Definition

workflow automation

Workflow automation is an approach to making the flow of tasks, documents and information across work-related activities perform independently in accordance with defined business rules. When implemented, this type of automation should be a straightforward process that is executed on a regular basis to improve everyday productivity.

Criteria for deciding when to use workflow automation include the following:

  • The task is repetitive.
  • The task needs to be achieved accurately, without any chance of human error.
  • A series of simple tasks can be made more efficient when automated.

Workflow automation should make it easier for an organization to streamline its workflows and identify other areas that can be automated to increase efficiency. For example, some automated workflow tasks can be managing spreadsheets or emails.

Importance of workflow automation

Workflows should be automated whenever possible for numerous reasons, including faster operations and an increase in efficiency and accuracy. Other improvements include the following:

  • This emanates from increased task efficiency, allowing employees to work on other, nonautomated tasks.
  • Cost savings. The savings are due to increased productivity.
  • Visibility. If workflow mapping is implemented, then automation processes should be more transparent, giving an organization a top-down view of its workflows.
  • Communication improvements. If visibility is increased, then communication for employees can be more accurate.
  • Better customer service. This can be provided by automating responses to customer complaints, for example.
  • Potential to increase customer engagement. Customers might respond quicker using automation tools.
  • This can be improved because of an increased and mapped-out visibility of workflows.
  • Ridding redundancies. Workflow redundancies -- any task that is unnecessary -- can be identified more readily.
  • Improved overall end product. Human error is taken out of the equation.
  • Digital workflow can be tracked. This allows an organization to review how well its business operates.

Benefits of workflow automation

Benefits of workflow automation include the following:

  • reduced workflow cycles;
  • less need for manual labor;
  • less need for manual handling of products;
  • more visibility;
  • more visibility means an easier time identifying operational bottlenecks;
  • improved customer satisfaction when focus is placed on customers;
  • overall employee satisfaction, which eliminates the need for potentially dull, repetitive tasks;
  • improvements in employee satisfaction via providing workflow analysis tools, which can include dashboards and key performance indicators (KPIs); 
  • better internal and external communications;
  • more accountability for who is responsible for what in an organization resulting from each step in a business workflow being clearly assigned to one action;
  • providing employees time to manage other tasks;
  • increased production;
  • saved costs;
  • less potential for human error;
  • scalability, because workflow automations can be changed and added whenever needed; and
  • more efficient task management, with the inclusion of dashboards, calendars and other tools that can be made available through workflow automation software tools.

Uses of workflow automation

Workflow automation can be used in industries and departments such as in healthcare, legal, DevOps, finance, marketing, sales, IT and human resources (HR). The following shows examples of workflow automation in specific industries and areas:

For healthcare industries, workflow automation can be used in the automation of staff work schedules, as well as on-call rotations. Workflow automation can also be of aid in patient admission and discharge, as well as transferring patients' electronic health records automatically.

In legal departments, workflow automation can be used to automate billing, input new client information, submit and track contract reviews, and manage case deadlines.

In DevOps teams, automated workflows might include orchestration of the software development pipeline, monitoring and collecting data, developing testing code, and the deployment of tests and code. As an example, a DevOps group could automate tests of an e-commerce app.

In finances, workflow automation can be used in changing salaries, account approvals and automating paid time off (PTO) requests. Furthermore, marketing can use workflow automation for the management of organizational brands, while sales departments can automate the approval of proposals and quotes for workflows.

In IT organizations, workflow automation can be used to aid in dealing with security incidents, service requests and in setting up new accounts.

HR can automate workflows such as time sheets, onboarding and offboarding employees or managing other changes.

In general, workflow automation can also be used to schedule the uses of specific resources, monitor access to specific rooms and areas or approve invoices.

Workflow automation steps

There are five typical steps in implementing an automated workflow. The first step is to identify repetitive tasks that could benefit from being automated. If an organization sees an area of its workflow needs some sort of improvement -- whether it is due to a repetitive nature, prone to human error or has a high cost -- then the organization should consider automating that task; this step requires an in-depth knowledge of business operations.

The next step is to define business goals. To do this, an organization should be able to adequately address how its business goal will be achieved through implementing workflow automation in whichever defined area. Whether or not the workflow automation process is or isn't reaching the business goal also needs to be addressed. Ideally, the workflow discussed should be simple and can be adapted by the employees who will be using it.

The third step should be to choose the needed workflow automation software. This step requires the organization to pick which automation software they will use to help them best achieve their now-defined business goals.

The fourth step is to then train employees on how to use the new workflow automation software.

The final step is to begin measuring KPIs and changing the workflow accordingly. This step is to be taken once the new workflow is in place and running. KPIs should be measured, as well as feedback given by employees; both of these can help improve user experience (UX) and the overall workflow. Continuous monitoring and measurement can also be used to measure and continually improve the workflow, as well.

Examples of workflow automation

Even though any specific industry or department will have different needs for automation, some tasks that can be automated include the following:

  • the organization of documents using whichever file-system-sharing method a team uses;
  • the creation of tasks using emails, as an example;
  • making invoices or other accounting- and sales-related processes;
  • supporting customers through automating customer support processes, answering customer questions much faster.

Dynamic vs. static workflows

Workflow automation can be either dynamic or static. When automated workflow is dynamic, software can use a schema template to determine at runtime what step should be taken next.

static vs. flexible automationAutomated workflows can be static or flexible.

When automated workflow is static, there is no variance. Steps take place in a strict sequence, whether or not there are variables outside that could potentially affect the outcome. Whenever possible, a dynamic workflow should work with automation to promote agility.

Popular workflow automation software

An organization making an effort to implement workflow automation will need to pay attention to the software they choose to use. Workflow automation software should be easy to use, cost-effective and should be able to aid considerably in reaching the organization's business goals. Workflow automation software is usually distributed as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application; some vendors include Flokzu and Kissflow. SaaS apps will commonly include simple workflow tools for small and midsize organizations. Some specific workflow automation tools include the following:

  • ProcessMaker is a web-based, open source workflow automation tool. It is a relatively user-friendly tool and can be used in healthcare, telecommunications, manufacturing or education fields.
  • Flokzu is a cloud platform for workflow automation. The tool provides workflow templates, with a task-orientated interface and workflow. Flokzu does not require coding knowledge and is icon-based -- allowing, for example, the use of flow charts to help outline different processes.
  • Kissflow is workflow automation software that focuses on allowing users to create automated tasks and workflows with 50 preinstalled business process management apps. Kissflow can be used in HR, sales, finance, marketing and other departments.
  • Nintex is workflow automation software that requires little to no coding experience to use. This software allows enterprise users to manage and automate business processes, as well as optimize them. Nintex has more advanced tools featuring process mapping and advanced workflows.
  • Integrify is workflow automation software that allows users to build workflows using a drag-and-drop feature. Users are also able to collaborate on tasks and requests, run parallel or sequential flows, test processes, set reminders and automate other manual tasks. Integrify also offers a REST-based open API, which allows users to integrate with other external databases, as well as report data from different files, such as Excel and PDFs.

Workflow engine vs. business rule engine

Both a workflow engine and a business rule engine (BRE) can be implemented in an organization, and it is important to note that they are not the same thing. A workflow engine is a software application or tool made to help users automate a series of tasks that make up a workflow -- usually within a specific time frame. The software application that is used in workflow automation can be referred to as a workflow engine. The workflow engine helps an organization save time and effort in getting a process moving without delay.

A business rule engine, however, is used to make autonomous decisions based on rule sets. BREs operate on a set of conditions in software, which executes an app's code if specific criteria are met. In short, BREs set criteria for how software should behave in different states. Whereas a workflow engine is operated with the goal of workflow management, a BRE doesn't have any input on orchestrating tasks.

However, BREs operate more as a guideline for software to make specific decisions given the circumstance. Nontechnical users without much coding knowledge can use a business rule engine to change their software's behavior based on defined business requirements.

Workflow automation vs. RPA

Conceptually, robotic process automation (RPA) is similar to workflow automation. The difference is RPA is useful for automating individual, discrete tasks, while workflow automation is useful for automating a series of interdependent tasks. Both workflow automation and RPA rely on technology to automate tasks, but workflow automation places more emphasis on communication between disparate elements of the workflow. For example, in supply chain, workflow automation software might be used to make sure the right person is notified at the right time about what work has to be next.

This was last updated in October 2019

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