STEP Workflows is one of the most powerful tools in the STEP MDM application toolbox.
In my opinion, it’s also one of the most underutilised tools and one that has immense potential for delivering added value to your organisation in more ways than you think.
Ok, so “underutilised” may be a strong word to use here because most organisations running STEP are already using STEP workflows to automate at least a few business processes, but my point here is that many of those organisations seem to settle for just the most obvious use cases.
However, STEP Workflows is a very versatile tool that can be applied in many different situations and help address use cases involving things such as:
In this article, I will highlight seven different areas, where you could consider taking advantage of the automation and streamlining powers of STEP Workflows.
You may already use a couple of them today, but you might just be able to get inspired by this list to go and review your use of STEP Workflows and reconsider how you could this tool to accomplish even more with your STEP system.
Let me start by giving a little background on the workflow tool in STEP.
This goes back more than 20 years ago during the time of the very first releases of STEP, when Stibo Systems recognised the need for having a workflow engine available to help route tasks between users in the system.
The concept of workflows was nothing new and was widely used in other software categories, but the PIM / MDM software industry was still in its infancy and Stibo Systems realised that having a workflow capability as part of the STEP offering would provide a significant competitive advantage.
In the first few STEP releases, Stibo Systems decided to integrate a couple of third-party workflow applications. This ensured that the workflow capabilities could be offered as quickly as possible in the market.
This did indeed allow Stibo Systems to offer workflow capabilities and it quickly became very popular among customers but relying on third-party software to support such a vital aspect of STEP’s core functionality also introduced a large test burden, a bit too many support tickets and issues keeping software versions aligned.
After a few years, Stibo Systems had gathered enough experience with the anatomy of a good and flexible workflow solution for their customer’s needs, so they decided to develop their solution and make it an integral part of the STEP framework.
The results of this effort became the foundation of the STEP Workflow that we know today. A tool that is native to STEP and supports and complements the other parts of the STEP toolbox in a way that a third-party tool could never do.
Although it’s used to some degree by most organisations running STEP, I believe that many of those organisations are not using the STEP workflow tool to its full potential.
So, let’s have a look at seven different ways you can use the STEP workflow tool to increase your organisation’s efficiency.
This is probably the most common use of STEP workflows. Many organisations running STEP use already use workflows to introduce new products, maintain them and eventually discontinue them.
A set of workflows are configured in STEP based on a thorough analysis of every stage that a product goes through from a master data point of view.
Each person involved in the workflow is assigned tasks to complete that appear in their task list or a pool of tasks assigned to their group/role.
A good implementation of such workflows is where the full automation potential is fulfilled, meaning that any tasks that require repetitive rule-based input – e.g. a pre-population or transformation of certain values – are automatically managed by the workflow.
Ideally, the workflow should deliver each task “on a silver platter” to the next person in the chain to make sure this person spends his or her time enriching the product (or another type of record) based on the unique skills that he or she brings to the table – and not on time-wasting and non-value adding activities.
Many organisations have chosen to run STEP for its strong language and localisation management capabilities. If your company operates in multiple countries and provides your product content in multiple languages, you are fully aware that it’s a complex task to keep content in sync across languages and regions.
Whether you rely on internal or external translators – or even auto-translation services – STEP Workflows can help to streamline the process of identifying content needing translation, sending it to a translator, receiving the translation back, publishing it to the relevant country's website and managing any necessary approvals along the way.
There are many ways to manage translations and multi-language content in STEP – the best translation set-up for you depends on your specific situation and requirements. But STEP Workflows will likely play a part in your optimal solution.
Many STEP customers that I have worked with over the years maintain hundreds of thousands of products – and some even millions of products.
They have most often been one of the leading brands in their industry, where customers have come to expect a high standard of their published product content including a high level of data accuracy and completeness. When you manage product content at this magnitude and are under constant pressure to keep adding more and more products, you need to run a tight ship. At this scale, you probably have a large team consisting of multiple specialised roles of people who need to churn out large volumes of products each day.
You could perhaps even compare the organisation and processes you need to pull this off to a factory. A place of production. Hundreds of small bits of data go into the factory as raw materials and come out as fully enriched products with technical data specifications, marketing texts, pricing information, product images, application and lifestyle photos, technical diagrams, manuals, compliance, and sustainability information and so on.
The process of coordinating all this information and getting all the pieces of the puzzle in place is a complex task. Having well-defined processes to manage this challenge is a must, but having a STEP Workflow to support these processes, will allow you to scale your throughput significantly. As an additional benefit, it also allows you to track the progress of each task, define and measure key performance indicators (KPIs) and easily identify bottlenecks in the “production”.
It’s hard to sell products that do not have an image – regardless of how much data and textual content you have about the product – and many customers I have worked with over the years wouldn’t even consider publishing a product without an image.
The process of provisioning images for the products you sell will be radically different depending on whether you rely on suppliers to deliver images to you or whether you produce the images yourself.
We recently implemented an image workflow based on STEP Workflows for a large department store retailer. Many of their products were fashion items and it was important to them to have images that conveyed a consistent brand feeling and were worn by a model.
And in the fast-paced world of fashion, it was furthermore not always possible to get images from the supplier promptly.
So, our customer had their large photo studio, where many of their fashion items were photographed. Images of other types of products (e.g. home items and cosmetics) were usually available from suppliers and were either delivered directly or made available via an image bank.
We built a STEP Workflow to facilitate the different ways to provision images for their products. Once a new product was created in STEP, it would be entered into a workflow where it would be sent down different paths depending on the supplier and the category.
If a product was to be photographed in-house, the workflow would facilitate the process of ordering a sample in the right size so that it could be available in the studio on the day of the photo shoot. Once the sample arrived at the photo studio, a job tag would get printed automatically including relevant information about the product and a barcode that would be scanned by the photographer to retrieve the workflow task in STEP.
Once photographed, the image would go directly to an image editor who would make the final adjustments before the image would be approved and published to the webstore along with the product information.
Images provided directly by suppliers would take more automated routes through the workflow.
All in all, the STEP Workflow streamlined a very complex process and eliminated many manual steps and coordination efforts.
Outputting your content in PDF format remains a strong way to present your products to customers. Whether the PDF gets printed or only viewed on a screen, PDFs offer a flexible way to communicate various aspects of your products, whether it’s in the shape of a full catalogue or a stand-alone product presentation, datasheet, price label, compliance/environmental facts etc.
PDFs can also be used to gather information using PDFs Forms, which can be used for capturing data such as order information or data capture in the field.
If your company has physical stores, PDFs can also be used as the “middle-layer” to support the printing of content from your STEP systems such as price labels and in-store signage.
STEP has a long history of tight integration to Adobe InDesign Server, which enables the output of content from STEP into PDF / printed format.
Creating printed output such as catalogues, brochures, data sheets etc. has traditionally been perceived (rightly so) by many companies as a very slow, labour-intensive and costly process.
But with the powerful automation features that STEP offers the time, effort, and cost per produced item can be dramatically reduced.
When you throw Stibo STEP Workflows into the mix, you can now accomplish the vision of a fully automated “machine” outputting and distributing sales material, price labels, in-storage signage etc. based on certain triggers in your STEP system (e.g. the approval of a product).
Configuring PDF output from STEP and delivering these solutions require a very good understanding of Adobe InDesign, print publishing requirements and of course the STEP / InDesign integration.
This is not standard knowledge you can expect from your average STEP consultant, but we have many years of experience in this field.
Companies are under increasing pressure from government authorities, consumer watchdog organisations and consumers themselves to be able to document that their products are sourced responsibly, environmentally friendly and sustainable, meet regulations and safety requirements and so on.
As a manufacturer, distributor or retailer, each of your product categories and even subcategories may have its own set of compliance requirements that you are expected to meet and be able to document.
Understanding what the requirements are for each category and keeping up with how they develop is a complex task and there are normally only very few people in an organisation, who have this knowledge.
Stibo STEP Workflows can be used to ensure that all new products are always checked and enriched by compliance experts. All the category-specific rules can be captured in the workflow to ensure that the products go to the relevant compliance expert and that the right questions are asked depending on the type of product.
Using the data inheritance features of the STEP Product Structure, each subcategory that has special data and documentation requirements can be configured to reflect all the requirements related to that specific type of product.
The STEP Workflow and the STEP Product Structure in combination can therefore be used to not only ensure that the right people check and ensure compliance but the whole set of compliance requirements across all product categories and subcategories can be documented in your STEP solution, which reduces the risk of this knowledge only living in the heads of very few people in your organisation – or maybe even with external advisors.
As the final point in this list of ways to use STEP Workflows, I want to mention the fact that even extremely simple workflows can be of high value.
Imagine that your STEP solution is configured to listen for certain undesirable events or circumstances that will require your immediate attention.
This could be stock-out information or price hikes caught in feeds from suppliers of strategically important products, or maybe poor reviews from your webshop or external marketplaces.
Or maybe the external agency that supplies the images for the upcoming campaign has missed an important deadline or the authorities have issued a recall of a product you are selling.
Whatever is important to you will depend on your industry and type of business, but the point here is that your STEP solution could be configured in a way that allows you to define a set of critical triggers for conditions that you want to know about immediately. This could be configured in a STEP Workflow that may be dormant daily, but once a critical condition is identified by the system, it will notify relevant people in your organisation and may even come up with a plan of action for how to address the issue.
These are just examples of some of the most common uses. The applications for using STEP workflows to improve efficiency in your business are limited only by imagination.
STEP is used by organisations across many different industries and each organisation running STEP may have bespoke master data management challenges and business processes that Stibo STEP workflows could most likely help streamline and automate.
Before you set out to implement those ideas, I do want to warn you that there are many pitfalls to avoid when implementing a workflow.
I have experienced many customers over the years who have seen the great potential for using STEP workflows in their business, but who underestimate the implications those workflows will have for the daily life of the end-users.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of overengineering your workflow to the point, where users feel trapped and wearing a straitjacket to work. That’s when you know that your implementation of a workflow has failed.
We usually advise customers that want to implement complex workflows with strict rules and business logic to start with a simple and more manual business process first.
This is especially the case for organisations that are starting to use STEP for the first time. They have gone through a process of defining how the new system should make their lives better and they are excited about all the possibilities that STEP offers. But at this point, they have never tried to work with the system and have therefore maybe not yet fully encountered the full spectrum of use cases and exceptions that the system should be able to support.
My advice is therefore to only implement fairly simple workflows during the first one or two implementation phases of STEP. Let users gain experience with the new system and accept that some tasks are as automated as they could be.
Then review the experiences after a few months and gather input from users. That way you will gain a much more qualified view of how your workflows can be optimised to their full potential.
I hope that this article about Stibo STEP workflows has inspired you to investigate and brainstorm new ways that STEP workflows could help deliver improvements to your business.
If you have the relevant STEP qualifications in-house, you can implement workflows yourself. The functionality is included in all versions of STEP and requires no additional licenses.
If you are curious about how STEP workflows could help your business, but need help to take the next step, feel free to reach out to us and let’s have a chat about it.