Making Work Flow Less Work

WASHINGTON (07/24/2000) - Most government agencies have set procedures that staff members must follow - for processes ranging from getting purchases and proposals approved to tracking requests from citizens. And in government, even more than in business, workflow is often oriented around forms.

That's why Metastorm Inc.'s e-work is particularly well-suited to government agencies and departments. E-work Version 4.1 is a fairly affordable product that melds workflow charting with forms design and lets government workers and the public access the system with any Dynamic HTML World Wide Web browser.

Competitive products, such as JetForm Corp.'s e-Process Framework, do a fine job of automating forms flow and building electronic forms. However, e-work goes further with an Integration Wizard that helps you easily tie in external databases and other agency resources.

I had no problems creating a test process that automated the application and delivery of a hypothetical license. First, use the e-work Designer to define the procedures. Next, build forms to be used at different points in the process. I also successfully tested the Integration Wizard, which lets you incorporate external systems, such as word processing and database files.

Working with e-work Designer's point-and-click interface, you can easily create a visual map representing the stages in your process. The milestones include letting a client complete a Web form, instructing the system to route the form to the department responsible for the service and having a clerk approve the request.

Several aspects of e-work 4.1 differentiate it from competitors. First, a folder represents each step, so you can collect and then route several documents or other files together to keep them from getting lost. Second, properties are clearly defined in plain terms, such as "do this," which helps minimize design errors. And workflow processes can be defined offline (on almost any Microsoft Corp. Windows 95, 98 or NT workstation) and then published to a database compliant with the Open Database Connectivity standard.

The form-creation portion of e-work Designer lets you build custom electronic forms that generally match their paper counterparts, although it would be nice to see support for other third-party form applications.

Processes to Order

Typically, the part of workflow application development that's not so rapid entails integrating processes with other systems. E-work's answer is the Integration Wizard. I was impressed with how easy it was to create procedures that printed a Microsoft Word document, sent Exchange-based e-mail and read from a SQL Server 7.0 database.

For instance, after defining an item on a form, you can launch the Integration Wizard and it will immediately walk you through connecting to a SQL Server database and reading fields from a table. Similarly, Integration Wizard can guide you through building a complex conditional formula that escalated an overdue job to a supervisor. In all, there are about 150 commands you can invoke, so you won't feel limited in creating involved workflows.

When preparing a workflow for end users to access via the Internet, e-work showed good flexibility. The e-work workflow engine can run on a server separate from the Web server and database. Moreover, the system is tightly integrated with Novell Inc.'s GroupWise and the Novell NDS scheme. This means e-work will automatically read user information - such as roles - from the network so that IT managers have little administration work. That said, it would be nice to see more seamless integration with Microsoft technologies, such as Micro- soft Active Directory.

Still, the end experience for developers and users was positive. And that means agencies can respond to mandates to replace paper with electronic alternatives - which translates into improved service to remote staff and constituents, as well as lower cost. What's more, e-work's strong focus on forms makes the product suited to agencies and departments.

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