workflow automation workflow management
Definition

workflow

What is a workflow?

Workflow is the series of activities that are necessary to complete a task. Each step in a workflow has a specific step before it and a specific step after it, with the exception of the first and last steps.

In a linear workflow, an outside event usually initiates the first step. If the workflow has a loop structure, however, the completion of the last step will usually restart the first step.

Tools such as flowcharts and process maps are used to visualize the steps involved in a process and the order they should go in. Flowcharts use simple geometric symbols and arrows to define if-then relationships. Process maps look similar, but they may also include support information. That information documents the resources that each step in a business process requires.

Workflow can be automated with software tools that use business rules to decide when one step has been completed successfully and the next step can begin. Some workflow management apps can also coordinate dependent relationships between individual steps, a concept known as workflow orchestration. Workflow management software also provides workflow templates for documentation and business process modeling, two important aspects of business process management (BPM).

list of 7 ways workflow management optimizes tasks
Find out about seven ways workflow management improves tasks.

Types of workflows

Workflows are categorized in various ways. At a basic level, they get grouped using one of these two approaches:

  • Sequential. This type of workflow has a series of steps that happen one after the other to complete the task. A loan application approval typically follows a sequential workflow, where a step is finished before the next one starts. A rules-driven workflow is a subset; based on sequential workflow, a rules-driven workflow progresses along a sequential path based on which rules get triggered.
  • Parallel. With this approach, a series of steps is tackled concurrently to move the task toward completion. Employee onboarding workflow often takes a parallel approach because many of the tasks required of a new hire -- from healthcare insurance enrollment to security clearances to direct deposit forms -- can happen simultaneously.

There are other ways to categorize workflows, including the following three:

  • Process workflow. This approach is comprised of a predictable, repetitive sequence of tasks or steps.
  • Case workflow. With these processes, the exact sequence of steps needed to complete the task are unknown at the start and can vary case by case.
  • Project workflow. The flow of steps proceeds in a structured path similar to process workflow, but there is some flexibility in when, how and even if all those steps must happen.

More infrequently, some people categorize processes as delivery, request- or task-based workflows. A state machine workflow is another possible category. It's traditionally considered a modeling style for event-driven workflows.

Workflows are also sometimes distinguished as manual or digital. Digital workflows are usually automated workflows and ones that use artificial intelligence (AI). Manual and digital workflows are also sometimes called human-centered versus system-centered workflows, respectively.

Examples and uses of workflows

Business workflows exist in every organization across all industries. Some follow similar steps, if not identical, in many organizations. Others are unique to industries or the enterprise that's using it.

Workflows can be found in all departments and functions in an organization from product development and project management to back-office administration and front-end customer service. Some workflows are highly structured, while others are completely unstructured. Many fall between those two extremes.

Each workflow moves data from one step to the next. That's what distinguishes a workflow from a checklist, which is a collection of unrelated tasks.

A company would use a workflow to describe the process for paying an electric bill. It likely involves the following steps:

  1. receiving the bill;
  2. reviewing the bill;
  3. approving payment; and
  4. disbursing the funds for payment.

A checklist can ensure adherence to the routine for powering down all electricity in a facility at the end of a business day. That's a process that doesn't necessarily involve specific steps happening in a certain order.

Typical processes that involve workflows include the following:

  • approval of employee paid time-off requests;
  • billing and invoicing;
  • customer onboarding;
  • intake of a customer request;
  • onboarding new employees;
  • performance assessment;
  • processing sales orders;
  • product assembly;
  • sales fulfillment; and
  • IT help desk ticket submission.

What are the components of a workflow?

There are three basic components within every workflow:

  1. Input is also called start or trigger. It is the information, materials and resources required to complete each step within the task.
  2. Transformation is also referred to as work. It involves the actions taken to perform each step and move through the sequential or parallel steps.
  3. Output is also called result or outcome. It is the result of each step that then becomes the input for follow-on steps within the workflow. The finished task is the final output.

How to create a workflow

Workflows exist in organizations even if they're not well-defined or managed to any degree. However, workflows that are not planned or managed often have operational inefficiencies.

On the other hand, workflows that are thoughtfully created and well managed are efficient. They are also less prone to errors and likely to improve over time.

The creation of a workflow involves multiple steps, which can be depicted in a workflow diagram as a sequence of steps or written as a list of required actions.

Creating a process-improving workflow requires the following series of tasks:

  1. Identify the start and endpoint of the process.
  2. List or map out each step required to move from the start point to the endpoint.
  3. Assess whether these tasks must happen in a specific order and, if so, list or map them accordingly.
  4. Determine and document the resources and roles within the organization that are required to complete each step. Add required workflow rules or business process descriptions.
  5. Execute workflow.

Most organizations use workflow management systems to set up, document and monitor workflows. These systems have libraries of prebuilt workflows and provide building blocks that businesses can use to create new workflows. Some also have AI capabilities that can identify and add efficiencies and improve business operations and processes.

What is workflow management?

Once an organization has created and documented a workflow, it must manage it as part of its overall BPM efforts. Workflow management is the discipline of creating, documenting, monitoring and improving a workflow. This process enables organizations to optimize workflows, ensuring each step is completed correctly, consistently and efficiently.

Workflow management also lets organizations identify and correct bottlenecks, superfluous steps and other problems within the workflow. Many of these could slow the execution of tasks in the workflow, increase the risk of errors and require more resources than necessary to complete an activity.

When effectively implemented, workflow management can continuously improve workflows within an organization. Consequently, it saves time and money while reducing errors.

Demand for workforce management tools is strong: A 2021 market report on workflow management systems from Reportlinker.com put the global market for this technology at $4.1 billion in 2020 and predicted it would reach $17.5 billion by 2026.

5 steps in the business process management lifecycle
Workflow management is a part of business process management (BPM). See the five steps that make up the BPM lifecycle.

What is workflow automation?

Workflow management also enables organizations to identify steps in a workflow or entire workflows that can be automated using defined business rules.

Workflow automation produces many benefits for the enterprise, including the following:

  • faster execution of workflows;
  • a reduction in errors when manual tasks are eliminated;
  • cost savings as a result of both increased streamlined processes;
  • improved employee morale, by eliminating repetitive low-value tasks; and
  • improved customer satisfaction, because process automation speeds customer service and resolution of customer requests.

Learn more about workflow and how it differs from BPM.

This was last updated in April 2022

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