Workflow automation: what it is, and why you should care
Running any organization smoothly involves performing and managing many formal and informal processes. These processes are perfected over time, and usually involve people, actions, materials, and of course time. Another characteristic of these processes is that they are repeated, over and over. So, a relatively common way to refer to a process or a combination of processes to achieve a task is that of a ‘workflow’, which, simply put, refers to a series of ordered steps that lead to a specific goal.
Workflows are a critical part of business operations. However, they can also be tedious and time-consuming when executed manually (as they often are). In a bid to improve productivity and simplify repetitive workflows, many businesses have turned to workflow automation tools. As the name suggests, such tools help automate workflows so that your personnel can have more time for more critical aspects of your business.
Let’s first take a closer look at what workflows look like and how businesses use them. Then, let’s explore some of the kinds of workflows that can be automated and the precise capabilities that workflow automation tools bring to the table.
A detailed look at workflows
To expand upon the very brief definition of ‘workflow’ provided above, a workflow is a series of tasks that must be performed in a specific order to accomplish a particular business goal in a repeatable manner. Such goals might range from processing invoices to handling support tickets.
Workflows are different from individual tasks in that tasks are usually only meant to be performed once, while the whole point of a workflow is to ensure repeatability. Moreover, they are different from projects because while projects also consist of a set of tasks to be performed, they may not be critically dependent on the order in which those tasks are performed.
Workflows are so important to modern business operations that there’s a whole discipline called ‘workflow management’ that deals with the development, documentation, supervision, and improvement of workflows. Workflow automation is simply one aspect of workflow management.
Let’s take a concrete example of a process that can be reduced to a workflow: remote employee onboarding. The workflow for this might look something like this:
- Have the new employee digitally sign a contract and any other documents that might be required.
- Send a welcome email to the new employee.
- Have the employee provide certain tax-related details.
- Add the employee’s personal details to the company’s employee database.
- Draw up a schedule to provide the employee with the training they need.
While this is indeed technically a workflow, most businesses think of and use workflows in the form of graphical representations, very similar to the way algorithms are visually depicted:
Such workflow diagrams are then typically augmented with workflow documentation, which provides more details about each step of a workflow, such as:
- the precise method used to execute each step
- the hardware and software tools required to execute each step
- who is responsible for the completion of each step
The combination of workflow diagrams and documentation gives businesses a more detailed and comprehensive view of workflows, and can help identify inefficiencies and potential tweaks.
Why workflow automation is vital
As you might imagine, executing workflows manually can quickly get tedious. For instance, if a company has to invoice 20 clients at the end of the month, the client invoicing workflow (which might consist of anywhere between 5 and 10 individual tasks) might have to be executed 20 times by some hapless employee. Increase this exponentially as the company grows and you could easily see how things can get out of control quickly!
The situation would look even worse with more workflows. A business with 10 different workflows to be executed at various points in time might see the overall productivity of its personnel drop precipitously.
Moreover, workflows might require several employees to coordinate with each other, as different workflow tasks might be assigned to different people. Keeping track of who is doing what, and what stage the workflow is at, can be yet another blow to personnel productivity.
These problems can be solved by making use of workflow automation software. Such software either fully automates a workflow or minimizes the amount of manual intervention required. This allows employees to use their time on more engaging and critical business tasks, ultimately boosting employee morale and improving business performance.
Examples of workflow automation
Let’s take a quick look at the sorts of workflows that can be (and routinely are) automated within modern businesses, and the role that workflow automation tools play:
1. Handling leads
Acquiring a new sales lead can be a time-consuming process that might not yield any useful results. Thus, it makes sense to automate this process and bring in your sales team only during the later stages of the sales process.
The workflow for this could be automated by picking up leads’ details from a contact form on your website, populating your CRM database with those details, and then sending a mail to your sales team so that it can follow up.
2. Generating invoices
Many businesses need to generate fixed monthly invoices for certain clients. The creation and dispatch of such invoices can be easily automated.
3. Managing support tickets
Handling requests for support, whether internally or from clients, is important for businesses. This process can be automated by gathering information about the nature of the support required through a form and then assigning each ticket to a particular support technician.
4. Handling requests for leave
Normally, to request some time off, an employee would email their manager; the manager would then approve the request and forward the leave details to payroll and HR.
However, if an employee submits a request for leave to an automated system, then the latter can automatically populate the payroll and HR systems with the details of the leave, and the manager only has to approve the leave. The system can also help the manager make their decision by indicating any overlaps among the days off taken by different employees.
As you might have gathered from these examples, capturing information is often an important first step in many workflows, and this is usually done through forms. Forms are usually created in an ad-hoc way by web programmers and much like workflows themselves they can be complex and take a lot of time to build and maintain. In addition, the forms are often integral to the workflow, which means, they must be able to capture and process many kinds of information and attachments, and pass that information to other steps in the workflow process.
So as you can see, the combination of having to create, deploy, and manage forms, which must also work in sync with established workflows can quickly become overwhelming as the organization scales, and often what ends up happening is individual participants in workflows start installing their own apps on their devices to try to relieve some of the pain points through technology. The problem with this approach is that you end up with disparate applications spread through different departments and individuals, resulting in slower workflows and other potential problems. Luckily there’s a better way.
Boost your bottom line with workflow automation
There are no two ways about it: workflows are essential to keeping businesses running like clockwork. Given their indispensability, it is crucial to make their execution as efficient as possible, and automating them goes a long way towards this. This is where enterprise-grade electronic forms and automation tools like dbs LiveForms come into play. These tools provide organizations with the ability to create and manage dynamic electronic forms with an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface requiring no advanced coding knowledge. They also have business rules, workflow, and electronic signature capabilities that make modeling entire workflows a breeze, in addition to the simplicity of managing the steps of the workflow through individual user dashboards. So tools like dbs LiveForms provide organizations with a great way to get a leg up on managing their workflows.
dbs LiveForms is a powerful electronic forms and business process automation solution that can help your organization automate workflows and unlock massive gains in productivity. If your organization is struggling with managing forms with complex workflows, this might just be the solution you need. The great news is that you can try using dbs LiveForms with no commitment and completely free! Get in touch with us to get started!