Home|Nintex Blog|Digital Supply Chains: Part Seven – The Role of Workflow

Digital Supply Chains: Part Seven – The Role of Workflow

This blog post by ChainLink Research Chief Research Officer Bill McBeath is excerpted from the report “Getting Real with Workflow-Enabled Digital Supply Chains,” available for download here.

Previous installments of this series described numerous examples of digitization across different types of supply chain processes. Here we talk about the role that workflow plays.

The Pivotal Role of Workflow in Creating Digital Supply Chains

The end-to-end processes we’ve been discussing invariably involve data and subprocesses from many different enterprise applications and systems, as well as countless interactions that happen outside the enterprise systems in the form of phone calls, paper documents, fax, email, and so forth. Those interactions, outside of the enterprise systems, are where the digital thread breaks, in the gaps between the systems.

Workflow provides the glue that can stitch together these disparate sub-processes into one cohesive end-to-end process. Furthermore, workflow can automate the myriad interactions that happen in-between the enterprise systems —the hand-off points and manual processes where things get bogged down, where delays and errors accumulate.

Finally, workflow provides unambiguous, hi-fidelity documentation of the full end-to-end process and encoded corporate policies. Anyone with a need and authority can see exactly how things are done and, if needed, easily make changes that are reliably enforced and execute – provided the underlying workflow platform provides visualization of processes and no-coding, intuitive, visual workflow authoring and editing tools.

Workflow Spans the Gaps in the Digital Chain

  • Human beings are integral to processes—In any end-to-end process, humans are involved dozens or hundreds of times, to make judgement calls or to compensate for incompleteness in the existing integrations (such as entering or translating data from one system into another). Without workflow, these all happen ‘outside the system.’ Workflow brings automation and visibility to these steps.
  • System-to-system integration is expensive—Despite amazing gains in integration tools, it is still quite expensive to build and maintain integrations between various systems, requiring technical IT and outside resources. You get in the queue and only the highest payback integrations are done. An example is EDI, where generally only the top 20 percent of suppliers are integrated, and the rest revert to using fax, email, portals, or snail mail, to exchange documents and execute transactions. While workflow platforms can’t and shouldn’t replace all system-to-system integration, they can create integrations for some portion of currently unintegrated flows.
  • Full-blown best-in-class enterprise systems may be overkill—For example, a small business may not be able to justify buying a warehouse management system (WMS), but they still need to receive, putaway, pack, and ship things. Workflow allows them to automate one small step of those processes at a time.
  • Addressing special needs—Systems don’t always work the way you need. Sometimes they can be customized, but often it is quicker, easier, and more intuitive to build a workflow on top that does what you want.
  • Processes are built by ‘random evolution’—End-to-end processes are almost never methodically architected. Instead, they evolved somewhat randomly over time through a series of separate, point-in-time decisions. A fresh set of eyes inevitably asks, “why are we doing it this way”? The answer is usually some historical artifact that no longer applies. Every­one just accepts ‘this is the way things are done here.’ A good workflow platform makes processes clearly visible, so they can be rationalized, ‘cleaned up’, and optimized.
  • Microservices provide the interfaces, but not the orchestration—The spreading use of microservice architectures opens up the possibility to create highly customized inter-system processes. Workflow can use microservices to provide the orchestration between systems.

Not all workflow platforms are the same. The ease with which business people can understand and modify workflows makes a big difference in business agility. When programmers have to get involved, it creates risks of ‘lost in translation’ errors, as well as forcing business people to wait in the queue for IT assistance.

The ability for line of business and process owners to quickly adjust workflows is a critical competence to stay agile in today’s fast-paced world where everything is in constant flux due to competitors’ actions, emerging threats, regulatory changes, market forces, changing political winds, shifting trade policies, fluctuating demand patterns, and so forth.

The Right Tools for an Agile, Incremental Approach

An agile incremental approach requires tools that don’t require heavy IT involvement and allow business users direct control and the ability to evolve workflows themselves, one step at a time. The following capabilities enable a workflow platform to support an agile, incremental transition to a digital supply chain:

  • Graphical, no-coding workflow logic editing—Being agile requires the ability to create workflows graphically, and do all but the most sophisticated workflows without requiring coding or scripting.
  • Painless integration for workflow authors—When business users are authoring or modifying workflows, the system must make it intuitive and easy to integrate all required enterprise systems and data from other sources as well. An example is drag and drop connections to/from the relevant systems and databases.
  • Easy set up of integrations by technical staff—It also needs to be relatively easy for the technical team (whether it’s the company’s own IT staff or a system integrator) to set up the integrations with the enterprise systems and other systems and services behind the scenes. This is enabled by a workflow platform coming with a rich set of prebuilt connections, the ability to easily customize those connectors as needed (such as adjusting the semantical mappings), and the ability to straightforwardly integrate other data, APIs, and microservices from systems for which prebuilt connectors have not yet been created.
  • IoT support—With the rapid growth of IoT (Internet of Things), the ‘things’—i.e. machines, vehicles, buildings, products, and other objects—can become directly-connected, digital participants in these digital workflows. Workflow platforms should be ‘future-proofed’ to incorporate IoT devices and data streams.
  • WYSWIG Templated Document Builder—The workflow needs to be able to generate documents (e.g. emails, PDFs, Word docs, etc.) on the fly, using templates and the same integration tools used for authoring the workflows.
  • Forms—Easy to author forms are needed, available in email, web, and mobile formats.
  • Universal, mobile communications—The ability to reach users wherever they are, the way they work, on whatever devices and communications systems they use. This includes email, text messages, IVR; with strong support for various mobile devices and a responsive UI. It also includes the ability to easily connect to trading partners (very important for supply chain), without them having to load any application or have a license. As well, ‘lazy approval’ support, where the user can reply to an email or text sent by the workflow engine with a simple one-word response, like “Yes” or “No”.
  • Offline support—Mobile workflow apps need to be able to run in ‘disconnected mode’ when there is no network, with all the necessary rules and logic running locally, as well as the ability to accumulate data and actions (e.g. form submission) locally, queued up for submission as soon as a connection is established.
  • Process data capture and analytics—Workflow captures an incredibly valuable stream of data that is not available in any other system. The workflow platform should have dashboards and analytic tools for both data about the execution of processes and data extracted from content of the processes. Process execution data analytics help companies understand how often processes are run, how long each step in a process is taking (both elapsed time and working time), differences in performance between different locations or individuals, what content is used, and so forth. Process content data allows the analyst or manager to peer into the actual transactions, data entry fields, and so forth to get more specific information—such as what is the average temperature recorded at this point in this process, or what is the mix of services being requested at location X, or how many and what kind of RFQs are we sending out, and how many respondents are thereby commodity type. The value potential of these kinds of analytics is enormous and is currently largely untapped.
  • Audit trail—The system should have the ability to keep an immutable record of past actions and provide the ability to audit those actions to help ensure regulatory and other compliance, as well as provide countermeasures against fraud.

With these characteristics, the workflow platform can still conform to IT standards and fit within IT controls, yet not be constrained by IT backlogs, because it doesn’t require a programmer writing code or scripts. A typical business analyst, or even power business user can understand the tools and start to build automated flows. Not all workflow platforms have these traits—many, if not most, require some sort of script writing and coding.

Once a programmer is required, things can get lost in translation as requests are passed from the business user to the business analyst to the coder, like a game of telephone. The attributes of a workflow platform listed above are crucial if that platform is to enable a business to be truly agile in today’s fast-paced hyper-competitive world.

Preserving Institutional Knowledge

Most organizations’ processes are undocumented or poorly documented with static descriptions that quickly become out-of-date. The organiza­tion may get by with this approach while their workforce is stable. But when Joe, who has been in the warehouse for 20 years, retires, the lack of institutionalized knowledge is exposed and everyone is madly running around trying to figure out where things are and what to do. With digital workflows, you can create best practices, encoded in the workflows, making processes repeatable regardless of who comes and goes.

Implementation Partners Can Help You Get Started

There are implementation partners who have taken hundreds of companies through the journey of implement­ing workflow and digitizing their supply chain. They can help you craft your digital supply chain vision and roadmap for fully digital end-to-end processes. Equally important, through their experience, and getting to know your firm, they can guide you to the right early use cases, quickly identifying value, and the path to get there. They can help you get things up and running quickly and avoid the pitfalls.


Read the previous installments of this blog series:

  1. Digital Supply Chains: Part One – The Digital Supply Chain Imperative
  2. Digital Supply Chains: Part Two – Supplier Management, Field Service
  3. Digital Supply Chains: Part Three – Delivery Management, Contract Management, Procure-to-Pay
  4. Digital Supply Chains: Part Four – Quality, Product Info, Item Onboarding
  5. Digital Supply Chains: Part Five – Automating Quote-to-Cash, Source-to-Settle
  6. Digital Supply Chains: Part Six – Automating Concept-to-EOL, Incident-to-Resolution

The eighth and final article in this series discusses how to get started on the journey to a fully digital supply chain without getting overwhelmed.


Bill McBeath

Bill McBeath leads ChainLink's research efforts, as well as the procurement, strategic sourcing, design collaboration, and online marketplaces practices. With more than 20 years of experience in a variety of roles as a business and technology researcher and consultant, high tech executive, and software architect, Bill is recognized as a leading expert in extended-enterprise business models. Learn more about his research at http://www.chainlinkresearch.com.

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