Here at GonzoBanker we spend a lot of time looking for ways to do things better. Then we share our incisive, razor-sharp insights with the GonzoWorld—because we like you! But every once in a while we come across something that makes us wonder what bankers are thinking (or, to be blunt, where their heads are). Since we’ve recently shared some good rants about strategic planning, Wal-Mart, and remote branch capture (among other matters), how about a new topic? Manual processes. Labor-intensive work which needs to be automated.
In a recent unscientific sample of 264 financial institutions, we found that only 34 percent were using automated workflow in any capacity. Even more amazing, a staggering 89 percent of those who do not use workflow now have no plans to do so in the next five years!!! With labor-saving potential that can sometimes repay an investment in a period of months, can there really be so little awareness out there? ¿Que paso, estupido?
A lot of time is spent talking about “turning information into an asset,” but workflow technology is one tool that can actually accomplish that. By making any piece of information accessible to anyone with the need to access it at any time or place, workflow has the potential to add value to content by making it better as well as easier to use. This potential exists with “structured” data such as forms or reports, or with “unstructured” data such as faxes and photographs. We’re talking about the possibility of a major shift in the way work is done, particularly financial institution paperwork. What are ya thinking about, pilgrim?
Perhaps a little education is in order—maybe there are just lots of GonzoBankers out there who don’t know what workflow is? (If you do know and just have been too lazy to do anything about this tool, we have some thoughts for you further down the page!) Listen up!
What is electronic workflow?
Electronic workflow systems are rules-based electronic document routing systems that enable users to process work more efficiently and more accurately than with paper processing. From processing applications to approving expense reports to managing remittance processing, workflow is applicable whenever successive points of input or action are required in order to complete a task, a process, or procedure—which makes workflow highly relevant to much of what goes on in the typical financial institution. Workflow streamlines collaboration, and many workflow systems also integrate with (and sometimes provide the backbone for) e-commerce and CRM systems.
In a workflow system, the paper stays put. Documents are scanned into an imaging system (unless they are already in electronic form, such as HTML documents from a web site) and moved electronically from one in-basket to another within the system. Routing electronic documents is as easy as dragging and dropping them into another electronic in-basket. A user’s ability to view or modify documents is defined by the system designer or architect, and electronic validation of in-baskets provides for check-in, check-out and status notations (e.g. “certified” receipts) where necessary.
Documents can be added or deleted from an in-basket, depending on the user rights that have been established. Electronic “sticky notes” may be added, modified or deleted; a user may protect or “lock” documents when they’re in use but incomplete; and documents can be printed, e-mailed or faxed from within the workflow system. Pretty neat, n’est ce pas?
How are workflow systems built?
Workflow systems are built to match each organization’s unique processing methods. The custom programming required by early workflow systems has generally been eliminated—through the use of a configuration toolbar and grid map, workflow processing steps can be designed quickly, sometimes within minutes, by in-house, non-technical staff. Drag-and-drop interfaces allow trained users to establish and maintain dynamic document workflows independent of technical support or programming staff. Right-click mouse functions and configuration windows allow business subject matter experts to design automated workflow processes that can mirror (or improve upon!) existing processes, without geographical restrictions.
Workflow architects also define “work steps,” which can be a system task (such as receipt of an automated response from a credit bureau), a specific user activity (such as filling in an electronic form or clicking on a box indicating completion of the review of a document), or simply the passage of time (such as expiration of a timer indicating that a particular task has been idle for an hour or a day). Workflow designers also define the rules and actions that determine how documents will be routed upon completion of all work steps.
How does a workflow system work?
Upon electronic receipt of a scanned-in document, or upon manual initiation of processing by a user, workflow systems commence routing electronic documents through the different stages of a business process as each increment of user or system work is completed. A document can also be configured to enter a processing cycle at a specific point and then automatically initiate further workflow, such that receipt of an email, fax, or electronic form (such as an HTML document from a Web site) can trigger a workflow process unattended.
Typically organized as a “queue” or series of steps to be performed, these are among the features workflow systems offer:
Many workflow systems also provide parallel routing, which enables multiple users to access the same document or set of documents and simultaneously perform their respective tasks. When each task is completed, documents can be automatically routed to the next associate’s in-basket with an assigned task.
Most systems also allow workflow to be performed via secure Internet or VPN connections, so that users located in other geographic settings or working remotely can be productive regardless of physical location. Think what that capability alone could do for business resumption and contingency planning!
Emails can be generated (automatically, of course) to provide notifications that specific tasks are complete, need to be completed, or have exceeded the time allowed for completion. Calendar modules automatically account for holidays, vacations, temporary workers/shifts, and other schedule exceptions.
Special-purpose system or “server-side” queues handle background processes such as ticklers, timers, and other “data processing” functions.
Work can be equally distributed by automatically assigning a specific percentage of work to each individual, by assigning work to those individuals with the smallest backlog, or to those who have been idle most recently. Managers can monitor workflow status in real-time—even work being performed by remote offices or workers—and make automatic or immediate manual realignments. Management reporting and the ability to produce ad hoc performance reports are provided.
Workflow systems can be acquired from a variety of sources. While no one source is right for every institution, workflow is typically associated with document imaging systems (since it is a somewhat natural outgrowth of handling paper electronically instead of manually), via CRM systems as an outgrowth of handling “fulfillment” of customer-initiated requests, or via free-standing systems that interface to all other systems. Workflow is also typically embedded within loan decisioning and platform automation systems.
What are some key characteristics of a good workflow system?
It’s not clear why electronic workflow technology hasn’t caught on more than it has in banking. It is mature technology, having been around for some 10 years or more, it can absolutely revolutionize business processes, the cost is typically moderate (most document imaging systems now offer an electronic workflow module), and efficiency can be dramatically improved while service levels are enhanced.
Part of bankers’ hesitation may be that workflow requires some degree of customization and integration with packaged applications to be effective. However, this short-term “headache” is well worth the potential process improvement benefits.
So, for the passive bankers out there, get with the program! Get your head out of your armpit—there’s serious money on the line here!!! Whose money do you think you’re wasting, anyway?
Thanks! I’m better now. And if you’re among the sharp minority already using electronic workflow, as Gilda Radner’s Emily Littela would say… Never mind.