Workflow management: A beginner’s guide to workflow automation and business process management
Process automation started with simple workflows in the 1980s as organisations looked for ways to drive efficiency. Today, business software applications support standard and best practice workflows and help businesses automate key functions. Yet increasingly, businesses need to extend and optimise workflows even further to improve efficiency and drive transformative change and agility. This may mean optimising workflows within a business application, and/or improving workflows across different systems. Fortunately, new technologies include automation capabilities and are helping companies rise to this challenge.
The basics: What is a workflow?
A simple definition of workflow is 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 may have defined variations.
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 digitalised or automated: Automated workflows run in a dedicated business application in a structured and defined way, following defined business rules.
What is the difference between a workflow and a business process?
A workflow is a more specific, standalone task. 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 defined threshold. This workflow is part of a larger business process for how to purchase goods and services within an organisation and would include guidelines for vendor selection or a list of appropriate vendors, how to issue a request for proposal (RFP) to select a vendor for services, and so forth.
Here are some other common workflow examples:
- Approving purchase order requests
- Approving a vacation request
- Processing a bill payment
- Hiring an employee
- Requesting a replacement part
- Sending an invoice to a customer
What is workflow management and why is it important?
Workflow management is the process of digitising discrete processes and managing the outcomes. And, workflow management software allows you to build, run, and manage workflows.
Here are some of the key benefits and outcomes to expect with workflow management:
- Greater efficiency: Increase your automation rate to drive faster and better outcomes while making things easier for those involved. For example, with workflow management tools 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 processes to meet changing operational needs, create process innovations to support new business models, and fix broken processes for greater business resilience and flexibility.
- Stronger compliance: With clear responsibilities and data-based audit trails, you are able to monitor and manage outcomes and better ensure compliance with policies and regulations.
Out-of-the-box business process automation vs. custom workflows
Business applications support standard workflows following best practices for business processes. For example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are specifically designed to run core processes, like finance, manufacturing, supply chain, services, procurement, and others, in every company. Modern ERP suites not only provide extensive workflow management capabilities, but they also incorporate innovative technologies (discussed below) to automate their business processes and stay competitive through increased efficiencies and process innovations. Similarly, industry solutions and line of business applications, for example human capital management (HCM) software for HR, support best-practice business processes specific to a certain industry or department.
But, there are often automation requirements that may not be addressed with standard workflows and processes available in packaged business applications. Unique business requirements – ones that help you differentiate from the competition and deliver unique services or products to customers – may merit a radical rethinking of your business process or the creation of a new one. Changing market conditions may call for adapting standard processes to new requirements not covered by your existing processes or for enabling process variants. And manual or semi-automated work that precedes or accompanies transactions in your enterprise applications may offer potential for productivity and efficiency gains through additional automation.
How to address your business automation needs
There are several different ways to tackle your automation requirements. Here are several common scenarios:
- Minimal adjustments to 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, increasingly, modern software tools come with additional automation features that use artificial intelligence (AI) or robotic process automation (RPA) capabilities already embedded.
- 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. Workflow management systems combine workflow and business rules, enabling developers to digitalise processes with workflows and decision logic. These dedicated workflow tools allow you to flexibly adapt process flows and create variations in a low-code approach within defined limits. Process visibility dashboards along with a centralised inbox for all workflows across all applications allow business users to monitor and proactively manage process outcomes.
- Cross-department process orchestration: Cloud based workflow management systems are also the go-to option for so-called cross-line-of-business orchestrations. These are business processes that span across different applications, systems, and services. Think of hybrid landscapes where your automation requirements need you to connect multiple disconnected workflows running in different applications. Or, consider 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.
- Lightweight departmental processes: For department processes involving only simple request or approval workflows, forms, some robotic process automation, or case management, capabilities can be addressed with low-code or no-code development platforms. Drag-and-drop functionalities enable business users with no coding skills to build lightweight workflow apps tailored to their specific needs.
How to get started with workflow automation
Here are a few basic tips to help you build upon the workflow automation you may already have.
- Start with tasks that have well defined steps and are repeated frequently.
Ad-hoc or one-time activities or tasks are not good candidates for setting up workflows or processes. But if tasks are repeated, with formalised steps, sequences, and rules, it ensures the workflow or business process is done right every time – involving the right people, in the right order, considering the right information and within a specified timeframe. A planned and modeled workflow or business process is the first step to improving efficiency by reducing redundant tasks and activities.
- Increase automation rate.
Increasing the automation rate within a workflow or business process is the next step to optimise its efficiency and improve its outcome. The most basic level of workflow automation is that once a task is completed, a system is programmed to automatically handle the flow to the next task and so on until completion. Think of an employee submitting a purchase request: the approving manager automatically gets a notification to review and a simple click to approve automatically triggers the purchase in the procurement system.
- Automate execution.
The next step is having the system automatically execute one or multiple tasks without human involvement. This is where digital transformation and the proliferation of new automation technologies in recent years have opened up opportunities to increase the level of automation within a process flow.
Organisations have very different requirements and goals for workflow and business process automation. Some just want to extend or adapt their existing workflows to meet changing requirements. For many the target is to increase their automation rate or to take a strategic approach to end-to-end automation of mission critical processes to stay competitive. And market leaders take advantage of digitalisation and the emergence of new technologies to leverage advanced automation technologies to transform their business and chart a new path.
The role of advanced technologies in workflow management
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, or 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 that analyse satellite images for surface movement monitoring to inform their maintenance processes and automatically trigger service crews in case of events that 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.
Workflow technologies enable standardised 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 delivering a better experience.
How to leverage data to drive better process outcomes
Fully digitalised workflows and processes enable data-based operational excellence. By monitoring and tracking process performance against targets, organisations can manage process outcomes and foster better experiences. Dashboards provide business users with timely visibility into the overall performance of their ongoing processes against KPIs, milestones, or phases. Alerts highlight tasks that require immediate and special (or “exception”) handling. And business rules or machine learning capabilities recommend next-best actions for optimal remediation. Using process data can drive improved response times, increase accuracy and effectiveness of operations, as well as ensure compliance with SLAs, policies, and regulations.
Advanced process analytics tools enable a strategic, data-based approach to business process improvement and transformation projects. Data-based process discovery provides transparency into as-is processes as they are really executed in business systems, including all variants, deviations, manual work, rework, cycle times, and compliance issues, for example. Organisations can significantly accelerate their projects and increase their ROI by:
- Comparing similar processes across business units, organisations, and country units and against industry benchmarks to identify and standardise on best practices process flows (golden template)
- Identifying and assessing existing process inefficiencies to be remediated in the project
- Pinpointing gaps between the intended process and standard functionality present in the target system
Creating transparency into as-is processes not only helps pinpoint opportunities for automation, improvement, and transformation, but allows organisations to:
- Prioritize, structure, and streamline process projects
- Assess process requirements and best suitable automation technology
- Avoid the common mistake of automating ineffective and poorly designed processes
- Validate improvements and determine the ROI by comparing process performance before and after a project
Key takeaways for your workflow and process automation strategy
In the digital age, any workflow and process automation strategy needs to strike the right balance between three dimensions:
- Ensure efficient and reliable operations. Leverage packaged enterprise applications to deliver a proven framework for adopting best-practice core processes and enabling economies of scale.
- Drive agility and responsiveness. Add additional automation capabilities to quickly meet new business requirements not currently covered by core processes and enable competitive advantages through differentiating process innovations
- Manage costs and complexities. Avoid the challenges created by a patchwork of different capabilities from various vendors and prepare for the convergence of automation technologies.
Small projects that leverage one or two automation technologies offer the opportunity for quick wins. But supporting multiple processes with varying automation requirements can quickly drive up complexity. A patchwork of different automation technologies from various vendors creates compatibility and integration challenges that slow down projects and drive up costs. This is why a strategic approach to process automation requires the capability to deploy multiple automation technologies to support different tasks and varying requirements along an end-to-end process.
Leveraging a technology platform that delivers both multiple process automation technologies and a first-class integration between these and your business applications helps you to avoid compatibility and integration challenges that slow down projects and drive up costs.
What’s more, pre-built RPA bots and pre-defined process automation content packages are another approach to addressing common business challenges – and are designed specifically to work with your packaged enterprise applications, can accelerate time-to-value, and help enhance the ROI of your applications.
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 modelling 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 modelling environments are increasingly adding capabilities that allow department process experts who don’t have 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 organisations 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 organisations. Workflow management solutions and other advanced automation technologies, like robotic process automation or machine learning capabilities, help organisations 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. Optimisation 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.
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