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Workflow in Dynamics AX : Dynamics AX 2009 Workflow Infrastructure

5/1/2013 6:29:49 PM

1. Introduction

Very few of us would deny the importance or significance of the processes that drive the businesses and organizations that we work for and interact with on a daily basis. Business processes represent the key activities that, when carried out, are meant to achieve a specific goal of value to the business or organization:

  • Think of a manufacturing operation in which business process activities include the initiation, design, development, quality assurance testing, and delivery of a saleable (and hopefully profitable) range of goods.

  • Think of sales process activities for manufactured items, including marketing, locating prospects, providing quotes, converting quotes to orders and prospects to customers, shipping the product, invoicing, and obtaining payment.

  • Finally, think about some of the supporting business processes that are concerned with hiring new employees and managing employee expenses, which contribute to the business or organization in tangible ways.

Viewing activities in terms of the business processes that encompass them affords businesses and organizations the opportunity to systematically define, design, execute, evaluate, and improve the way that these activities are performed. This systematic approach is extremely valuable, even critical, given that today’s businesses and organizations have to react to the increasingly rapid rate of change we’re witnessing in business and industry, and the ever-expanding influence of globalization.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) suites, such as Dynamics AX, exist to automate business processes and to provide the capability to adapt these processes to the specific needs of businesses and organizations over time. Before Dynamics AX 2009, no standard workflow infrastructure existed, and each company had to write specific business logic to implement everyday activities, such as approvals. The Dynamics AX 2009 release includes a built-in workflow infrastructure precisely to make it easier for businesses and organizations to automate and manage business processes.

2. Dynamics AX 2009 Workflow Infrastructure

Fundamentally, workflows consist of one or more workflow activities that represent the items of work to be completed. Additionally, the concept of flows that connect the activities and govern the sequence of execution (referred to as the structure of a workflow) is key. The behavior of workflows is determined by their type. Figure 1 illustrates the major types of workflow and identifies where the emphasis of the workflow infrastructure is in Dynamics AX 2009.

Figure 1. Major types of workflow

A major distinction exists between human workflows and system workflows. (For more information, see the following “Types of Workflow” sidebar.) Workflow in Dynamics AX 2009 is primarily designed to support structured human workflows. The structured human workflows that are shipped with the product include expense approval, requisition review and approval, and the approval of financial journals. Whereas the built-in workflows focus on structured human workflows that obtain approvals, you can also create workflows that contain tasks for humans to complete or a mixture of structured and unstructured tasks along with an approval. Customers, partners, and independent software vendors (ISVs) can create additional workflows to supplement those in the product. The workflows included in Dynamics AX 2009 will be augmented in future releases.

Types of Workflow

Two major types of workflow exist: human and system. In this sidebar, we look at some of the basic differences between the two types.

Human Workflows

A key attribute of human workflows is that people are involved in the workflow as it executes; in other words, human workflows are generally interactive (although a human workflow might contain activities that are noninteractive). Most often, the interaction takes the form of responding to and taking an action of some kind, such as approving or rejecting. Human workflows can be further subdivided into structured and unstructured types. Structured human workflows are used for processes in which execution needs to be repeatable and consistent over time. Structure is important, because to improve a business process, you must have a way to measure the performance of the workflows that are executed to automate that business process. If a workflow isn’t structured for repeatability and consistency, you are going to have a difficult time identifying what to improve. Examples of structured human workflows include expense approval and purchase requisition processing.

Unstructured human workflows differ from structured ones in that the exact structure doesn’t have to be defined up front—but it should be possible to easily establish and assign to the required people. An example of an unstructured human workflow is reviewing a document, where the participants and the type of approval required are decided just before the workflow is started. This variant of human workflow is therefore less useful when it comes to analysis for process improvement, because each unstructured workflow might behave differently, depending on how it is used, but it does help coordinate human activities.

System Workflows

System workflows are noninteractive workflows that automate a process that spans multiple systems, for example, transferring an order from one system to another. Generally, such workflows are structured because they need to be consistently repeatable.

In reality, you often need to combine human and system workflows to implement a given business process. For example, expense reports need to be approved, and the expense lines need to be posted after the approval.


The main difference between business processes and workflows (as these terms are often used interchangeably) is their scope, level of abstraction, and purpose. Business processes represent the broad set of activities that a business or organization needs to carry out, and their interrelationships. Business processes are implementation independent and can combine manual as well as automated activities. Workflows are the automated parts of a business process that coordinate various human or system (or both) activities to achieve a particular outcome, and they are implementation specific. Therefore, workflows are used to implement parts of a business process.

Because existing Dynamics AX modules use approvals extensively, the workflow infrastructure in Dynamics AX 2009 is primarily intended to support structured human workflows. Focusing on this type of workflow lays the groundwork for enabling businesses and organization to more easily automate, analyze, and improve high-volume workflows across their ERP system.

Each structured human workflow in Dynamics AX 2009 acts on a single document type. The reason for this is that data is the key currency of ERP systems (think of the broad categories of data that exist in an ERP system: master data, transaction data, and reference data), and processes that operate within those systems are largely data-driven.

Here are some of the key tasks that you can do with structured human workflows in Dynamics AX 2009:

  • Define the activities that need to take place based on the business process that is being automated.

  • Sequence tasks, approvals, and subworkflows to reflect the order in which activities need to be completed in a business or an organization.

  • Set up a condition that is used to determine which workflow to use in a given situation.

  • Decide how to assign the activity to people.

  • Specify the text that is displayed in the user interface for the various activities to help people understand what they need to do.

  • Define a set of outcomes for an activity that someone can select from.

  • Select which notifications to send, when to send the notifications, and who should receive the notifications.

  • Establish how a workflow should be escalated if there is no timely response to an activity.

Four types of users interact with the workflow infrastructure in Dynamics AX 2009:

  • Business users

  • Developers

  • Administrators

  • End users

Business users and developers are primarily responsible for defining, designing, and developing workflows. Administrators and users interact with workflows that are executing.

  • Business users understand the objectives of the business or organization within which they operate to the degree that they can envision how best to structure the various activities within their areas of responsibility. Business users therefore configure workflows that have already been implemented and work with developers to enable other modules or create new workflow templates in existing modules.

  • Developers work with the business users to design and implement any underlying code that is required to support workflows that are being developed.

  • Administrators are responsible for setting up and maintaining the development and production environments, for ensuring that the workflow infrastructure is configured correctly, for monitoring workflows as they execute, and for taking actions that are needed to resolve any issues with workflows.

  • Users interact with workflows when needed, including taking a particular action (such as approving or rejecting), entering comments, viewing workflow history, and so on.

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