Tech-Ready (Microsoft's internal technical conference) opened today, and I spent most of the day digging into our workflow stack, in addition to getting some hands-on experience with System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) 2006.  I'll discuss DPM in another post, though.  For now, I'd like to take a look at what's coming in our workflow stack and how it applies to the banking industry.

Just to get some context on the state of workflow within the industry today, consider these recent articles.

  • "Automated workflow is the holy grail of back office efficiency for financial services providers" according to research conducted by EasyLink Services and released to Finextra.  Based upon interviews with 50 CIOs, 63% identified workflow as the greatest opportunity, while 32% cited improved document management capabilities as the primary concern.  In the context of how Microsoft envisions workflow, I think these two priorities have some interesting linkage that I'll discuss shortly.
  • Bill McFarland, in an article on GonzoBanker, observes that "the procedures and processes involved in the creation and maintenance of borrower, note and collateral files" are still "stuck in the ’50s" in terms of automation.  He then goes on to describe a host of well-automated deposit-side business process workflows, which stand in stark contrast to the largely manual, paper-based processes associated with commercial lending.

The type of automation that Bill describes when he asks the reader to imagine a better workflow process consists of two basic categories of activities:

  • Document-centric activities, like gathering appraisals and other supporting documents into the loan file and making this material electronically available to all the parties at the bank who need it (such as credit analysts).
  • System-centric activities, like automatic updates between the lending system, the core system, and other information systems within the bank to ensure that all enterprise systems reflect current information about the borrower.

Revisiting the CIO survey, I think the people who cited workflow and those who cited document management share a common set of concerns in many cases.  Perhaps the document management crowd simply hoped for improvements in areas like version control and records management, but even these types of document-centric features are valuable only within the context of a business process--aka, a workflow--that requires this type of functionality.  Other document management features, like routing and approval of forms, are really just a specialized case of workflow.

We call workflows that combine both document-centric and system-centric activities within a unified framework "People Ready Processes" (a not-so-surprising tag line, if you watch enough TV to have seen our ads lately).  Traditionally, SharePoint has been our delivery vehicle for document-centric processes, while BizTalk handles the system-centric side of things.  This dichotomy has been a source of confusion in many cases, and throwing Windows Workflow Foundation into the mix has added to the confusion.

Moving foward, WF will be the underlying workflow infrastructure across our products, which will help to reduce confusion, and also provide a bridge between the system-centric and document-centric approaches to workflow.  For example, consider a lending scenario that starts with an online application.  The processing logic for this loan application includes a set of BizTalk rules and orchestrations that pull in data from credit agencies and other internal systems.

Assuming that (for some reason) our rules indicate that the application requires manual review and the collection of additional documentation, we could then "drop out" of the BizTalk workflow and into a SharePoint workflow that users interact with via Office.  When we've collected all of the required documents and completed the SharePoint workflow, we could then smoothly return control to the BizTalk workflow.  Because the underlying workflow engine is the same across products, our process can span a variety of server and client products, allowing us to choose the right tool for the job at each step of our workflow.