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What is workflow?

A workflow is typically defined as a set of activities or steps that are necessary to complete a task. Workflows move information between humans and systems, and are focused, quite literally, on making work flow.

What exactly is a workflow?

Getting work done in today’s modern organizations often requires understanding the people, systems and information needed to effectively complete tasks. This knowledge can be difficult to keep track of, can change without any warning and is often only understood by a small group of people. By utilizing workflow, organizations can remove some of these bottlenecks to ensure that work is done effectively and efficiently.

Workflows are a sequence of activities or tasks that are used to orchestrate the flow of information and work between people and systems in a structured way. They are typically used to provide structure to the way a business function or process is done and are used across all industries. Workflows can be defined and documented manually or can be defined by utilizing workflow automation software.

Workflows can be utilized for all types of business activities, from relatively simple, internally focused processes like content creation or very complex activities, that involve multiple departments and people, many different enterprise systems and hundreds of individual steps.

Learn more with our eBook, “Demystifying Workflow.”

What is the purpose of a workflow?

The purpose of a workflow is to provide a blueprint for getting specific business functions or processes done. Workflows define the people, systems and information that are involved in an activity and provide the order in which each step should be done to successfully complete the activity. Workflows provide a consistent approach to completing critical business activities and are often critical to ensuring that governance and compliance standards are met, particularly in industries that are heavily regulated.

The three basic components of a workflow

Workflows are commonly made up of three main components – actions or steps, data, and business rules/logic. Together, these three components provide the blueprint for what activities get done, the data and systems that are involved, and how the workflow flows from one step to another.

Actions, or steps, define the specific set of activities that need to be completed in order to move the workflow forward. This may be a task done by a human or digital worker or may involve integration with a 3rd party line-of-business system or application.

Most workflows involve moving data from one place to another. Data is inclusive of the type of information that is being acted on as well as the system or systems where the data is stored.

Business rules and logic help define the order in which each action needs to be completed and provide information on any dependencies that exist between each action. For example, your organization may have an expense report policy that requires a 2nd level of approval if the total amount of expenses are greater than $10,000. This is a business rule that will define the set of actions that need to be taken and in what order the expense approval steps need to be completed.

The differences between workflows and processes

The terms “workflow” and “process” are often used interchangeably, but they are different, related, things. A workflow is the description or blueprint of the sequence of steps needed to accomplish a task. Process is a broader term that generally relates to everything involved in getting work done in a structured way. Processes include workflows but also include information about the people involved, interfaces used to capture information, and the reports and metrics used to measure success.

In the context of workflow automation, a workflow, or workflow diagram, is the physical implementation of the process.

What are the types of workflows?

In general, there are two main types of workflows – structured vs unstructured. Each type of workflow follows the same basic principle – a set of actions or steps that need to be done in order to accomplish a task.

Structured workflow

Structured workflows are a clearly defined set of actions that are always done in the same way. An example of a structured workflow is a travel request approval. Each travel request needs to go through a defined set of steps such as Employee requests travel dates → Manager approves travel dates → Airline ticket booked. There may be exceptions involved, for example a different level of approval needed for domestic vs. international travel, but in a structured workflow, exceptions are clearly defined.

In the context of workflow automation, structured workflows are typically more easily automated. Steps and exceptions are easily defined, and business rules can be used to configure the necessary logic to handle the flow of work, even when an exception to that standard process occurs.

Find out how Zoom automated their structured workflows with Nintex.

Unstructured workflow

Unstructured workflows are less clearly defined. The steps needed to complete the task may be loosely related or may be based on data or decisions made as part of the workflow. An example of an unstructured workflow is a car insurance claims process. For each claim, the set of actions taken will be dependent on a number of criteria that will change for each claim. These criteria may be easily defined, for example, the type of claim (car accident, storm damage, etc.), or may be less easily defined. For example, a claim for storm damage may require an assessor to make a physical examination of the car to determine the extent of the damage. The decision she makes during the examination could be based on many different things including information on the local weather, the customer’s previous claims, her previous experience, etc., and will most likely vary from claim to claim.

In the context of workflow automation, unstructured workflows are more difficult to automate and require workflow tools that support more complex logic. This logic is often described as a “case management” or “state machine” workflow.

Learn how claims service provider Keogh utilizes Nintex to automate their case management workflows.

What are automated and manual workflows?

A manual workflow simply means that to move from one step to another requires human intervention. Conversely, an automated workflow uses technology to move from step to step. In both types of workflows, humans may be involved in every step but the requirements of the person are different between the two types.

In a manual workflow, the human is responsible for making sure each step of the workflow is done completely and correctly. In the travel request example above, the employee requesting travel may need to physically speak to, or send an email to his manager to provide the information about travel dates, preferred airline, etc.

In an automated workflow, when the employee completes the travel request, perhaps through a digital form that gets submitted, the workflow system picks up the information and automatically routes the request to the manager, automatically sending a notification to let her know she has a request to approve.

Automated workflows do not mean that all the work is done digitally or that humans aren’t involved in decision-making. In the claims processing example from above, the assessor still needs to do the physical examination of the car, but once she has made her decision, the workflow steps after that are automatically started without her intervention.

While automated workflows make it easier to track items, ensure consistent processes, and reduce the time it takes to complete tasks, both manual and automated workflows provide many benefits.

What are examples of workflows?

There are workflows all around us, so it is very likely that you have interacted with a workflow without knowing it! Almost any task or activity you do on a regular basis is probably part of a workflow in some way. Do you send regular status reports to your manager? That’s a workflow. Fill out benefits forms that are sent to your HR team annually? That’s a workflow. How about tracking customer orders in a spreadsheet? Yes, that’s a workflow too.

Workflows can be internally focused or externally focused and the examples are almost endless. Some common workflow examples are:

  • Employee onboarding/offboarding
  • Travel requests
  • Expense claims
  • Vendor management
  • Customer onboarding
  • Purchase requests
  • Incident management

Workflows can also be very specific to the industry your company is in. Common industry-specific workflow examples are:

  • Insurance Claims Processing
  • Legal New Matter Intake
  • Product Lifecycle Management
  • Clinical Trial Management
  • Pharmaceutical Quality Assurance

What are the benefits of workflow?

There are many benefits for organizations who focus on workflows. Regardless of if you are focused on manual or automated workflows, some of the benefits include:

  • Elimination of redundant tasks
  • Improved efficiency
  • Better visibility into how work gets done
  • Accountability and ownership
  • Collaboration

In addition, automated workflows provide additional benefits like:

  • Automated audit trails
  • Decreased processing time
  • Reduction of human-based errors
  • Improved productivity

Many organizations who implement workflow automation see a significant return on investment, delivering results that positively affect key business drivers including employee productivity, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth.

Getting started with workflow

Now that you’ve learned what workflows are and how they can benefit your business, you may be wondering how to get started. The good news is that you can get started identifying workflows very easily. Start by talking to people in the business to identify common tasks that are done on a regular basis.

From there, you can start documenting your workflows to identify the people, systems and data that are involved in each. Special tools are not needed to document your workflows, but a purpose-built process mapping or process management tool can make the job easier.

Once your workflows have been documented, you can determine if there are workflows you would like to automate. To automate your workflows, you will need workflow automation software. Workflow automation software allows you to create a visual representation of the workflow and to configure the business logic and system integration needed to automate each of the steps involved. There are many different types of workflow automation software on the market today. The best tools let you build all types of workflows, both structured and unstructured.

In addition, some workflow automation software includes additional, related capabilities like digital form development, document generation, robotic process automation, eSignatures and task or process mining to make the discovery and identification of workflows more automated.

Depending on your organization’s needs, you will want to evaluate workflow automation tools to ensure that the capabilities they provide will meet all the needs you have. Keeping future needs in mind may also be helpful as you will want to choose a tool that is flexible enough that it grows along with you as you expand workflow automation further in your organization.