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Source: Wikipedia

Workflow automation

A workflow is a depiction of a sequence of operations, declared as work of a person, a group of persons,[1] an organization of staff, or one or more simple or complex mechanisms. Workflow may be seen as any abstraction of real work, segregated in workshare, work split or other types of ordering. For control purposes, workflow may be a view on real work under a chosen aspect,[2] thus serving as a virtual representation of actual work. The flow being described often refers to a document that is being transferred from one step to another.

A workflow is a model to represent real work for further assessment, e.g., for describing a reliably repeatable sequence of operations. More abstractly, a workflow is a pattern of activity enabled by a systematic organization of resources, defined roles and mass, energy and information flows, into a work process that can be documented and learned.[3][4] Workflows are designed to achieve processing intents of some sort, such as physical transformation, service provision, or information processing.

Workflow concepts are closely related to other concepts used to describe organizational structure, such as silos, functions, teams, projects, policies and hierarchies. Workflows may be viewed as one primitive building block of organizations. The relationships among these concepts are described later in this entry.

The term workflow is used in computer programming to capture and develop human-to-machine interaction. Workflow (management) software aims to provide end users with an easier way to orchestrate or describe complex processing of data in a visual form, much like flow charts but without the need to understand computers or programming.

Related concepts

The concept of workflow is closely related to several other fields in operations research and other fields that study the nature of work, either quantitatively or qualitatively, such as artificial intelligence (in particular, the sub-discipline of AI planning) and ethnography. The term workflow is more commonly used in particular industries, such as printing, and professional domains, where it may have particular specialized meanings.

Processes: A process is a more specific notion than workflow, and can apply to physical or biological processes, for instance. In the context of concepts surrounding work, a process may be distinguished from a workflow by the fact that it has well-defined inputs, outputs and purposes, while the notion of workflow may apply more generally to any systematic pattern of activity (such as all processes occurring in a machine shop).

Planning and scheduling: A plan is a description of the logically necessary, partially-ordered set of activities required to accomplish a specific goal given certain starting conditions. A plan, when augmented with a schedule and resource allocation calculations, completely defines a particular instance of systematic processing in pursuit of a goal. A workflow may be viewed as an (often optimal or near-optimal) realization of the mechanisms required to repeatedly execute the same plan.

Flow control is a control concept applied to workflows to divert from static control concepts applied to stock, that simply managed the buffers of material or orders, to a more dynamic concept of control, that manages the flow speed and flow volumes in motion and in process. Such orientation to dynamic aspects is the basic foundation to prepare for more advanced job shop controls, as just-in-time or just-in-sequence.

In transit visibility is a monitoring concept that applies to transported material as well as to work in process or work in progress, i.e., workflows.

Workflow improvement theories

The key driver to gain benefit from the understanding of the workflow process in a business context is that the throughput of the workstream path is modelled in such a way as to evaluate the efficiency of the flow route through internal silos with a view to increasing discrete control of uniquely identified business attributes and rules and reducing potential low efficiency drivers. Evaluation of resources, both physical and human is essential to evaluate hand-off points and potential to create smoother transitions between tasks. Several workflow improvement theories have been proposed and implemented in the modern workplace. These include: Six Sigma
Total Quality Management
Business process reengineering
Lean systems
As a way of bridging the gap between the two, significant effort is being put into defining workflow patterns that can be used to compare and contrast different workflow engines across both of these domains.

Workflow components

A workflow can usually be described using formal or informal flow diagramming techniques, showing directed flows between processing steps. Single processing steps or components of a workflow can basically be defined by three parameters:

input description: the information, material and energy required to complete the step
transformation rules, algorithms, which may be carried out by associated human roles or machines, or a combination
output description: the information, material and energy produced by the step and provided as input to downstream steps.

Components can only be plugged together if the output of one previous (set of) component(s) is equal to the mandatory input requirements of the following component. Thus, the essential description of a component actually comprises only in- and output that are described fully in terms of data types and their meaning (semantics). The algorithms' or rules' description need only be included when there are several alternative ways to transform one type of input into one type of output possibly with different accuracy, speed, etc.

When the components are non-local services that are invoked remotely via a computer network, such as Web services, additional descriptors (such as QoS and availability) also must be considered.

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