Workflow management: A beginner’s guide to workflow automation and business process management
As a business term, workflow management really emerged in the 1980s, right alongside the early rollout of e-mail, desktop computers, and digitalized business systems. People very quickly realized how these new technologies could help to reduce errors and streamline repetitive tasks. Today, smart, cloud-connected software and digitalized workflow management systems support their human partners to achieve increasingly improved efficiency and agility, reduced cycle times and error rate, and better compliance.
What is a workflow?
A workflow can be defined as a sequence of connected activities or tasks that are completed to achieve a particular result. A structured workflow follows a distinct path, which may be sequential or parallel to meet specific dependencies or requirements. Often the path will have defined variations, unique to each desired business outcome.
There are three types of workflows:
- Fully manual: A manual workflow, for example, could be paper-based with a docket and manually written notes and signatures, physically passed along in the office or on the shop floor.
- Semi-automated: In a partially automated workflow, parts of the process are automated. Think of an e-mail chain, with files attached, comments in the email body, and changes to the attached files, passed on whenever convenient for the processor of the current task.
- Fully digitalized or automated: Automated workflows run in a dedicated business application in a structured and defined way, following defined business rules.
Workflow management or business process management: What’s the difference?
A workflow is a more specific, standalone string of steps and tasks. In contrast, a business process is a broader term for a collection of tasks, workflows, activities, and guidelines, where some of the tasks may be automated, while other activities may not.
For example, think of a simple approval workflow for purchasing – with one or several defined variants, a business rule may stipulate that a purchase order needs approval from a second department if the purchase value exceeds a certain amount. This workflow is part of a larger business process for how to purchase goods and services within an organization and would include guidelines for vendor selection, procurement, and so on.
Below are some common workflow examples:
- Approving a purchase order
- Authorizing a vacation request
- Processing a bill payment
- Hiring an employee
- Requesting a replacement part
- Sending an invoice to a customer
Why is workflow management software so important?
Workflow management is the process of digitalizing discrete processes and managing the outcomes. Workflow management software allows you to build, run, and manage those workflows. Here are some of the key benefits and outcomes to expect from dedicated software solutions:
- Greater efficiency: Increase your automation rate to drive faster and better outcomes while making things easier for everyone involved. For example, with a fully digitalized workflow, business stakeholders can easily access, review, and process clearly defined digital tasks, working from anywhere – in the office, at home, or on the go.
- Improved agility: Adapt standard workflows to meet changing operational needs, create process innovations to support new business models, and fix broken processes for greater resilience and agility.
- Stronger compliance: With clear responsibilities and data-based audit trails, you are able to monitor and manage process outcomes and better ensure compliance with policies and regulations.
Workflow management systems and how they work
Workflow management systems allow the user to define different workflows for different types of jobs or processes. For example, in a manufacturing setting, a design document might be automatically routed from the designer to the technical director, and finally, to the production engineer. At each stage in the workflow, one individual or group is responsible for a specific task. Once the task is complete, workflow management systems ensure that the individuals responsible for the next task are notified and receive the data they need to execute their stage of the process.
Workflows can also have more complex dependencies. For example, if a document is to be translated into several languages, a translation manager could select the languages and each selection would then be activated as a work order form for a different translator. Only when all the translators have completed their respective tasks would the next task in the process be activated. This helps to track log-jams and keep larger teams on target.
Examples of workflow management systems in action
Every business will have their own unique needs. Below are just a few examples of how modern workflow management systems may be implemented:
- Optimizing existing business applications: Many enterprise applications come with built-in tools and workflow templates to define and build business processes that are not yet mapped in the system. When changes are needed to workflows, administrators don’t need to start from scratch – they can leverage the existing functions of the system to create changes. Also, the best modern software tools come with additional automation features that have artificial intelligence (AI) and process automation tools already embedded.
- Using side-by-side application extensions: Many companies prefer to keep a “clean core,” meaning they prefer to run their software applications with as few modifications as possible. This means any new workflows and process innovations may leverage data from existing systems but are built outside of the existing business applications. These so called “side-by-side” application extensions, as opposed to “in-app” application extensions, are usually built and run in the cloud.
- Orchestrating processes across departments: Cloud based workflow management systems are also the preferred option for cross-line-of-business orchestrations. These are business processes that span across different applications, systems, and services. This includes hybrid landscapes where your automation requirements need you to connect multiple disconnected workflows running in different applications and locations. It also works with processes where you want to make a certain workflow available to external process participants like partners and suppliers – and then use the outcome of this workflow to initiate a next step internally.
- Making it easier for subject experts to tailor workflows: For departmental processes involving only simple request or approval forms, some automated business processes can be addressed with low-code/no-code (LCNC) development platforms. This means that drag-and-drop and simplified visual functionalities let business users quickly build lightweight workflow apps tailored to their teams’ specific needs.
Workflow management technologies
Workflow technologies enable standardized processes with clear responsibilities and connect the different tasks within a defined path. The intelligent combination with one or multiple new automation technologies increases the level of automation within a process flow, enabling faster and better process outcomes. What’s more, it enables innovative new processes, helping to create value or deliver a better experience. Here are some examples of advanced technologies that are being used in modern workflow software:
- Big Data: Big Data technologies and improved visibility into that data makes vast amounts of information available for use, which can be integrated and directly used in business processes. Here’s a workflow example: think of a capital expenditure (CAPEX) approval process that’s semi-automated – financial reports are being sent back and forth between the involved reviewers and approvers via e-mail before an investment decision is made. Drawing on the relevant data sources, the workflow system can automatically generate the necessary reports and automatically make them available to the right people at a defined point in the process. What’s more, based on defined business rules, or by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities (see below), the integrated data can be used to guide decision-making, speeding up the process and relieving decision-makers from routine tasks or assessments.
- Artificial intelligence: AI technologies like machine learning, natural language processing (NLP), computer vision, and robotic process automation (RPA) can help automate process steps that previously could only be executed in a manual or semi-automated way by humans.
- Machine learning: Machine learning can be applied where a process step requires complex data analysis to detect patterns or make predictions and recommendations. Think of a caterer at sports events where the replenishment order on soft drinks may be highly dependent on the weather forecast.
- Natural language processing (NLP): NLP enables chatbots or digital voice assistants to automate certain interactions within a process or to fully automate simple workflows. Think of automated responses to high-volume routine inquiries like the status of purchase orders or invoices.
- Computer vision: Computer vision can extract complex, contextual information from images that can then be used to automate or inform other processes. One example is utility electricity grid operators who analyze satellite images for surface movement monitoring to inform their maintenance processes and automatically trigger service crews in case of events that might endanger their infrastructure. Alternatively, computer vision can create a predictive maintenance schedule where an automated visual inspection is used to trigger service requests only when needed rather than on a fixed timetable.
- Robotic process automation (RPA): RPA executes repetitive manual tasks within process flows by mimicking user interactions with the systems. A typical use case is bridging integration gaps by copying and pasting data from spreadsheets or other documents, like supplier e-mails, into a business system, which not only speeds up this task but also increases data accuracy.
Business workflow management and automation trends
Hyperautomation and intelligent automation
These are terms we’re hearing more and more every day. In fact, Gartner points out in a recent survey that over 85% of executives will “either increase or sustain their organization’s hyperautomation investments over the next 12 months, and over 56% already have four or more concurrent hyperautomation initiatives.”
Modern workflow management and automation solutions address this trend by combining many or all of the technologies mentioned above, into a single solution. This approach not only avoids the challenges created by a patchwork of different technologies from various vendors – it also significantly simplifies automation efforts. Users can access and leverage all capabilities whenever needed from within a single project without having to learn and switch between different development tools.
This is an additional trend that is changing the landscape of workflow management. A citizen developer is someone who is a strong user of complex software systems and is comfortable with technology but has little or no programming or coding skills. The visual tooling and drag-and-drop pre-built content make low-code/no-code solutions a game-changer for citizen developers. LCNC makes it possible for them to create and adapt workflows and processes, based on their extensive subject-matter expertise despite the inability to write code.
And LCNC adds huge value for professional developers as well. They can use the same drag and drop simplicity to complete standard tasks much faster than ever before. Using professional LCNC application tools, developers can create more complex workflows and automation and make this ready-to-use custom content more readily available.
Workflow management FAQs
A workflow process is a defined series or sequence of activities defined to achieve specific outcomes.
Different workflow software tools address different requirements. Fully featured workflow management solutions provide developers with pro-code tools needed to quickly build workflow applications or extend existing workflows outside business applications. Enterprise applications come with their own modeling environment, which provides developers and IT administrators the tools to model, configure, and administrate workflows within the app.
Both workflow management solutions and built-in modeling environments are increasingly adding capabilities that allow department process experts who don’t have the technical expertise to take ownership over workflow management. And low code/no code platforms are designed for line-of-business power users to build simple workflow apps for Web and mobile use without any need for coding skills.
Most organizations deploy multiple automation technologies to support different processes and varying requirements. Packaged industry and line-of-business applications provide best-practice workflows to ensure efficient and reliable operation of the high-volume core processes found in most organizations. Workflow management solutions and other advanced automation technologies, like robotic process automation or machine learning capabilities, help organizations to close specific automation gaps or to create processes that help them differentiate in the market.
Low-code/no-code platforms help citizen developers, as well as professional developers, to quickly address simple automation requirements.
A strategic approach to process automation requires the capability to seamlessly combine multiple automation technologies to avoid the challenges, such as compatibility- and integration-related, created by a patchwork of different automation capabilities from various vendors.
Process improvement projects frequently address challenges such as broken or outdated processes, the automation of manual or semi-manual work, the reduction of unnecessary process steps, or the reduction of avoidable delays. Optimization goals include improved efficiency, productivity, quality, and compliance, and/or reduced costs, waste, rework, and cycle times. These projects mostly seek to address specific operational challenges and focus on quick time-to-value.
Process transformation projects seek to innovate to deliver new value. Changing business models or the emergence of new technologies are frequent challenges that entail transformational projects. The transformation goal is often end-to-end process automation or a seamless customer experience across all touchpoints. These projects mostly seek to address critical high-value or -volume processes or customer-facing business functions.
SAP Insights Newsletter
Gain key insights by subscribing to our newsletter.