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Definition

workflow management

What is workflow management?

Workflow management is the discipline of creating, documenting, monitoring and improving upon the series of steps, or workflow, that is required to complete a specific task. The aim of workflow management is to optimize the steps in the workflow to ensure the task is completed correctly, consistently and efficiently.

In the language of workflow management, a trigger starts a workflow that is defined by the activities required to generate the result or outcome. The trigger can originate with an employee, vendor, customer or business partner (whether in person or via a digital channel). For example, an employee request to be reimbursed for travel expenses triggers a series of steps, or workflow, that results in timely payment to the employee. The workflow a company triggers to onboard new hires takes these new employees through a series of activities that results in their having all the benefits, access and authority required to do their jobs.

"It's about making sure information flows to the right people at the right time with clear indications of what actions they need to take," said George Westerman, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

What are different types of workflows?

At a basic level, workflows can be divided into the following two categories:

  • Sequential workflows involve a series of steps to be followed one after the other to complete the task. Rules-driven workflow is considered a subset of this category since it progresses along a sequential path based on which rules get triggered.
  • Parallel workflows involve a series of steps that can be tackled concurrently to move the task toward completion.

Approval of a loan application is often a sequential workflow, where completion of one step (i.e., income verification) is required before another can be taken (e.g., the establishment of credit terms).

Employee onboarding is an example of a parallel workflow, as HR can be signing up a new hire for benefits, IT can be assigning computer access and managers could be assigning a desk all at the same time.

It's important to note that other categorizations exist for workflows. Some vendors label the buckets as "process," "case" and "project" workflow. Others divvy them into "task-based," "request" and "delivery" workflows. Others include "state machine workflows" as a category, although it is more of a modeling style for workflows that are event-driven.

What are the basic components of a workflow?

Three basic components are required to successfully execute a workflow.

  • Input: all the information, materials and resources required to complete each step in the task.
  • Transformation: the actions taken to perform each step and move through the sequential or parallel steps. This speaks to what needs to be done, how and by whom.
  • Output: the result of each step that then becomes the input for follow-on steps within the workflow, with the finished task being the final output.

What are the benefits of workflow management?

The following reasons are the argument for doing workflow management:

  • First and foremost, the creation and documentation of structured workflows brings consistency to how tasks should happen.
  • As a result, the ability to complete a task does not reside with one person but rather can be taught and replicated by others, which brings operational resiliency to the organization.
  • Workflow management also creates visibility into how tasks are completed as well as the roles and steps dedicated to execution.
  • This visibility allows managers to see barriers, bottlenecks, inefficiencies or redundancies in the workflow, which in turn lets managers identify opportunities to streamline, automate and otherwise improve how efficiently and effectively a workflow can be done.
  • Automated, optimized and streamlined workflows translate into time and money savings.
  • Efficient workflows also help workers to be more productive as well as more satisfied with their jobs by removing repetitive, mundane and low-value activities from their schedules.
  • Workflow management also enables managers to better identify the skills required to complete all or part of the activities within the workflow and then align the right individuals and roles to each one of the activities. 
graphic showing benefits of workflow management

Workflow management vs. project management vs. BPM

A workflow is a consistent, repeatable set of activities within the enterprise, whereas a project is a temporary endeavor structured to either deliver a new function, service or item or improve upon an existing function, service or item.

Both workflows and projects require oversight, and as such they have similar management requirements. Workflow management focuses on creating and documenting workflows and determining what resources are required to execute those workflows. Similarly, project management focuses on creating and documenting the scope of projects as well as the resources required to execute on them.

However, workflow management also focuses on continuous improvement whereas project management has a finite lifespan, with oversight typically ending when the project is completed.

Workflow management vs. BPM. Business process management (BPM) and workflow management are sometimes used synonymously, but the two disciplines differ significantly in scope. Whereas workflow focuses on the management of steps within single tasks, BPM's goal is to improve and optimize business processes end to end.  

As explained by technology consultant Geoffrey Bock, principal of Bock & Company, in his article comparing BPM and workflow management, "workflow is designed to ensure specific users perform particular tasks. It focuses on the steps for performing a single activity."

BPM, in contrast, he explains, "sequences multiple activities across an enterprise … [that] often involve different departments or functional business units within an organization. They entail various interactions and information handoffs between multiple systems and people. BPM is frequently best represented through a process flow chart."

What is a workflow management system?

Organizations have created and managed workflows for centuries -- and they've had to manually manage them for nearly that whole span of time.

But organizations have been able to use software to support this task since the late 20th century.  Moreover, comprehensive workflow management systems that offer a wide range of functions have come onto the market in recent years.

"Workflow management tools allow you to manage workflows faster and better and more easily roll out new ones and change existing ones," Ram Palaniappan, CTO of applications at TEKsystems, an IT service management company.

Today workflow management systems provide numerous tools to digitally create, document, analyze and optimize workflows. They also have tools to streamline and automate steps within each workflow.

Workers define inputs, transformation and outputs, translating them in the workflow management systems as objects, rules and events so the system can assemble them together and automate where possible.

Workforce management platforms typically support customized workflows. But they also offer a service catalog of prebuilt workflows, which lets teams quickly implement managed workflows to rapidly streamline business processes. Additionally, some platforms have features that let organizations customize prebuilt workflows, so each enterprise can tweak them to its own unique needs.

Workflow management systems are now typically delivered as software as a service.

Demand for workflow management software (often abbreviated as WFMS or WfMS) is significant: Grandview Research valued the global WFMS market at $6.85 billion in 2020 and estimated that it would grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30.6% between 2021 and 2028. It noted that these systems "are gaining acceptance in the market as they help in improving efficiency and reducing operational cost."

Choosing a workflow management system

Enterprise leaders should ensure the workflow management system they're considering offers a competitive set of functions, such as the ability to do the following:

  • map and define workflows;
  • create custom workflows;
  • access and use prebuilt workflows;
  • customize prebuilt workflows;
  • automate notifications;
  • integrate with existing enterprise systems (including legacy systems, if applicable); and
  • measure and report on workflow performance.

Enterprise leaders should also consider whether they want low-code/no-code features, and they should evaluate user interface and visualization features to ensure the selected system will meet the needs of the workers using it.

They should also evaluate systems based on enterprise criteria for technology selection, such as the level of service a vendor offers and whether live vendor support is available.

Many organizations put significant value on a platform's ease of use, as operations workers as well as business function leaders and staff (versus technologists) are the primary users of the technology, said workflow management expert Meg Lundquist, director of operations at education technology company Archer Education.

Workflow management best practices

Although implementing a workflow management system can help the enterprise in its efforts to continually improve and automate workflows, operations experts said organizations should also implement the following best practices:

  • Commit adequate resources to workflow management and create accountability for successfully driving continuous improvement.
  • Aim to create workflows that are easy for workers to follow and watch for worker shortcuts that indicate the need or potential to streamline.
  • Find activities that can be eliminated or automated to bring further efficiencies to workflows.
  • Similarly, look for activities within workflows that can be digitalized, thereby eliminating any remaining paper-based requirements.
  • Leverage the workflow management system to its fullest potential to be best positioned to optimize and rethink workflows and even retire obsolete ones.
This was last updated in April 2022

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