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Why Are Flowcharts Used

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By Kristin Walter on October 09 2018 12:26:01

I recently overheard a Business Analyst say there was more to systems architecture than drawing boxes and arrows on a piece of paper. This may be true to a degree, but the ultimate deliverable of any engineering/architectural practice is a set of drawings from which to build a product. Architects and engineers do not spend all of their time drawing diagrams; for example, they have to specify requirements and analyze such things as the stress of components to determine the suitability of materials for use in design. But aside from this, the end result of engineering or architecture, their deliverable, is a set of drawings, be it a blueprint, a floor plan, wiring diagram, plumbing, or a set of flowcharts.

In terms of the Information Systems industry, flowcharts have been used for years, well before the introduction of the commercial computer in business. Originally they included process diagrams; later they were used by programmers as a convenient means to document program logic. Such flowcharts typically made use of ANSI standard flowcharting symbols. But as the Structured Programming movement flourished in the late 1970`s, ANSI symbols were considered archaic, and many new types of diagramming techniques emerged, including Bubble Diagrams, Data Structure Diagrams, E/R Diagrams, HIPO, VTOC, etc. (anybody remember Nassi-Schneiderman Charts?). I could argue the pros and cons of the various techniques but that is not the point. What is important is that all of these diagramming techniques acknowledged documentation as an inherent part of the design process.

This is not easily done, especially in a large room with multiple experts who know only a small portion of the entire process. Each contributor who works within the team can identify their specific areas they deal with on a daily basis, but do not necessarily understand or know the linkages and dependencies that exist outside of their general areas.

This is where simple process mapping can be used as an effective tool. Developing sample flowcharts that focus on specific areas or duties can help each subject matter expert define their areas of knowledge and communicate to others in the room. Linking each area together with inter-dependencies and business rules is where the real power of this technique comes in.

Such drawings basically consist of boxes and arrows. Boxes (be it squares, rectangles, polygons, circles, etc.) represent tangible objects and lines represent relationships between such objects. Flowcharts are similar; here, boxes represent specific types of processes or decisions or objects such as inputs/outputs/files, and lines represent dependencies between them (comes from/goes to).

Helping an organization map out processes can be a challenging task unless you know how to create sample flowcharts. When attempting to get subject matter experts to redefine their business processes, it is imperative to help them identify gaps or redundancies in their current as-is process.

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