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process management

workflow, workload, work control

we offer three perspectives material links

Process Modelling
Process/Organization Design
Process Implementation
Process Control



Workflow represents a way of managing office-based work in terms of the demands of the individual work item. It therefore focuses on prompt and effective response (resolution and expediting of each transaction).
Workload represents a way of managing office-based work in terms of the available resources and structures. It therefore focuses on throughput and utilization.
Work control represents the management balance between workflow and workload. This is an important strategic issue for many organizations.

On this page, we shall be focusing on office work, although similar principles apply to other forms of organized work.

on this page

3 perspectives
management dilemmas
work control
on other pages

systems engineering for business process change

Process Modelling (pdf)

Business Process Improvement (pdf)


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internet links

Business Processes Resource Centre- BPR, Reengineering

Workflow Management Coalition

what is a process?

A process is a connected set of activities with a coherent purpose.

Processes are traditionally thought of in sequential terms. The so-called value chain is a sequential process in which each step contributes in an incremental way to the purpose or outcome of the whole process. (But new business processes are often too complex to be accounted for in these terms.)
more Software Process Improvement: Process-in-Use versus Process-on-File

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3 Perspectives

veryard projects > process management > workflow, workload, work control > 3 perspectives

work control
Workflow focuses on the whole transaction. 

Workflow management can be directed at strategic goals:

  • customer satisfaction
  • worker empowerment
  • partner relationships
Workflow can be understood at multiple levels:
  • from task to task.
  • from worker to worker
  • from department to department
  • from company to company
Managed utilization of working resources 

Resource specialization

Resource allocation

Task mix

Conflict between workflow and workload 

Balance between workflow and workload

Authority and autonomy

Priorities between competing processes

System design implications

In some offices, the workflow perspective is dominant. The urgency and nature of the incoming events constrain the work. Everything is oriented and geared towards responding to these events.

In some offices, the workload perspective is dominant. The resources, capabilities and structures constrain the work. You cannot do the work any other way without acquiring new resources or additional capabilities. There is no flexibility in the existing structures.

In some offices, however, neither of these perspectives is dominant. The work is not wholely determined by capabilities or by events. There is some freedom of choice within the office, to organize the work. We might imagine that it is one of the goals of technology (including CSCW) to achieve this happy state.

We are then faced with the management question: who is to exercise this freedom of choice. Sometimes it will be left to the individual workers to sequence and organize their work, within some defined limits. Sometimes managers will wish, for various reasons, to impose some standards on the work, in addition to the constraints implicit in the work itself. These are issues of autonomy and authority, sometimes called deontic issues.

Management Dilemmas

A purely event-driven workflow faces the following dilemma. Either you've got enough excess capability / capacity to deliver the required quality of service even at peaks of demand or contingency, or service degrades. Think of an Accident & Emergency ward in a typical hospital. Think of websites that had to be taken off-line because the installed boxes couldn't cope with unexpectedly high traffic. 

Margaret Thatcher used to complain when television crews brought what she saw as excess people to film interviews at Number 10, and used this as evidence of chronic overmanning. But look at this from a risk perspective - imagine a journalist losing an interview with the prime minister because of some technical problem, and having to explain this to the managing editor.

A workload may be optimized for cost, or for security/reliability, but possibly not both. Such processes are usually (but not always) fairly inflexible. Workload depends on a reasonable backlog of work. Sometimes the workload is designed around the assumption of a balanced mix of demands. There are risks relating to the length of the backlog, and also its composition. Think of an oil refinery, designed on the assumption that the demand for petrol will be between x% and y% of the total mix. Or a hospital operating theatre, designed on the assumption that a given percentage of operations will require a given piece of equipment. 

Note: a hospital also depends on a reasonably stable mix of three kinds of work: urgent and unpredictable (accidents and emergencies), planned (childbirth, long-term repeated treatments such as chemotherapy) and moveable / discretionary (hip replacements).

Top-down directive leadership may be more effective in a crisis, or with inexperienced staff, but doesn't provide space for local autonomy, responsiveness, flexibility or growth. While bottom-up evolution of working practices arguably cannot sustain bold or radical initiatives. This seems to imply a contradiction between BPR (top-down change) and TQM (bottom-up change facilitated from the top). (Such a contradiction has been widely prophesied by management gurus.)
Process design can make an organisation more robust or it can make it more vulnerable. Notions of robustness or vulnerability relate to time horizon, as well as scope. Short-term robust may equate to long-term vulnerability, and vice versa. (In the short-term, the triceratops was robust, the mouse vulnerable. But the mouse survived.) 


Workflow focuses on the whole transaction. 

Workflow management can be directed at strategic goals:

  • customer satisfaction
  • worker empowerment
  • partner relationships
Workflow can be understood at multiple levels:
  • from task to task.
  • from worker to worker
  • from department to department
  • from company to company

Workflow focuses on the whole transaction.

Workflow management can be directed at strategic goals.

How does this notion of empowered work fit with traditional notions of quality management, as represented by ISO 9000?

Workflow can be understood at several levels.

Several perspectives on workflow

How important is workflow to your organization? Should you be doing or planning anything in this area? What do you see as the main issues, pains, benefits of managing workflow? 

Which form(s) of workflow are most relevant to your organization? Who is best placed to do the analysis: user, IT, HR, … ?

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change


veryard projects > process management > workflow, workload, work control > workload

Managed utilization of working resources From a workload management perspective. the main preoccupation is in the utilization and scheduling of resources.

The office manager needs to make decisions to maintain the throughput and efficiency of the office.

  • Is the backlog of work increasing or decreasing?
  • Should we pay people overtime to clear the backlog?
  • Should we schedule other lower-priority work?
Resource specialization Do we want to have some resources dedicated to particular types of activity?

This question applies both to people and to machines.

    We may want everyone in the office to be able to handle every stage of the work, or we may want people to specialize in different stages.

    We may devote one computer to message handling or file handling, or we may put some of this work onto each of the computers on the office network.

Specialist resources can sometimes be more efficient at given levels of throughput, but may be much less flexible when throughput levels or other circumstances change. Employers are increasingly keen on negotiating flexible working arrangements with staff, and usually encourage staff to become competent at a range of tasks.

If the required range of tasks is coherent and manageable, then the employee may gain in job satisfaction.

Resource allocation In a large office, there may be many people capable of handling a particular case. One of the key functions of workflow/workload management is to assign incoming events to resources.

From a workflow management perspective, this is done to expedite the transaction. From a workload management perspective, this is done to balance the load on the available resources. These perspectives may not always coincide.

In the worst case, this can create a positive disincentive to individual efficiency. If Jo can complete a task in 12 minutes, and Chris can complete the same task in 11 minutes, then a workflow-oriented manager will only direct incoming cases to Jo when Chris is already busy. Whereas a workload-oriented manager will share the work more fairly between Jo and Chris.

Task mix A variety of tasks helps with utilization as well as job satisfaction..

For example, if you've got ten minutes before a meeting, there's no point starting a long and complicated task.

However, in some cases, a level of self-discipline or supervision may be required, otherwise you can spend the whole day on small tasks, and never get your teeth into the large tasks.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Work Control: Workflow versus Workload

veryard projects > process management > workflow, workload, work control > work control

Conflict The workflow perspective focuses on prompt and effective resolution of each case.

The workload perspective focuses on throughput, performance metrics and cost-effective processing of a large number of cases.

There are many situations where these different perspectives collide.

    For example, in book publishing, the author wishes to get his book into print as quickly as possible,  But the publisher wants to keep down the cost of support services, such as editing, proof-reading, indexing, cover design, typesetting, and printing, in an industry where rush jobs are charged at a premium rate.

    In the health service, medical staff are concerned about individual patients, while adminstrators are concerned about bed occupancy and waiting lists.

An important strategic issue for such organizations is to balance these two perspectives.
Balance One way of thinking about work management is that it requires a coordination between supply and demand.

The organization of demand is represented by workflow: this is the work that is required.

The organization of supply is represented by workload: this is what supplies the required work.

In some cases, the available resources constrain the organization of work. In the short term at least, there is no other way to carry out the work.

In other cases, there are several ways to organize the available resources to carry out the work. The work is constrained by the demands placed on the work, which are so pressing as to give no room for choice in the response.

In other cases again, an office has considerable freedom of action to organize the work.

Authority &
Where the organization of the work is not totally constrained by the supply structure (the available resources), or by demand structure (the urgency of the demand), then there are some choices to be made.

This raises the question: who exercises these choices? Is it appropriate to leave these choice up to the individual workers? Or is there a need for consistency and coordination, so that the choices need to be made at a higher level within the management hierarchy, and imposed on the work?

In some cases, management may impose working practices on a working environment.They may create a range of incentives and inhibitors for staff, or define authorization mechanisms for exceptional cases.Computer systems may be designed to help enforce such management edicts.

Some resources may be used by different processes. Sometimes one process has higher priority than another.

Software developers often share some computing and network resources with operating mission-critical systems. It is often taken for granted that production takes precedence over maintenance, and corrective maintenance takes precedence over normal software development.

Resources are often cheaper if you are willing to accept a lower level of availability, or a reduced guarantee of service.

& Control
Many computer system designers have a covert (and sometimes unconscious) agenda. Some believe in control, and will add controls to the system as if on principle. Others believe in liberation, and will try to design systems that encourage horizontal communications and subvert hierarchical authority. (Many of these designers are sadly ineffectual, and often unwittingly achieve the opposite of their intentions.)

There are important strategic issues at stake, and these should not be left to the bad habits and untested assumptions of computer system designers.

Front office
Back office
A common organization pattern is to separate the work into "front office and "back office". The front office is customer-facing and possibly workflow-driven, the back office is almost certainly workload-driven. The structural issues here are to do with maintaining loose coupling and synchronization between front office and back office, as well as in the information systems supporting both.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Workload and Backlog

veryard projects > process management > workflow, workload, work control > backlog

Zero Backlog. Campers know that there are two types of wood for a campfire. Pinewood burns quickly and brightly, and leaves no residue. Deciduous wood burns more slowly, and produces glowing embers that are great for cooking. The "backlog" is a large piece of deciduous wood that keeps the fire going - especially when the night gets colder and damper.

The internet business is fast, bright, and views backlog with scorn. When times get hard, it has no staying power.

Traditional manufacturing has always maintained a backlog. This allows factories to work at a regular pace, without tight coupling to the fluctuations of demand. When times are hard, you can continue to produce stock for future demand - at least for a while.

Outsourcing has often been seen as a better way of shielding a company against fluctuations of demand. Just-in-time supply chains take pride in the absence of inventory and backlog. But there are limits to this approach. "Inventory-free companies do not escape the business cycle or disruptions in demand." (Peter Martin, Financial Times, September 24th, 2001)

Lack of backlog is also a feature of the service industry generally. After the events of September 11th, travel plans were curtailed, and normally crowded airports and aeroplanes were suddenly half-empty. The airline industry has no buffer against such sudden cuts in demand.

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This page last updated on September 27th, 2001
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