via the email system. The people comprising the process use the email system to route forms and messages between each other. The forms are usually created with a standalone tool, and these forms are sent between people, allowing them to change and update fields. When a form has reached its end-point, where the process is done with it, it is written to the database.

Web-based Workflow Systems


Introduction

These systems are on the leading edge of workflow application development. Utilizing the popularity gained by the WWW, these systems utilize this same environment to implement workflow capabilities. Systems in this category utilize Web clients and servers to deliver their functionality.

Advantages

Many organizations already have some of the technology and networking capabilities needed to implement these systems. Thanks to the extent and proliferation of the WWW, these workflow products facilitate telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. Because there is no need to develop an underlying network structure, it is readily expandable.

Disadvantages

The level of skill needed to develop and deploy the work process is higher than for messaging-based systems, and end-users can not be expected to develop forms or Java applications, necessary elements of Web-based workflow systems. The security of these systems is sometimes more at issue. Especially when the global Internet is used to transport documents and forms. Another disadvantage is that no standards have yet been developed specifically for this workflow category.

Background and functionality

The difference between web-based workflow systems and the two categories already described is the narrowly circumscribed, industry-standard Internet platform on which they operate. Whereas the other three categories of workflow products operate over application infrastructures that incorporate a wide range of protocols and application services, web-based workflow only requires:
  • WWW Internets/Intranets/Extranets
  • Web servers (serving the HTML pages and Java applets)
  • Web browsers (on the users desktop)
  • Workflow engines (determines routing and processing of work items)

Suite-based Workflow Systems


Introduction

Products in this category offer a suite of integrated office applications such as word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and electronic mail. In suite-based workflow systems, all the applications are somewhat integrated with the electronic mail system. This integration is often accomplished through a send or add routing slip command in the menu structure of the non-electronic mail applications.

Advantages

Suite-based workflow applications can be bought off the shelf, and some of them require few changes during implementation. In some cases they can be implemented without support from 3rd party consultants.

Disadvantages

Some suite-based workflow applications (such as Lotus Notes) are criticized for being high maintenance driven, requiring a high system administrator to user ratio. The low-end types of these applications might be too unstructured to facilitate the creation of a structured workflow environment.

Background and functionality

Suite-based workflow products are designed to allow users to route individual desktop application files instead of folders of documents and forms. Products in this category are characterized by their support for unplanned actions, one-time actions, and ad-hoc processes. Products in this category can be split into two sub-categories; office application suites and groupware application environments. Suite-based workflow products are very similar to the messaging-based workflow products in their use of electronic mail as the routing vehicle.

Endnote on Categories

There is no single best category of workflow systems. The right system depends on the nature of the processes to be supported with a workflow tool. Different tools support varying levels of structure. Whereas suite-based workflow systems might support ad-hoc interpersonal data sharing, production workflow systems are better at supporting rigid and well-defined work processes. The other categories can be represented as somewhere in between these two on the scale of structure.