In today’s highly competitive and digital era, the need for efficiency and effectiveness is paramount.

Organisations are confronted with the challenge of ensuring standards, controls, compliance and consistency and limiting their exposure to risk.

Globalisation and the rapid growth of developing economies has intensified competition putting pressure on organisations intellectually and to further reduce costs, increase business value and profitability.

The importance of these business imperatives is now even more pronounced given the current difficult economic conditions. Whilst the worst is over, we are not out of the woods yet. Businesses need to reconsider their business strategy to ensure they emerge as healthy survivors.

Based on previous trends, it is well acknowledged that organisations that invest during a recession are more likely to thrive, and crucially tend to be better equipped to capitalise on the new business opportunities that present themselves as economic recovery takes place.

Adopting IT systems, which to some extent are able to embed the controls and compliance requirements whilst presenting a standard consistent approach for the vital, but repetitive tasks of employees, is one approach to meeting these business challenges efficiently and cost effectively. These are often referred to as workflow systems.

Workflow technology is facilitating new business models

Historically, the adoption of workflow technology for automation of business processes has been driven by the need to increase operational efficiency, cost savings, productivity, ensure best practices and manage risk.

However, the recent growth of Web Services has added another dimension increasing the level of sophistication and automation that workflow technology can offer. This is now changing the way business is being conducted in almost every industry sector – from manufacturing, retail, public sector and healthcare through to professional services such as banking, financial services and legal.

Today, we are seeing the evolution of new business models as workflow technology is providing a platform for innovation to help deliver against the traditional, core objectives and values of business. Also, in the short term, optimising business processes is perhaps the quickest way to reduce costs and increase competitive advantage.

For instance, recently Albemarle & Bond, the largest pawnbroker in the UK, announced that it is implementing a financial management system with integrated cash flow forecasting, electronic procurement, business intelligence and document management and imaging functionality. This new system will enable Albemarle & Bond to reduce manually intensive administration, manage its cash more effectively to support its future growth plans and aid financial and corporate decision making.

Similarly, in manufacturing, workflow automation is changing the way plants are run and managed. It is enabling plants to implement best practices so that production interruptions are minimised, issues resolved in the fastest and best possible manner in order to maximise output.

In essence, by streamlining processes and workflow, organisations can align technology with business objectives to meet their financial goals, irrespective of industry sector. In addition, they can give themselves the agility to meet the evolving demands of business, be it through new product development or enhanced customer service, to stay competitive in the marketplace.

Regulatory complexity and compliance

Today’s complex regulatory landscape has a huge impact on the way business is and will be conducted in the future.

The recently coined ‘Tesco Law’ is a case in point. Reforms under the Legal Services Act 2007, which come into effect in 2011, will enable supermarkets or any organisation for that matter, to own law firms or offer legal services directly to their customers. The only way these large organisations will be able to offer such services in high volume is by adopting workflow.

Consider this scenario. Once launched, advisors at Tesco in any one day will potentially be dealing with a range of legal cases – anything from accident advice to employment to family law. This means that advisors will need access to document templates, the latest legal information and processes for every individual legal practice area.

Further, in view of frequently changing legislation, they will need to be able to make changes to their processes and documentation quickly and easily. Without automation, efficient and effective service delivery will be next to impossible.

An automated system will simplify complex and time consuming litigation processes, provide failsafe checks to ensure important deadlines are not overlooked and crucially offer supervisors complete control over workflows across the organisation’s legal teams. Because workflow technology embeds business rules, it allows corporate policy to be enforced, reducing guesswork and aiding the implementation of best practice by employees.

In effect, what this means is that by using workflow technology, new businesses entering the legal sector with no prior market experience, will be able to use automated knowledge to rapidly deliver a highly specialised service.

The same argument applies to international business. In theory the European Union is one single harmonised market, the reality is far from true. European laws combined with country-specific laws makes compliance even more challenging for organisations. By adopting workflow centric systems, businesses can turn compliance into an operational strength and a competitive advantage.

For instance, workflow technology enables identification of patterns and similarities across regulatory requirements and reduces duplication effort, delivering cost efficiencies in managing exposure to risk and non-compliance, which carries huge financial penalties.

Back-office efficiencies enable savings, harness intellectual capital and improve operational management

The back-office efficiencies delivered by streamlined business processes significantly reduce operational costs, relieving valuable resources for more strategic and innovative activity. For example, in the face of tightening funding, the UK public sector has recently been tasked with achieving £7.2 billion annual savings from government IT and back-office operations, whilst continuing to enhance front line services.

As a tried and tested way of achieving operational efficiencies, workflows and re-engineered business processes will play a crucial role in helping the public sector meet these goals.

Finally, retaining and harnessing intellectual capital in business is imperative and will only increase in importance. Integrated workflows help businesses manage the inherent knowledge residing within organisations, be it in the technology systems deployed or with their people.

All the information and knowledge can be captured and organised on an ongoing basis without conscious user intervention, as part of the everyday business management. Therefore, in the event that staff members leave the organisation, the intellectual capital always remains in the business.

In addition, by integrating management information into day-to-day operational procedures, organisations will ensure that they have a finger on the pulse of their business, giving them the flexibility and agility to make well-informed and timely business decisions. To this end, workflows can be designed to give organisations a view on every aspect of their business including KPIs, budgeting and business forecasting.

Furthermore, data can be collected and collated so that it expressly meets the auditing and transparency requirements of compliance. As a result, organisations can turn an arduous process of data collection, business intelligence gathering and management into a standardised and simplified procedure – one that is a matter of course.

Automation is the way forward

The global, competitive and online business environment will push the boundaries of efficiency, productivity, cost savings, risk and knowledge management across industry sectors. These objectives will drive automated knowledge-led business models, which in turn will raise the bar for business and technological innovation.

Organisations big and small, wishing to compete successfully, have no option but to underpin their businesses with workflow centric systems to become leaner, more innovative, strategic and agile. It is the only way to respond to change rapidly and stay competitive.