This article was originally commissioned for the February edition of the Actuarial Post.
The recent floods that engulfed the Somerset Levels were shocking in their effects and all our sympathies lie with those whose homes have been destroyed and who now face many months of hard work to try to restore their lives to some semblance of normality. The planners of the Environmental Protection Agency also face a difficult time, post the blame game, in trying to improve the flow of the rivers and cater for the dangers to the eco-system from the run-off from surrounding hills as well as the effects of excessively high tides moving in from the sea during times of storm.
While not of the same direct human consequence, nevertheless, it is easy to see a simple parallel in the flow of work throughout an organisation. How often do we see processes in place that become overwhelmed by external events and fail to function smoothly? Over-reliance on individuals to decide priorities when the situation is under stress and changing fast is a recipe for disaster within an organisation; the pressure can frequently lead to mistakes that make the situation worse as people try to take shortcuts in order to relieve the load. This kind of ad-hoc response can quickly exacerbate the problem and runs the risk of leading to even more mistakes and so on in a vicious, downward spiral.
Many organisations are still operating with processes that were designed in a previous era using older technologies and an old fashioned approach to customer services. Often these processes are operating without any true metrics on their efficiency. This makes it extremely difficult to see the bottlenecks that have evolved over the years in their business processes that ultimately hamper their ability to deliver an efficient, modern, and streamlined service to their customers.
The answer to this problem lies in the better use of technology in order to control and prioritise the flow of work throughout an organisation. There are a wide variety of workflow solutions currently available in the market, which can be used to optimise the performance of the company and can also allow the flow of work to be altered rapidly in response to external events, ensuring that the company’s service levels to its customers remains optimised irrespective of the external stresses being applied. The ability of these systems to control and monitor the work within an organisation allows managers to flush out the inefficiencies within their processes, thus optimising their ability to provide a smooth service under normal circumstances and to increase their capability of responding when their work load becomes excessive and reaches a point that would normally overwhelm the organisation.
Those companies that operate using an automated workflow system get a number of advantages over those who rely on a manual work allocation approach.
The first advantage is that the flow of work throughout the organisation can be organised consistently according to the priorities of the management. All workflow systems can provide this level of automation, whereby different types of work and interfaces with the public can be prioritised and guided to the right person in the organisation to deal with the item. Branches in the flow of work can be defined to allow parallel work streams. Waiting points can also be defined in order to prevent the movement of the piece of work on to the next stage until all the required intermediate parallel stages have been completed. Work streams can be defined that branch to different individuals based on the result of a previous stage or stages in the process, thus optimising the engagement of expertise within the organisation, as required.
Secondly, teams can be defined and subsequently augmented or reduced in order to respond instantly to peaks and troughs in the workload. Some of the more sophisticated systems allow for a number of levels of expertise to be defined within the teams so that the complexity of the individual piece work can dictate which member of the team is allotted that particular task. This provides a smooth flow of control for the manager, optimising the efficiency of the team by directing the work according to their abilities and giving compliance with national regulations by ensuring that only those who are authorised to do certain tasks actually do them. This level of sophistication in work analysis and allocation is more efficiently done automatically rather than being left to the individual team leaders, who may not always be present or may be too busy to allocate the work items as they arise.
Thirdly, the metrics surrounding the day to day work within the organisation are available and easily mined to flush out problems, bottlenecks and inconsistencies that are not always easy to perceive by those who are actually close to the coalface.
Automated workflow is a vital component of the modern complex office environment but it needs to be correctly used to realise the full benefits of the system. Without it, you risk your workforce ending up knee deep in a quagmire of work items that at the very least may be inefficient and at worst may completely overwhelm their ability to provide a professional service, damaging both the reputation of the company and the morale of the organisation.
Read the article in the Actuarial Post: Actuarial Post - Edition 34
Actuarial Post is an online publication offering actuaries insight into the market, an extensive library, news and the latest job listings. With a dedicated comment section; the most talked about topics in the actuarial market are discussed by actuaries dealing with the issues on a daily basis. Articles focus on the latest trends changes in regulation and the areas of pensions, investment, life and insurance.
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