Workflow - the intelligent glue of e-commerce

Workflow - the intelligent glue of e-commerce

By Jon Pyke

Companies across the globe are spending millions on developing electronic commerce projects and many of them have found that their initial objectives of reducing costs while increasing productivity have not been achieved. This is often because process automation is either not in place, or does not run through the entire line of necessary actions required in order to fulfil an operational request.

Quite simply, workflow automates the procedures within an organisation. The software adds control mechanisms to the existing system to ensure that the appropriate tasks are handled at the right time, by the right person and in the right order. In addition to its task management role, workflow also facilitates gathering of information and improved data flow, which benefits users throughout the organisation.

In its report "Workflow In A New Age" US-based analysts the Delphi Group comment that workflow is the 'missing link' in e-commerce; the 'critical element for ensuring the integrity of e-commerce processes'.


Workflow is, in essence, an intelligent middleware; a transparent technology which is interoperable. In other words, it can function in a cross-platform environment and bypass all format and software barriers which provides process automation to carry a request or transaction through to its conclusion.

The concept of fully automated real-time transaction processing is clearly a key business incentive across all sectors which offers highly visible rewards and a fast return on investment.

One large British corporation currently workflow-enabling its system spends between £60 and £100 and takes eight to ten days to raise each purchase order, with each transaction taking 80 'touches' from being initiated through to approval. The introduction of process automation brings enormous benefits both in terms of cost and time.

As well as introducing huge savings in resources and overheads, workflow can provide a full audit trail throughout each transaction or process, proactively generate prompts to meet deadlines at any point in the system and massively reduce the amount of paperwork required. It can also monitor procedures and transactions for business intelligence purposes, securely filtering specific data to be fed to nominated departments or people within the infrastructure.

These benefits, which combine to offer centralised process control and monitoring within any enterprise or group of enterprises, are invaluable within the e-commerce environment where speed, efficiency and accuracy are key business drivers.


One main area of e-commerce is Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), in which one company's computer queries and transmits transactions, such as orders, confirmations and invoices, to another company's computer, even if the systems would normally be incompatible.

The integration of workflow within the e-commerce environment creates a 'three-dimensional' infrastructure, or 'value chain', which offers the standard supply chain capabilities of EDI but goes a step further to enable the various points within the system to communicate with each other, as well as the hub.

One key application for workflow with the e-commerce sector is to provide the integrating force for supply chain management and the Internet.

For many businesses today, using the Internet as a key element for either local or global applications is an unknown territory. But e-commerce is not going to go away - if anything e-commerce is becoming an increasing reality and the sooner businesses take this on board the better the opportunity for enhancing their business operations.

The actual potential of Internet based e-commerce using workflow, a core enabling technology, lies in its ability to fundamentally streamline business processes while reducing capital costs.

Internet-based commerce should be viewed as inherently adding value to all business processes throughout the supply chain - workflow is the technology enabler in this process.

In the world of the supply chain and its integration with the Internet, the objective must be not to focus in on a smart front end but to ensure that all processes within the actual application are integrated to ensure that tangible benefits are realised. Unless there is an integrated solution the real benefits of workflow based e-commerce solutions within the supply chain will not be enabled - they will remain a chimera.

The overwhelming objective of workflow based e-commerce within the supply chain has to be the management of the total life cycle for the consumer. This requires accurate and timely information throughout the 'virtual enterprise' and beyond into the value chain itself - workflow technology itself enables this scenario.

As long as companies have such diverse internal applications, it will be necessary to have an IT infrastructure to link these together. This is often termed Enterprise Application Integration or EAI - this application-to-application connectivity can often be supplied by a workflow solution.

Workflow - message brokers that move messages from one application to another - tracks the movement of data, ensuring it is successfully delivered, and queue it if resources are not available. Staffware believes that the continued growth of corporate EDI and associated EAI requirements will expand the role of production class workflow. Increasingly workflow will be called upon to not only to manage internal and external communications, it will also serve as a tool for complying with new standards for conducting Internet based e-commerce and EDI.

Jon Pyke is executive vice-president and chief technical officer at Staffware, a UK-based workflow vendor.