Expert Advice on Business Workflow

Business.com / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Business workflow expert Brian Reale, CEO and co-founder of Colosa Inc. offers advice on implementing business workflow software.

As a business owner, chances are you're more passionate about your product or your service than overseeing business workflow issues like scheduling and payroll.

Luckily there is software available that can help streamline these processes so you and your employees can spend more time on what really matters. According to the American Payroll Association, companies that don't use workflow software will end up giving employees and extra half day of vacation each year and spend 25 percent more time producing and managing employee schedules.

Using workflow software can help save your business both time and money, reducing the amount of paper you use and allowing you to generate reports that can help find efficiencies in your day-to-day management.

We recently caught up with Brian Reale, CEO and co-founder of Colosa Inc., the primary developer of ProcessMaker Open Source Business Process Management System, to get his take on workflow solutions.

Reale has more than 15 years of experience managing high-tech companies, specializing in VoIP, Telecom, business process management (BPM) and Workflow, and Open Source Software, and has been a speaker and panelist at numerous technology conferences.

Here's what he had to say:

 

Why is it important for a business to develop workflows?

When we talk about business processes or workflows, we are talking about the way information moves around a company or department. Business process information can move in a number of directions: between people, between systems, or from people to systems (and back again). When one employee needs information from another in order to execute a task, the transfer of information becomes a critical part of the business process. When employees fail to pass on the appropriate information to their counterparts in a timely, concise, and accurate manner, inefficiencies and errors can occur. This can happen within a single department, or across multiple departments.

People-system gaps occur when the information a person needs from a system is not easily accessible, readily available, or accurate.  When people-system gaps occur, systems fail to provide people with the information they need to do their jobs and inefficiencies occur.  Likewise, people-system gaps occur when people fail to enter the appropriate information back into systems.

When communication lapses or errors occur in any of these information transfers, it can cause significant inefficiencies, waste, and business process delays. BPM systemizes the interactions discussed above. Once systemized, this flow of tasks can be measured, monitored, and improved. This is the real value that BPM brings to the table.

What are the consequences if workflows aren't established?

Aside from the issues highlighted in my last answer, paper usage and tracking continues to be a major problem in businesses today. It's all too easy nowadays for employees, supervisors and managers to become lost in a sea of paperwork. Paper forms, requests, approvals and verifications are easily misplaced, misrouted or can be left on somebody's desk tray until they're forgotten about. The inefficiency associated with this mismanagement of workflow can be very costly to most mid- to large-sized companies.

Determining the Return on Investment for a BPM system is not that difficult. It involves calculating the time involved in performing each task of a workflow, the costs associated with this time, costs associated with delays and errors caused by doing things manually, and the cost of not being able to improve the process because the process can't be measured. Once we calculate these costs and add them together, we know the cost of each workflow today.

What are the immediate benefits to building solid workflow? Long-term benefits?

The immediate benefits become obvious to the end users when they can see their workload neatly organized in a user-friendly format. Sifting through paperwork, managing multiple copies of the same email or spreadsheet, or struggling to read somebody's handwriting is very inefficient. For managers, the immediate benefits present themselves in the form of notifications and status updates on current workloads. Reports and dashboards allow managers to identify bottle-necks and trends easily. When a particular job number/customer/ticket needs to be looked up for immediate attention, managers can simply perform a search and see at a glance where the holdup is and why.

When we consider the long-term benefits of building solid workflow at Colosa, we follow the continuous evolutionary BPM cycle known as "build, run, report, optimize." Whilst the immediate benefits of workflow are obvious right from the start, continuous monitoring and improvement is just as important as the workflows themselves. As company policies and methods change, the structure of the workflow must also change.  Implementing these changes and continuously building on top of your existing efficiency is another long-term benefit of solid workflow.

Gartner (an information technology research and advisory firm) has surveyed and reported on the long-term benefits of BPM implementations and found that for 78 percent of BPM projects, the internal rate of return was greater than 15 percent. Gartner has also found that an improvement of more than 12 percent in efficiency is realized with BPM implementations.

What tools are there to help a business to establish workflow?

There are many different BPM tools out there -- from .NET based, proprietary applications to PHP based, open source solutions. Most BPM providers offer a variety of implementation methods to assist organizations large or small.

What's the most common problem businesses hope software programs like ProcessMaker can solve?

There is rarely one single common problem that our sales team hears from potential customers. However, the majority of calls we receive tend to relate to improving efficiency, eliminating paperwork, facilitating inter-departmental collaboration and automating business processes while also integrating with existing systems such as CRM, ERP or DMS. In other cases, clients have an older legacy-type database system which would be costly and time-consuming to replace or upgrade.  Integrating ProcessMaker with these older systems allows organizations to maintain their data storage in a pre-existing source, while having a powerful front end managing the routing and distribution of data.

Who in a company typically implements and/or uses workflow software?

Typically, either IT or a business unit manager will actually implement workflow software. Workflow software should be designed so that a business area expert can map and implement his processes. Inevitably, IT gets involved because the process needs to connect to existing systems and data sources via web services.

Larger organizations usually have a business process manager or area that is dedicated to implementing BPM across the enterprise.

The end users are the employees and departments within an organization that require workflow, such as HR, admin, finance, operations, IT, marketing or sales.

How long does it take for a business to implement a new workflow using a software system?

This really depends on the size of the workflow being implemented and the competence of the person carrying out the implementation. Small projects can be created and deployed in just a few weeks; larger projects can take months. This is another area that Gartner studied, and the results showed us that 67 percent of projects are deployed in less than six months and 50 percent in less than four months.

How easy is it to create a workflow system?

This depends on the application you choose to use. Some BPM applications can be quite complex and require a large amount of training and support in order to get a project off the ground.  If you've never used a BPM application before or do not fully understand the BPM model, it can be a challenge. In the case of ProcessMaker, we try very hard to keep workflow creation as easy and intuitive as possible -- using toolbars and icons that workflow designers will instantly recognize and a graphical user interface with drag-and-drop functionality.  This interface, coupled with our training and support services as well as an active online community, make ProcessMaker one of the most easy to use BPM applications on the market.

When should a business's workflow be changed or reevaluated?

Every organization should consistently monitor and evaluate its workflows. Continuous changes to company standards and practices means that workflows should never be set up once and then left to operate without any sort of review strategy. For example, company HR processes often see amendments made to them at least once a year, which means that your HR-based workflows require updating to reflect said changes. For workflows that involve customer relationship management (which is an ever-evolving practice), data entry methods, routing rules, user assignment and notification methods should be under constant review and evaluation in order to maintain high efficiency rates.

If you're a small business owner who's never created a workflow system, where's the best place to start? Who can help navigate the process?

The best place to start is to understand your own workflows by documenting them. Many people come to us asking for help automating a process when they don't even have the process fully defined. Once you have a workflow clearly documented and you know how it's supposed to function from beginning to end, you can perform an online search and look for workflow software solutions that meet your needs -- both in an operational and technological sense.

Most BPM providers offer free trials of their software. I would recommend taking a real documented workflow and seeing how easy it is to implement it using one of these free trials. Finally, contact the BPM providers themselves and request a demonstration. Most BPM vendors will provide a demonstration of their software with several types of workflow scenarios relating to what you are looking to accomplish.

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