Jan 11, 2019

What is a workflow? 

Learn how to automate business processes

Understanding digital workflow calls for a straightforward definition of the practice, so here's one we like: digital workflow is the definition, execution, and automation of business processes. Tasks, information, and documents pass from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules.

Organizations use digital workflows to coordinate activities between people and to synchronize data between systems. The goal is to improve efficiency, responsiveness, and profitability.

Fully functional digital workflows provide the following four key benefits:

  • Improved productivity
  • Process transparency
  • Faster business reaction time
  • Improved accountability

What they do

Digital workflows do a great deal. Because they automate the stream of employee activities, they reduce process time, help eliminate potential human error, and make procedures more efficient, compliant, agile, and visible. And because they define every step explicitly and monitor steps over time, they optimize productivity.

How does that play out for business? Simply put, with the up-to-the-minute process data digital workflows provide, managers and employees can act faster and make smarter decisions. What's more, these workflows empower users and IT to work together to rapidly adapt as changes in the business occur.

The following workflow types are currently in use:

Sequential workflows: Based on flow charts, these workflows progress from one step to the next with no provision for stepping back.

State machine workflows: These more complex workflows, which can return to a previous point, progress from state to state – that is, from one operation to the next.

Rules-driven workflows: These workflows, based on sequential ones, follow rules that dictate progress from one step to the next.

Workflow software best practices

Here's a key trait of successful organizations. They adapt and customize their IT to meet customer demands – demands that often call for better collaboration, communication, and coordination.

Of course, improving these factors involves process analysis and change. So the challenge for IT is to find solutions that allow users to maintain control of the business logic embedded in existing processes. That's where business process management (BPM) software can help. BPM is an integrated collection of critical software systems – strategic technology for controlling and managing cross-enterprise business processes. It can deploy, monitor, and continuously optimize functionality within a mixed environment of people, content, and systems.

Over the years, BPM has evolved beyond just automating human-centric processes. Today it's become part of enterprise application integration (EAI). EAI, a framework comprised of technologies and services, consolidates systems and applications across an organization.

BPM software also gets data from business process modeling and analysis, a representation that shows companies ways to improve and automate. And it gets additional intelligence from business activity monitoring, which applies technology to seek out critical opportunities and risks. In other words, BPM software now supports the complete process improvement cycle, from definition to implementation, using monitoring and analysis for ongoing optimization.

Digital workflow examples

Here's how digital workflow is making different industries more efficient and productive: 

  • HR: Workflow applications automate and execute procedures such as starter, leaver, and annual review. 
  • Banking: Workflows automate client onboarding, approval cycles for investment decisions, and cycles for a mortgage or loan request. 
  • Manufacturing: Quality assurance workflows address non-conformities, complaints, requests, and preventive maintenance. 
  • Customer service: Workflows assign tasks to agents who handle customer requests. 
  • Defense/Emergency: Workflows manage activities in a situation room. 
  • Travel: Workflows handle client vacations, hotel reservations, flight reservations, and so on for a travel agency.

The benefits of workflow software

And here are just some of the ways digital workflow software is helping enterprise.

It unleashes new ways of thinking – While helping firms execute and run common applications like Outlook and Word, the technology simultaneously fosters innovation and creativity.

It improves productivity – Automated digital workflows optimize productivity and reduce the time spent on manual tasks.

It heightens visibility – Through graphical representation, workflows help managers see the state of business-critical processes at every point along the way in real time.

It speeds up business reaction to change – Workflow software lets businesses react quickly and smoothly to market fluctuations through process modifications.

It improves accountability – Use workflows to monitor time to execute business functions, creating productivity measurement and continual process improvement.

Workflow software history

Workflow engines and business rules formed the basis of the workflow-software solutions introduced in the '90s, which replaced paper-based task-routing activities with automated electronic forms. By the late '90s, however, the workflow-software market had evolved to include business rules engines, policy management, modeling tools, process monitoring, and optimization.

In 2005, Microsoft deployed the Windows Workflow Foundation, which replaced the basic workflow engines with sophisticated digital workflow functionality.

Today's workflow software has modeling, execution, simulation, optimization, and monitoring features.

About the author

James Luxford

James Luxford

VP, Digital Solutions

Follow James Luxford on LinkedIn