Inside Business: Workflow sets staff free

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IT IS a rare office that does not have some form of electronic messaging, writes Roger Trapp. However, some organisations go further with technology which changes how work is done as well as simplifying it.

Up to now, it has generally been large organisations - insurance companies and the like - that have followed this road to improve the efficiency of their processing systems. But Eastman Software, which this week launches a "work management infrastructure" operating with Microsoft's Exchange system, says smaller and less complex companies can now benefit as well.

Technology integrating computers and telephones (CTI) is advancing, and Colin Barnes, Eastman Software's UK and Ireland director, sees wide ramifications for customer service.

Companies with CTI can call up account information as soon as a customer calls. But if they set up workflow systems, the information the caller wants can be searched for automatically as the call progresses. One day soon, Mr Barnes adds, customers won't have to phone to find out how, say, an insurance claim is going - they will get the details via the internet.

The benefits in responsiveness and costs are so great that financial services firms, under pressure from low-cost new entrants, have been among the first to sign up for the technology.

When this sector was even more focused on products than it is now, workflow could cut the time spent on customer inquiries. But customers now may have a wide range of products, and such systems could help satisfy the demand of companies to "manage work across the whole enterprise", says Mr Barnes.

He sees opportunities for Eastman - and its chief rivals, IBM and FileNet - to help companies with less formal procedures. For these to work best, they will need to be subject to certain disciplines and will require measurement so areas for improvement can be identified.

This is relevant to employees in organisations of all types. Although flexible working has been much discussed, many organisations have been reluctant to allow staff to work from home or unusual hours. But this technology allows managers to control output wherever and however work is done.