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A User's Guide to E-mail & Workflow Applications

Executive Summary
The Importance of E-mail
Why E-mail Leads to Workflow
Types of Workflow
Active E-Forms
Workflow Action Plan

Executive Summary

The purpose of this article is to help prepare an organization to take advantage of electronic mail by making it the foundation for new application development. The business enterprise that intends to stay competitive during the 1990’s will need to embed E-mail technology and applications into the framework of its business process.

Global competition has already forced American business to streamline and "downsize," both organizationally and procedurally. As a result, corporate management is now focused increasingly on improving time-based processes by shortening "cycle-times," and thus, lowering costs.

Electronic mail is recognized as a key technology that enables these objectives to be attained. One company --General Electric-- could not have carried out its business strategy of the past decade without the use of new communication technologies such as E-mail.

E-mail is evolving from being a discrete application to an "application enabler," i.e. an information highway on top of which specific applications can be built. It lends itself well to event-driven business processes by allowing different parties to communicate without having to be "all in the same room at the same time." E-mail can be an essential component of "workflow," which is defined as the automation of office processes that involve forms-routing, database queries, signature approvals, and filing.

Although workflow technology is still evolving and not well-understood, it is clearly more than simply routing a formatted screen from one person to another. Workflow requires a high-level language with logic enabling the designer to insure data integrity and structure a series of events or "triggers."

Among current workflow systems on the market there is a wide spectrum of computing platforms, design methodologies, complexity of learning, and cost. In selecting a work-flow product, it is important to first define a company’s strategic business objectives, then apply the right technology to the requirements by matching it with the proper product. The overall scope of the project, and the choice of workflow product, will be determined by three primary factors: the complexity of the business process to be automated, how structured versus unstructured that business process needs to be, and the overall cost of the system.

A flexible forms automation system, of which CASI’s Active E-Forms is one example, does not mandate the acquisition of a completely new turn-key system or require the imposition of a top-down model for development. It allows you to automate in increments within your company’s existing business environment. Active E-Forms preserves and extends an organization’s current hardware investment and makes an enterprise-wide forms system attainable.

Some workflow processes that can be automated by Active E-Forms, such as time card accounting, purchase order requisitions, research requests, and several others are described in this article. It also provides a technical overview of the Active E-Form product itself, and it concludes with a suggested action plan for piloting workflow in your organization and a bibliography of pertinent resources.

Introduction & Background

"If you thought the 1980’s were tough, the 1990’s will make the 1980’s look like a cakewalk. It will be brutally competitive." -- Jack Welch, CEO, General Electric Corp.

Over the past decade, electronic mail and intelligent forms have emerged as new and growing technologies. Each has the potential to significantly enhance corporate performance. Since the productivity level of every corporation is a microcosm of the nation’s economic position, the best way to assure America’s financial future is to bring productive change to every business organization.

It was President Clinton who stressed the necessity for America to develop infrastructure and control costs. E-mail technology clearly is a powerful way to achieve the twin objectives of better infrastructure and lowered costs.

When properly planned and implemented, applications based upon E-mail can make a significant contribution to the bottom line of companies that are prepared for it. However, becoming "E-mail literate" does not happen to an organization overnight. And becoming "prepared" requires commitment to start with the basics of electronic messaging, and then an ongoing plan to systematically build applications upon it.

The good news is that more and more businesses are turning to E-mail to keep up with the pace of business change. Industry statistics show that the number of electronic mailboxes in operation has been rising at a compounded annual growth rate close to 45% since 1992 and may exceed 50 million users in 1996. Industry estimates indicate expected growth in the number of users of electronic mail to reach 100 million users by 2000.

A substantial number of office workers today use E-mail simply to communicate with other co-workers; many are not aware that there is a much bigger payoff from "mail-enabled applications." That is because many E-mail systems currently in use today do not go far enough in providing the workflow capabilities described in this paper.

Any business enterprise that intends to stay competitive during the '90s will need to embed E-mail technology into its business processes. To understand "why" requires a review of recent shifts in the world economy and what this has meant for business.

The Economic Watershed of 1990-91

Since 1989, the U.S. economy has recorded the slowest growth and the smallest gains in productivity and net investment since the Great Depression.

For the first time in a half century, several foreign economies outperform our own. Japan and Germany produce more wealth per capita than the United States--and several other industrialized nations including Italy and France have closed the gap significantly. It is a fact that in productivity measured as Gross Domestic Product per worker, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy all lead the United States.

The new realities of global competition are shattering previous economic assumptions of millions of Americans. Working for a large company is no longer a guarantee of security; during the past decade alone, Fortune 500 companies laid off well over 4.2 million men and women.

Corporations, driven by global competition to increase productivity in flat or declining markets, have down-sized dramatically both in number of employees as well as size of organizational structure. Entire layers of management have been swept away in major restructuring of American enterprise.

A Corporate Standout

One of the past decade’s notable examples of such corporate restructuring has been General Electric under the tenure of its CEO, Jack Welch. During the 1980’s, the company grew from $34 billion to $56 billion in revenues and produced a phenomenal 18% return on equity, making it a darling of Wall Street and institutional investors. The reasons behind GE’s success in the face of a negative business climate are enlightening.

First, under Welch, GE downsized its organizational structure. While GE nominally saved $40 million by removing several layers of management, the real benefit to the corporation came in the form of improved quality of leadership and the ability to get products to market faster. As Welch puts it: "People think of ‘de-layering’ as a cost reduction, but it’s really a way of enhancing management...Delayering speeds communications. It returns control and accountability to the business, which is where it belongs." He adds: "When you try to move information through layer after layer in an organization, it is like playing the children’s game of telephone...the data gets corrupted."

Second, Welch implemented the concept of running a "boundary-less" company--one that can do business and exchange information with any company, in any country, just as if that company was actually part of the GE corporate information network. To accomplish that vision, GE was forced to become a sophisticated user of new communication technologies.

Six key operating principles

But something more than technological innovation was needed to turn a company as large as GE into a profitable and formidable competitor. Welch laid the ground work for a corporate performance philosophy that became distilled into six key principles. Today GE uses these principles to maintain a competitive advantage in its key markets.

  • Manage processes rather than people
  • Use process mapping and benchmarking to spot opportunities for improvement
  • Emphasize continuous improvement and applaud incremental gains
  • Use customer satisfaction as the main gauge of performance
  • Treat your suppliers as partners
  • Introduce a constant stream of high-quality new products

These imperatives are important because they are a perfect match for the benefits that electronic mail (a "process technology" itself) brings to the table. For example, the application of intelligent form-routing to business processes does not require a costly or radical restructuring of business systems; it allows improvement to be made in increments. E-mail enables better communication and thus a tighter partnership between a company and its customers/suppliers. E-mail can also reduce time-to-market by enhancing communications and information flow between internal workgroups.

It is no surprise that GE has become a major user of electronic mail, and GE’s information services division (GEISCO) is a prominent provider of electronic mail services to many Fortune 1000 corporations. In fact, downsized corporations need E-mail even more than before to manage broader spans-of-control and enable faster decision-making. By using and applying E-mail creatively, corporations can better refine their mission, improve their operations, and empower their employees.

The Importance of E-mail

"The high-value enterprise need not be organized like the old pyramids that characterized standardized production, with strong chief executives presiding over ever-widening layers of managers, atop an even larger group of hourly workers, all following standard operating procedures. In fact, the high-value enterprise cannot be organized this way. The three groups that give the new enterprise most of its value--problem-solvers, problem-identifiers, and strategic brokers--need to be in direct contact with one another to continuously discover new opportunities. Messages must flow quickly and clearly if the right solutions are to be applied to the right problems in a timely way." --Robert Reich, Professor, Harvard University, U.S. Secretary of Commerce

The Importance of E-mail to the Corporation

It is a familiar casebook study in today’s business schools: how Japan, using American technology and ideas, perfected a new system of producing goods. Sometimes referred to as "lean" or "agile" production, the new system provided higher quality and more customization than mass production systems of the past, yet did so at comparable costs. The emergence of these new "processes" has had a profound impact on the industrialized world. They illustrate the importance of leveraging time.

Just as one day of "float" in the financial markets can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars, "information float" resulting from a company’s operational procedures is just as costly and needs to be managed or eliminated.

Competition today is just as often time-based as it is technology or product based. In such cases, the critical factors become time-to-market, sales cycle time, logistics cycle time, and customer response time.

For a large enterprise facing time-based competition, problems of command and control (i.e. process coordination) become paramount. Since most middle-level managers spend an average of 50 to 60 percent of their office time "communicating" directly, i.e. talking in person or on the phone, any technology that reduces the barriers to communication (whether walls or time zones) is desirable.

E-mail and applications based upon it have an important role to play in the down-sized corporation of the 1990s. E-mail provides a way to save time, broaden communication across an ever-increasing span of control, and enhance existing computer investments while controlling costs.

A recent study by Ovum Research found that computer applications with "high-impact" had certain characteristics. Our comments pertain to the way electronic mail and its associated applications match those high-impact characteristics.

High impact applications:

  • Fit the natural operating style of people and organizations.
    E-mail, because of its asynchronous process orientation, is a perfect match for most people’s operating style.
  • Deal with semi-structured information and procedures.
    Because it deals with text, numbers, application data, and binary files, E-mail is very flexible in this regard, and is becoming more so.
  • Are enterprise-wide in scope.
    Through gateways, E-mail systems can become enterprise-wide in reach. Companies such as Soft Switch provide such enterprise-wide E-mail delivery capabilities.
  • Are cross-enterprise in reach.
    Through external gateways to public carriers, E-mail provides access to other companies such as customers, suppliers, regulatory agencies, etc.
  • Protect the existing systems investment.
    By using the resources of the existing computer complex, E-mail can preserve a company’s existing investment while extending its reach.
  • Address additional complete business processes from the beginning to the end of the cycle.
    Addressing the total business process is what workflow is all about.

Why E-mail Leads to Workflow

"Messaging Systems are a natural choice for workflow systems because the store-and-forward nature of electronic messaging is perfectly suited to the way people work." --The Clarke Burton Report, April, 1991

While the growth rate of E-mail has been quite rapid over the past decade, it is about to explode even more dramatically due to a convergence of technologies. Cellular modems, mobile messaging software, and the expanding bandwidth of E-mail are all factors behind the increasing penetration of E-mail into everyday life.

E-mail has had a beneficial effect upon productivity because it takes the burden off the user to "inquire" interactively. For some business processes such as airline reservations, interactive inquiry is mandatory; for many others, it is not necessary and in fact is costly and support-intensive. A better alternative is for the application to send a message to the individual giving notification of a condition or action as soon as it has occurred. This leverages time and enhances productivity.

For example, a busy investor could be notified by E-mail whenever General Electric stock rises above $43 per share or drops below $34 per share. He might actually prefer this rather than having to search the listings in the Wall Street Journal or dial Dow Jones on a daily basis. This kind of event-driven "triggering" is made possible by coupling an E-mail system with database applications.

The ability of E-mail to accelerate the natural flow of daily business life is also what makes it most useful. In order to compete in the years ahead, a corporation will have to build E-mail capability in two areas: internally within the organization, and externally, reaching outside the organization to other entities such as customers, vendors, regulatory agencies, etc.

The Advantages of "Mail-enabling" Applications

Many companies have processes that are begging for automation but have not been automated either because the MIS programming staff is backlogged, or because the cost to program the application appears higher than the projected return on investment. Such potential applications, while important, may fall short of being considered "mission critical." They fall right into the category known as administrative forms applications.

An intelligent forms-routing and approval system is a good way to reduce that programming backlog by allowing non-programmers to design and implement their own automated procedures. Using a 4GL to define variables, screens, and logic, users can program the path of an electronic form from one approver to the next. The logic behind the form checks limits established in each user's directory profile and uses its own logic to determine the next step in the approval process.

Types of Workflow

"Most business applications aren't really based on interactivity. They're a series of event-driven activities conducted across time, space, and people." --Patricia Seybold, Seybold Report on Office Administration

In every company, information moves in a continuous flow between operating groups. Yet in spite of computerization and a wide range of communication mediums (TV, radio, satellite, computers, etc.), the paper form is still the dominant method of information movement for businesses -- and a dominant form of bottleneck. (Who among us, for example, has not had to call the boss' secretary on more than one occasion to ask, "Has the form been signed yet?")

The fact is, it is not the form itself, but our methods of processing it that represent the greatest obstacle to increased productivity. Studies show that for every dollar spent on the creation of a paper form, over $30 will be spent in processing it. It has also been estimated that as much as 80% of the processing time required for forms is spent in transit time between processing points.

What is "workflow"?

Like many industry buzz-words, "workflow" has as many definitions as the number of vendors trying to break into the market. At its most basic level, "workflow" is technology that automates the process, its related tasks, and the path that information connected with the process must take through an organization.

In selecting a workflow product, several factors must be considered:

  • How complex are the business processes needing automation?
  • How accessible would you like the workflow capability within the organization to be?
  • How much of your budget are you willing to invest in the project for additional software, and in some cases, additional hardware?

Two types of business environments are natural candidates for workflow. At the high end are mission-critical applications that are highly structured and often complex processes requiring automation. These "production workflow" systems are usually quite comprehensive in scope and often include image integration and large-scale document archives. Production workflow systems almost always require the re-engineering of the business processes to fit a top-down conceptual model of the process. They usually do not operate on top of an electronic mail system, but instead use a database document management system as the foundation. These are characteristically expensive projects requiring large-scale development efforts to provide total "process automation."

Other business environments are less structured, less complex, and better served by an automated solution patterned after the business processes already in place. These processes are amenable to a workflow product built on top of E-mail. By virtue of that fact, such a product can be more flexible and less costly. This kind of system, sometimes called "administrative workflow," does not replace an existing process with a complete new model, but does allow the automation of the separate sub-tasks that make up the process.

One ancillary benefit of workflow is that in the process of automating forms-based processes, companies end up streamlining and reducing the number of procedures they have, thereby achieving greater operational efficiency.

Some Examples of Candidates for Workflow

Many processes that involve forms are amenable to forms automation, either in whole or in part. The objective is a simple one: to get information to flow faster, to make data easier to exchange into and out of required formats, and to track the status of the process.

In each candidate process, there are several common characteristics. Each process is represented by an already existing form. The forms process spans two or more people or departments. The form may involve approvals or authorizations. Some examples of successful workflow development are outlined below.

Sales Lead Management - The sales department of an industrial products company enters all information about incoming sales leads into an intelligent form which is routed via electronic mail to the appropriate sales representative based on ZIP code. Information in the lead form can be transferred automatically to a secondary call report which each sales rep must return within a fourteen day time period. Any call report that is over ten days old is flagged and highlighted in the E-mail system. Returned call reports are returned to the central sales administrator who runs a monthly batch report summarizing lead results by several criteria.

Personnel and Recruitment - A pharmaceutical company uses intelligent forms routing and bulletin boards to manage its job posting, recruitment, and placement activities. A job requisition is submitted for approval by the hiring manager and is returned to personnel where the relevant position information is posted on the Personnel Bulletin Board on the company E-mail system. A copy of the approved requisition is also routed to the E-mail in-box of the appropriate corporate recruiter.

Company employees who wish to apply for the open position can submit their application using a standard intelligent E-form accessible from the company-wide Forms Cabinet. After interviews have been scheduled and completed and a hiring decision made, the company's internal applicants are notified of the results by E-mail. External applicants receive a letter on company letterhead generated by the E-mail system. The offer letter to the winning applicant is triggered by the final approval of an intelligent E-Form initiated by the personnel department on behalf of the hiring manager. A monthly report is run and distributed by E-mail that summarizes all interview and offer-letter activity for the month.

Loan Processing - A bank uses forms routing and approval to manage the document flows involved in its loan processing operation. Previously, both the loan approval and amortization schedule were paper-based manual processes which took several days to obtain. Now, the loan approval documentation is routed to management for approval while an amortization schedule is requested from the bank's computer which calculates and returns the schedule via E-mail where it can be printed locally. What used to take a week now takes less than a day in most cases.

Research Request - As part of its research request system, a bank uses intelligent forms. When a customer requests additional information about a disputed transaction, such a request ultimately gets handled by the research department at headquarters. This group works on a LAN with sophisticated workstations providing visual access to microfilm and microfiche. The local branch initiates a "research request" form which is automatically routed to a mailbox belonging to the research group. The mailbox is polled several times each day and any forms and messages are downloaded to the LAN. The research group then retrieves the requested information and generates hardcopy images where necessary. The form is returned to the local branch informing them of the status of their request and when to expect a hardcopy to arrive at the branch.

Time Card Processing - Aerospace companies are required to keep very detailed and accurate records of labor, allocated by contract and subcontract. In the past this has been handled through a largely manual paperwork system.

At one large aerospace firm, an existing paper-based salaried employee labor charging system has been augmented with a paperless version using intelligent electronic forms. The new system was implemented primarily to support a remote manufacturing/test facility, but has now been deployed to other sites.

The aerospace company desired an on-line, CICS-based "front-end" to the existing batch-oriented labor system. They wanted the new system to do as many up-front edits and validations as possible, in order to eliminate the usual error report-correction-error report loop that was so characteristic of batch oriented systems. The project faced an important constraint in that it had to be implemented quickly (in 60 days or less) and not require a lot of programmer man-hours.

Each employee selects his/her timecard from a cabinet and updates it at the end of the day. The form prompts the employee for the required information, performs validation checks, and computes elapsed time intervals automatically. When the employee invokes The APPROVE function, this launches the form up to the department manager's level for approval. After managerial approvals are applied, the form is converted to data and entered into the CICS batch job stream for payroll processing. The company has discovered that data and calculations handled this way are much more accurate and consistent than the previous manual time card system.

This mail-enabled application saved the client time and money by:

  • Reducing paper
  • Shortening the processing/approval cycle
  • Reducing human error through computerized validation and checking

This application was programmed and deployed in less than sixty days using Active E-Forms.

Active E-Forms

As an administrative workflow product, CASI's Active E-Forms (AEF) is a way to develop automated business processes that span groups, departments, divisions, and entire organizations. By riding on top of EMS, which runs on most IBM and compatible host computers, AEF is an efficient, low cost way to attain operational experience in developing forms-routing and workflow applications.

AEF includes a 4GL-like language that allows the definition of variables, screens, and logic within the routing and approval process. Some of the key features of Active E-Forms are listed below:

Master Forms Menu Extended Color Attributes Alarms
Forms Security Validation Checking Highlighting
Path-of-Authority Cursor Placement Control Trace log
Forms Status Tracking Nested If/Else Logic Triggers
Help - Field Level Link/Call Routines Forms Linkage
Dialog Style of Entry Direct Style of Entry Data Tables
Serial Number Assignment Batch Table Maintenance

Workflow Action Plan

To provide an "agile" information delivery system, every IS organization should establish an action plan. Here are some suggestions about how to approach a pilot project:

  1. Look at your company’s vision, strategies, goals, and objectives. What are your company’s information bottlenecks? Which ones impinge most severely on corporate goals and objectives? Can you map the process from start to finish? Which segments of the process are amenable to forms automation?
  2. Be proactive now to avoid having to be reactionary later. It is important to gain experience with E-mail and forms-routing techniques in order to be prepared for more advanced technologies toward the end of the decade. Do not let the plethora of products out there deter you from taking the first steps. To wait and do nothing might well be the riskiest strategy of all. Organizations that neglect to pilot mail-enabled applications today will face even greater competitive pressures down the road.
  3. Evaluate the trade-offs of your design approach. After you have identified an "area of need for workflow," decide what kind of technology is best suited as a solution. Should you start with a "top-down" versus a "bottoms-up" approach? A host-based forms routing pilot can provide enterprise-wide forms access and extend the life of your investment in the SNA terminal network. A LAN-based approach provides a more attractive user interface but may not be able to scale enterprise-wide or access corporate data on the host.
  4. Organize to succeed. Delegate responsibility for E-mail and mail-enabled application development to a senior IS analyst or manager. Establish a messaging system infrastructure first and give it time to settle in. This will ensure an easier learning curve for future workflow applications.
  5. <Find the best spot for a productivity gain. Listen to users' needs, then focus your pilot implementation on a specific small-scale application. Pick a department and a process where the advantages of electronic forms-routing and a compressed time-cycle will be most evident and appreciated. Pilot departments often are Personnel (time-cards), Loan-processing, or even the MIS department itself — but there can be many others.
  6. Be pragmatic, not "revolutionary." Do not fall into the "Big-bang" syndrome by thinking that all forms-based processes have to be automated and rolled-out at the same time. Pilot one or two forms processes in order to build a base of users and experience that can be used to guide further application development. Build on and exploit the existing enterprise platform and network.


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