The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

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A primer on workflow

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So what is workflow? Well obviously the first thing that comes to mind are the simple messages that we get when a database event happens. However, I’d like to take some time and expand on what this means, and what the possibilities are. In HR, workflow is HUGE because of the interactions with large numbers of managers (approving timesheets, performance evals, merit increases) and large number of employees making data changes (in employee self service). While all this automation is wonderful and efficient, you need structure around it.

First of all, the obvious benefit of workflow is the elimination of manual paper handling and routing. In the database, the database agents manage all of these processes and data flows. The major pitfall (although also a benefit) is that your HR department and the organization’s managers are not going to have to abide by the workflow rules. While you can program a workflow to be somewhat flexible (if X, do this, if Y, do that), one of the points of workflow is your ability to standardize processes. In HR we know how important it is to treat similar events in similar manners. Other business groups may need more flexibility.

So lets talk workflow types. There are basically a couple of types I should mention. The first is a simple trigger event. For example, if Joe hires a new employee, the workflow automatically sends messages out to IT to get a new computer installed. The second type of workflow is a database agent that has no event. In this case, the agent is looking for data that matches your criteria. For example, you want to be alerted anytime Joe’s licenses are within 90 days of expiration. The database scans nightly and alerts you when the conditions match the program request.

OK – so what happens next? When a workflow is triggered by one of the above conditions, the workflow either sends an e-mail, or puts an action item on some sort of work list for you. These items go out to anyone or multiple people based on your design. You may also want to include approval levels for things like performance reviews. Perhaps a VP must approve all reviews before people get their raise. Eventually, there is an ending action where the workflow closes and you can wipe your hand clean of the event.

In the last few years, a new type of workflow has appeared. Due to the advent of enterprise portals, your employees may be interacting with data outside of the home database. So supply chain is notifying vendors that you need more widgets, and managers give employees raises in the 3rd party portal rather than the ESS system delivered with your HRMS. This means that an external workflow engine is processing data and routing work and approvals and your HRIS administrator no longer has control over this. As an enterprise portal, your IT department is managing these interactions, and you have lost track. Even worse, you might need an event triggered from your HRMS (license expiration) to trigger a workflow in your enterprise portal (manager notification and action). Once it’s done, the portal sends messaging back to close your original HRMS workflow. This is all very confusing, but the technology exists today to automate not only the employee interactions, but the data interactions between disparate systems.

Just keep in mind that your end result of less manual intervention and the streamlining and procedurization of process is for the better. As people talk about outsourcing to vendors, we can also talk about “outsourcing” to systems to make us more efficient. If you want to know more, here’s a great whitepaper from Lawson.

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