Proper Parallel Processing
In business workflows, if a work item needs to go through an approval chain or if multiple people need to work on different parts of the item in question, the work item is forced to travel sequentially, hitting one desk, then another, then another, until the work is completed. With the advent of Business Process Management Software (BPMS), work no longer has to travel in a straight line. Work can be branched off to multiple people simultaneously and then brought back together. This is called parallel processing.
The primary purpose of parallel processing is to take something that is currently a sequential process and make it more efficient. For example, the most common use of parallel processing is during an approval review. The typical sequential workflow would look like this:
At any point in the approval steps, the work item could be returned to Initial Review as declined with reasons given. If the reason for the decline is correctable, the process starts again and could, conceivably, loop through several declines before the final approver sees the item for the first time. In some scenarios, it’s required to go through a sequential process and perhaps parallel wouldn’t be applicable but even in a hierarchical approval chain, there is still benefit to utilizing a parallel process:
It allows the final approver to give their feedback even if the lower rung approvers haven’t. This may shorten the turnaround time if the lower rung approvers are okay with it but the top level is not (or anywhere in between).
As one or more approvers add notes or approves the work item, the other approvers can see what has been recorded and the approval process becomes a more collaborative event instead of pushing it through a straight line process.
BPMS offers two primary methods for moving this type of sequential work into a parallel style workflow.
The Copy Approach
Having work in a digital format allows for a lot of flexibility when more than one person has to review and/or process a work item. In a typical BPM workflow solution, there are Copy tasks that can be placed along a work path that will copy the original work item into multiple instances. These can then be sent to different work queues where they can be reviewed and acted upon simultaneously as shown below:
Once all of the various copies have been completed, BPMS provides for a Merge task that will combine all of the responses back into a single work item and move that item along in the workflow (or in our approval example, back to the initial reviewer). All of the copied work items are then deleted. Not only do the Merge tasks add any content that may have been placed into one of the copies, but it will also update metadata and some systems even keep track of the workflow history of each copy for auditing purposes.
The Case Management Approach
In a BPMS platform that provides true Case Management, the process is a little different. Once the item enters workflow, it is assigned to a Case folder and the content is placed on a file server or archived. Instead of copying the work item itself, the Case folder simply references the image from the file server or content repository. Based on the content type, a number of user or role specific task lists are created and notifications sent to each assigned user letting them know there is work to do. Each user completes their task individually instead of having to wait for one to finish theirs first.
This concept allows for great collaboration as each user is seeing the same case folder and in a web based interface can even refresh the folder to see the latest updates by other users as well as receive notifications when an update is made. In addition to completing tasks, users can also add content to placeholders should those be required for completing the case.
Calculating the Return on Investment (ROI)
In determining the ROI for parallel processing, the return comes in the form of a shortened process. In the paper world, time is consumed in the process flow since the work item must be completed by one person before the next can do their work. The following factors should be captured PRIOR to implementing a parallel processing flow:
The Average Hourly Wage (W) of the roles within the targeted process
The Average Amount of Time Spent (ATS) on the sequential process
Once these figures are in place, a dollar amount should be obtainable. For example:
Average Hourly Wage (W): $12.00
Average Amount of Time Spent per sequential process (ATS): 8 hours
Average Cost per sequential process (ATS x W): $96.00
The above factors become a baseline for determining the ROI for sequential processes. Once the BPMS solution is designed and implemented, the cost savings will come in the reduction of time spent on the sequential process since the work will be done in parallel. When the BPMS solution is being designed, it’s important that these are tracked within the workflow. This can be done by keying off workflow rules when an item enters into a parallel process step. In the case of the Copy approach, that would be when the work item goes through the Copy step. For the Case Management approach, the tracking would start based on a designated case type being created, one that is unique to a parallel workflow instance. This case type for parallel processing will be important to define during the analysis and design phase to ensure proper tracking. By utilizing a dashboard with the baseline factors as a constant, real time data on the time spent on the former sequential process and cost associated within the BPMS solution can be displayed. These are real, concrete dollars that add up and help justify the expense of the solution.
But I can do Parallel Processing without BPMS!
With today’s access to email, file shares, even texting, it may seem like using a BPMS provided parallel processing workflow is overkill or just not necessary but there are a few things to consider when using other methods besides BPMS for these types of processes.
No true audit trail – One of the key benefits to any type of process that is handled with BPMS is the ability to know exactly where the work item has been, when it was looked at, who looked at it and when it was completed. This is commonly a requirement to fulfill state and federal mandates and to be able to produce an audit log for legal reasons OR just for internal research. If all of the approvals are done via email or spreadsheets, this type of information either isn’t available at all or difficult to gather.
Timers, Reminders, and Escalations – Along with generating an email or text notification directly from the BPMS workflow when a new parallel process is kicked off, the BPMS platform can also set timers to make sure the work is done within a timely manner. Typically, these timers are configurable to meet the business needs. After the first timer has expired, a reminder is sent to user letting them know about the work again and if the second (or third or however many times is required by the business), the work item can automatically be escalated to a supervisor, manager or someone higher up in the organization (or simply return to the Initial Reviewer). Additionally, these escalations can key off of data within the work item. Using the approval example again, if the approval amount was above a certain dollar level, the escalation could go straight up to a VP.
No excuses – In a mostly manual process where emails are sent and shared directories are used, it’s easy for someone to claim they did not get the email or couldn’t find the documents out on the network. When these processes are placed in a BPMS platform, these excuses go away since work is directed under a structured workflow, notifications are sent and retained, timers and reminders are in place and each step within the workflow is tracked and auditable.
Work Doesn’t Have to Flow in a Straight Line
With BPMS, your work doesn’t have to follow one single line of processing. By adding parallel workflows for a single work item, organizations can improve their turnaround times and efficiency by having multiple people work the same item at the same time. Add in the fact that BPMS can provide notifications, escalations and keep track of the entire process makes this a very strong, yet basic function of business process management software.