Workflow projects are fascinating projects to undertake. They touch so many aspects of the business analysis role such as business strategy, organisation models, process and data. They also offer many potential benefits to the business. Yet it seems to me that these types of projects remain an unpopular choice amongst the business analysis population. As workflow offers the BA a chance to consider static and dynamic aspects of business systems, using a variety of techniques and work across organisational boundaries, I find it hard to understand why more BAs are not queuing up for the opportunity to do this work.
Workflow projects are becoming increasingly popular as they offer a means of monitoring, controlling and optimising processes through IT automation. They have come in and out of fashion depending on business trends and improvements in technology. Workflow also has a habit of re-inventing itself periodically. Currently the phrase ‘work flow’ is seen as outdated – people get much more excited by phrases such as Business Process Management, Process Driven Architecture or Enterprise Case Management.
There was an initial flurry of workflow projects undertaken in the early 1990s with interest driven by the trend towards outsourcing, automatically pushing simple well-defined work across geographic and time barriers, whilst maintaining control of it. The current economic downturn has focussed business on increasing productivity and better operational reporting. It has also brought into play the automation of more complex processes and the need for workflow to dynamically configure the subsequent information gathering tasks within the process and to schedule these appropriately. There is still an ongoing desire to automate all routine manual steps and bringing subject matter experts into Centres of Excellence which concentrate on decision-making that requires human intervention and subjective judgement, and therefore, cannot as yet be supported by automation. There is an element of work flow in most business systems change projects – whether explicit in large Corporates that have workflow systems or implicit in the movement of work through a process. Analysing such business systems requires a holistic approach – the domain of the BA.
Process-related analysis for improvement or transformation is one of the mainstays of our work, and in general many BAs are keen to operate in this area. Process analysis for workflow, however, does not engender quite the same warm fuzzy feelings. The perception amongst the BA population is that these projects are IT-led, with heavy involvement of third parties, usually the vendor of the workflow software being implemented. Where third parties take the lead they tend to utilise their own analyst resource as they are familiar with the technology and are able to deliver quickly using their in-house tried and tested methods, tools and techniques. However, they lack in-depth knowledge of the organisation and its business model.
Further, this approach also means the home grown BAs do not build up an in-house capability for workflow projects and if one comes their way they tend to be unsure how best to approach it. On the other hand, the opposite effect can also be seen, with the in house BAs becoming so specialist in the workflow tool and so wedded to the techniques associated with it, that they find it difficult to keep their business focus and use their modelling skills on other projects.
There are a number of project types for which BAs build up a kit bag of analysis tools and techniques but workflow doesn’t appear to be one of them. Workflow is seen as a specialist area, requiring specific “technical” skills, over and above any domain knowledge. Information and guidance on how best to approach workflow projects is not easy to come by. The body of knowledge available on the subject can get very mathematical and major on petri nets, which is not something we tend to utilise as BAs. It seldom features in BA texts or is discussed at BA conferences, and so maintains its perception as a black art.
However, I feel this dubious accolade is not deserved. Personal experience of workflow has led me to believe that there are relatively few differences between dealing with business analysis for workflow and for any other project. Workflow can be delivered using a number of standard techniques.
Workflow projects are exciting places to be: they tend to look at processes end to end; they cut across divisional boundaries; and they can deliver great results. They offer challenges and stretch to the aspirational BA. Successful implementation of workflow projects relies on quality in workflow modelling and analysis. With the increasing number of workflow projects around we need to dispel the myths and encourage BAs to step up to the challenge that they are so well-placed to meet