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Source: Email-based Workflow; More like Work Trickle

An important part of my youth was spent working on projects with my dad and my grandfathers. Being a little kid, my main responsibility was to fetch tools. (Eventually the adults realized I could be trusted to lift heavy objects and clean up after the work was done, too.) The thing is, we didn’t always have the right tools for every job but, when we did, things went a whole lot smoother. We finished in less time, and everyone seemed to get along better.

Many companies rely heavily on email as their “tool” to manage document-based workflow processes. A document is created and emailed to a person or group to review, edit, approve and forward to the next person or group in the process. This all seems pretty simple on the surface, but when compared to ECM (Enterprise Content Management) workflow, email workflow has some serious deficiencies.
The differences are clear from the start, when the required document is initially created. If only one person ever creates new documents, it’s easy to make sure the most current version of the document kicks off the workflow. However, if multiple people initiate document workflows, it becomes a challenge to make sure everyone uses the correct and most up-to-date version of the document. (For more on this, see one of our previous blogs.) If someone initiates the process with an incorrect version of a document, delays and the potential for errors both increase. With most ECMs all up-to-date documents are kept in the system, so any user who initiates a document process automatically kicks off the right document every time.

Diligently filtering and prioritizing emails is also a challenge in an email-based workflow. Assuming the email doesn’t go to Junk (or my new favorite “Clutter”), editing a document and emailing it onto the next person in the process is really no big deal – as long as all the people know all the rules for who should get the document next. For the folks who have been around a while, this may be ingrained, but training and execution becomes a challenge for new people. For ECMs that provide workflow, all of this “process knowledge” translates into workflow rules that map to your processes. As a matter of fact, a good ECM will have the intelligence to automatically associate documents with rules so everyone in the process doesn’t have to know—and remember—all the steps.

And that leads us to tracking. How do you track the progress of documents in your team’s inboxes? The only way is to ask each individual—either in person or with another email. You get the idea. ECM document workflow keeps track of documents during and after processes. This is where major financial advantages of an ECM start compounding. Tracking allows you to measure productivity and make sure nothing “slips through the cracks.”

A prospect recently contacted us because he had an important order sit in an employee’s inbox for two weeks while that person was on vacation. Heroic efforts from the sales and customer service team saved the order, but not without expense. A simple ECM workflow could have been set up to automatically notify a supervisor or even move the document to another person after a specific period of time. The ability to automate alerts and escalation within an ECM workflow is something that just can’t be replicated with email alone.

When you factor in additional ECM capabilities such as version control, retention, audit reporting, and complex process rules, email workflows can begin to look like a hindrance. The bottom line here is to match the right tool to your work. And if you don’t have the right tool, it’s never too late to take a look at what might be available.