Digital Workflows: The Building Blocks of the Automated Enterprise
How Workflow Management Systems Increase Business Process Agility, Efficiency and Automation ReadinessAdd bookmark
A workflow is a visual diagram or model of a structured, predefined set of activities that produces a desired result. While a “process” encompasses everything - from tasks to people to technology to data - necessary to accomplish some sort of organizational goal, a workflow is simply a mapped, documented sequence of steps necessary to achieve a single, repeatable, and operational objective. So though processes and workflows are interrelated, they are two distinct things.
Some examples of well-know workflows include:
- Employee Onboarding
- New Client Setup
- Product Return Authorizations
- Documentation Requests
- Purchase Approval Requests
- IT Change Management
- Engineering Change Requests
- Compliance Audits
- Website Edits
Workflows are comprised of 4 essential elements:
- Inputs - materials required to complete tasks. For example, the employee onboarding process would require the employment contract, IT set up request documentation and employee details.
- Transformations - the specific actions or pre-defined steps required to execute whatever task the workflow is trying to accomplish. For example, processing a new hire’s documentation, assigning a customer service email to a representative or passing a new vendor contract to legal for approval.
- Conditions - rules, such as deadlines or task order, that dictate when a particular step is completed and what the next step should be
- Outputs - the product of the transformation or end result. For example, a signed contract, the uploading of employee contact information into an HRM.
*Image sourced from https://kissflow.com/workflow/workflow-management-system-10-must-have-features/
Workflows fall into 2 different categories:
- Sequential workflows occur when each step depends on the completion of a previous step. For example, an employee submits their time card to their manager to review. If the time card is correct, it is approved by the manager and passed on to payroll. If not, it’s sent back to the employee to amend.
- Parallel workflows occur when multiple tasks are performed concurrently. For example, a new employee is hired and a contract for their employment is created. However, before it can be sent to the signee, legal, HR, finance and the line manager all have to approve the document. Simultaneously, onboarding commensesses and IT is notified.
Workflow management refers to the oversight or coordination of workflows that comprise larger, more high-value business processes. As the experts at Signavio put it, “the purpose of a workflow is to achieve some result, and the purpose of workflow management is to achieve better results according to some set of goals.”
While business process management (BPM) is a big-picture discipline that focuses on optimizing the entirety of an organization’s end-to-end process, workflow management concentrates on the clearly defined steps and tasks that make up bigger business processes. In other words, workflow management compliments or supports BPM, especially when combined with other transformational techniques such as process mining or process engineering, but they are two distinct practices. Though automation can play a role, workflow management is primarily concerned with the structure of work, who performs what tasks and how workflows can be improved.
Project management is another phrase that is often used in conjunction with workflow management. Project management is the process of leading the work of a team to achieve goals and meet success criteria at a specified time. While project management deals with strategically planning, overseeing and directing tasks; workflow management is really only concerned with connecting and executing those tasks. Furthermore, while projects typically have a distinct, middle and end, workflows are continuous.
That being said, workflow management can help ensure that whatever tasks go into to completing a larger project are completed as efficiently as possible. However, it is only one small piece of the puzzle.
What are workflow management systems?
Workflow management systems define, create and manage “the execution of workflows through the use of software, running on one or more workflow engine(s), which is able to interpret the process definition, interact with workflow participants and, when required, invoke the use of IT tools and applications.” In other words, these tools transform manual workflows into digital workflows, capable of executing multiple business applications at once as a single, automated process.
*Image sourced from https://workflow.servicenow.com/learn/digital-workflows-and-automation/workflow-automation-examples/
Workflow automation automates the flow of tasks, documents, and information across work activities in accordance with defined business rules. These tools allow the user to define a series of tasks involved in a process and ensure they are completed by the correct individuals in a standardized, compliant manner. They work by creating a form to hold data and automate a sequential path of tasks for the data to follow until it is fully processed.
Workflow management systems (WMS) allow organizations to not only model and re-engineer routine, repeatable activities to maximize efficiency, they also automatically trigger work tasks and route them between people, technology.
Many WMSs or workload automation tools include a job scheduler feature that automatically runs batch processes like payroll, processing inventory levels for re-stock, credit count account processing, etc. For example, a finance leader could schedule close-out processes to take place on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
These digital workflow tools also send out alerts or reminders to let a person know when it’s time for them to complete their part of the process. For example, let’s say an employee submits a time off request. Once completed, the request is re-routed for manager approval and their manager is automatically sent a reminder to approve/deny the request.
As they’ve been around for years, workflow management tools are considered “mature” solutions. In fact, according to a 2019 survey by IDC, 69% of large organizations are already simple workflow automation and management tools. However, considering many end-to-end process automation applications and platforms (i.e. enterprise content management, content collaboration, document processing, automated payroll) include embedded workflow automation, this number could be much higher.
What are the benefits of workflow management systems?
- Standardizing workflows increases both the efficiency and accuracy of task completion
- Reduces the number of repetitive, manual tasks employees have to complete thereby increasing employee productivity and satisfaction
- Facilitates collaboration across internal silos and with external partners or clients.
- Ensures every employee knows what task needs to be completed, who is responsible for it, and when it needs to be done with built-in alerts
- Maximizes agility as they allow the user to modify workflows in response to real-time business fluctuations
- Provides enhanced reporting, metrics and analytics surrounding workflow performance
- Provides enhanced security protection and access control help protect sensitive company data
- Offers easier scalability as WMSs tend to be low-code, general-purpose - meaning they could potentially support any workflow and integrate into multiple-systems
- Provides easier design and model processes using a drag and drop interface
- Allows data collected through online forms to be dispatched in an almost infinite number of ways from learning more about customers, tracking productivity and delivering advanced process analytics
- Supports digital transformation efforts by enabling the seamless automation of end-to-end processes. In fact, according to a recent survey, 83% of IT decision makers say workflow automation is “essential” to digital transformation
Workflow Digitization & Automation Orchestration
Mapping out or documenting workflows is a critical component of business process automation (BPA), robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent automation (IA). These tools work best on processes that are standardized, rote and repeatable. Workflow management as a discipline is a powerful method for configuring and harmonizing processes before you automate them.
While RPA is adept at completing simple repetitive tasks (i.e. copying & pasting, data entry, data extraction, opening emails), it’s not so great at tying things together. Something else, whether a human or software program, has to tell the RPA when to start or stop and when to initiate next steps.
Workflow automation and WMS, with their ability to schedule work and trigger new tasks, link together all of the various micro-tasks needed to complete the larger end-to-end process. In other words, workflow automation or management systems orchestrate the tasks and RPA completes them. As a result, workflow automation is key to scaling RPA and digiting end-to-end processes.
For example, RPA bots might collect sales data from an order form and enter it into an ERP system. Once completed, the workflow automation component notifies a human reviewer to approve and submit the order form. Or say if an RPA bot detected a security threat within an email, workflow automation, incident response workflows would automatically and proactively be triggered without human intervention.
Workflow systems work by drawing data from different software tools and running workflows between them. As it travels through this process, data is cleaned, integrated and primed to be fed into RPA, IA and other automated tools. Most digital workflow tools also include a centralized data receptacle that stores data needed to complete assignments as well as performance-related data generated by these systems. Using built-in workflow analytics tools, users can better analyse how long certain tasks take to complete, identify bottlenecks and re-engineer workflows accordingly.
These tools can also be used to monitor and help optimize IA, BPA and RPA performance. For example, if an RPA bot or AI starts to malfunction, the workflow management tool will notify workflow participants.
According to Zion Market Research, the global workflow management system market was valued at $5.2 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $22.1 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 22.9%. Though workforce management software alone is a powerful process optimization tool, this growth is in large part due to how it compliments other digital technologies such as IA, RPA and BPA.
Workflow Management System and Workflow Automation Vendors
Dynamic and rapidly expanding, the digital workflow management universe is saturated with reputable and highly innovative solution providers. The products in this field range from multi-feature platforms intended for complex, large-scale implementations to more niche applications designed for smaller organizations. The following is just a small snapshot of some of the leading names in this space.
Nintex - Offers visual process mapping, workflow automation, digital forms, and robotic process automation software solutions for every major industry and business department. Customers include Amazon, Zoom and Astrazeneca. Though originally conceived to work inside Microsoft's SharePoint document management system, it now integrates fully with most major IT ecosystems such as Adobe, Salesforce, Box, etc.
Kissflow - A low-code, cloud-based tool, customers such as UBER, Pepsi and Dominos use Kissflow to streamline and automate repeatable business tasks. Using a drag & drop interface and a comprehensive workflow performance dashboard, users can design and optimize dynamic workflows.
Integrify - Enables users to quickly build a custom document and file approval workflow and streamline the workflow process of routing and tracking documents. A low-code, easy-to-use tool with extensive reporting capabilities, customers include Abbvie, Baylor University and the City of Baltimore.
Pipefy - A no/low-code platform that allows non-technical users to automate, digitize and centralize end-to-end workflows. Specializes in finance, HR, customer service and marketing processes. Customers include Toyota, IBM and KraftHeinz.
Zapier - A digital workflow tool that lets the user create workflows between your various apps and services. In other words, it connects and moves data between different web applications. Zapier’s 100,000+ paying customers include Spotify, Buzzfeed and Adobe.
Kofax - Integrated workflow transformation platform that both orchestrates and automates business processes. Using IA and RPA, these tools capture data from all types of paper and electronic invoices, applications, claims, enrollment forms, and just about any type of document. It then transforms data into accurate and actionable information, and delivers it all into core business applications, processes and workflows. Customers include American Express, Cigna and Merck.
Monday.com - A cloud-based tool organizations can use to run their processes, projects, and everyday work. Includes features such as time-tracking, an integrated kanban board, automated notifications, workflow automation, dependencies, multiple views and calendar integration. Though it’s branded as more of a project management tool, it does include workflow management and automation capabilities. Customers include GE, Hulu and Costco.
Signavio Workflow Accelerator transforms business process models into standardized workflows that can be rolled out across an entire organization. Coordinate tasks, keep track of work and ensure rapid accountability & collaborative process governance.
ProccessMaker is an open source, low-code workflow automation tool that offers a drag-and-drop interface for analysts to model approval-based workflows. ProcessMaker 4 is an open source, workflow management software suite, which includes tools to automate your workflow, design forms, create documents, assign roles and users, create routing rules, and map an individual process quickly and easily. Customers include Bridgestone, Coca-Cola and Lenovo.
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