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Patterns in a Business Workflow Automation System

In a commercial entity usually hundreds of business processes occur on a daily basis for deriving economic benefits. Several business processes include information systems, humans, networks, and paper trails for completion of the processes from their start to their finish. In order to improve productivity and for proper record-keeping more and more of these processes are being digitized. While business process management software helps manage business processes, business workflow automation systems are key enablers of digitized business workflows where all transactions are electronic which helps enforce accountability, data integrity, and non-repudiation. Moreover, electronic databases can store all activities in the workflow for future audit and process improvement activities. In our experience with business workflow automation systems’ development we identified ten basic patterns of electronic workflows that are essential to business processes in several organizations. These patterns are described below. Also described later are a few of the features of dMACQ’s own workflow system where some of these patterns are embedded.

When describing the workflow patterns we used symbols as mentioned in the legend below.

1. Sequential Pattern

This is a linear pattern with fixed steps where one step follows the other. This is applicable for simple workflows. An invoice payment is an example of this: invoice is submitted to Finance for payment, the Finance department verifies that the service or good has been provided, issues the check, and then mails the check to the vendor; these steps are in sequence.

2. Single Feedforward Pattern

Here there is a path from one step to a step that is more than one step away from the current one in the process. Let’s consider this sequence: invoice is submitted to Finance for payment, Finance department issues a check, and then mails the check which is then received by the Customer. The Finance department also sends an intimation to the Customer by email - this intimation is an example of feedforward pattern since there are now at least two paths out of the Issue Check activity, with one path going to the next stage and the other path going to a future stage in the process.

3. Single Feedback Pattern

If there is a path from a future step to a preceding step then a single feedback pattern exists. Let's take an example of a legal contract where specific clauses of an agreement are prepared by the Legal department as an initial workflow step and then sent forward to a Commercial approver. The Commercial approver reviews and sends his revisions to the preparer. If the Commercial approver has no revisions to make then the agreement is sent to the Vendor.

4. Multiple Feedforward Pattern or Parallel Workflow Pattern

There are multiple paths leaving a step in a process and going to steps that are not immediately the next one in the sequence. Multiple steps originating from a single step is also called as Parallel Workflow Pattern. Businesses often require urgent/immediate/escalated approval processes such as, for example, urgent provisioning of raw material for unplanned production needs. In such situations, authorised users can move the workflow to multiple business approvers and take simultaneous approvals. As shown in the figure below, upon receipt of payment by the Accounting department, both the Customer and the Warehouse are informed, the former for confirming receipt, and the latter for making the shipment.

5. Multiple Feedback Pattern

There are multiple paths leaving a step in a process and going back to one or more previous steps in a work-flow. Collaborative-work situations especially in document preparations for e.g. tender documents, agreements, contract etc. are use cases where such multiple feedback patterns are commonly applied. Real-estate, construction, and infrastructure/project businesses typically work on large contracts and documentation where multiple functions need to provide inputs to a common document. As shown in the figure below, after the Finance department verifies salary impact, this is informed to both HR and the Employee who are in the earlier steps of Leave Request workflow.

6. Multiple Termination Pattern

Termination of a workflow can be linked to an approval, rejection, or even a hold for that workflow transaction. Further, such termination options for individual patterns can be provided to approved users at desired workflow steps. Mostly all business workflows will need such multiple termination pattern to align with the day to day operation and business decisions. As shown in the figure below, the vendor agreement may be terminated by either Purchase or Legal before approval by the Finance department.