Subject to a variety of interpretations, “workflow” can mean anything from the steps in a work process to Business Process Automation.
It is a fairly general term that can be applied to refer to either:
- A collection of business processes which collectively serve to accomplish the business objectives of an organisation.
- An individual business Workflow Process that is defined to accomplish a specific set of business operations (tasks).
- A process is distinguished from a workflow because it has well-defined inputs, outputs (i.e. a work-item) and purposes – Whereas workflow refers more generally to multiple related processes.
A Workflow Process is composed of specific manual and/ or automatic tasks that are connected by paths that allow work to flow based on rules defined within each process.
Workflows can be as simple as filling out and getting travel requests approved, or as complex as the steps involved in connecting disparate departments to manage inventory.
The traditional processes in a business without workflow automation software are tenuous. Employees have to physically hand deliver documents, sort through files, and notify people of tasks they need to complete via email, notes and meetings.
These manual procedures can often be defined, standardised and set to specific business rules in an electronic environment; this is workflow automation.
Workflow automation is a defined set of rules required to accomplish a specific goal; the software is able to automatically route tasks through the process to each subsequent step, all the way to the completion of that goal.
- A salesman incurs an expense and fills out an electronic form directly within the system.
- He takes a photo of his receipt with his iPhone camera and attaches it to the expense form he just completed.
- When he presses the submit button, it is uploaded and deposited into the Document Management repository.
- The system recognises the total amount on the expense form and automatically sends it to the appropriate person for approval prior to accounting receiving it.
- The manager receives a notification on his tablet that an approval must be completed. He opens the form, reviews the receipt, and approves the expense.
- It then gets automatically routed to accounting to kick off the reimbursement workflow and get posted to the appropriate accounts.
Four Kinds of Workflow
There are levels of sophistication in regards to workflow automation.
At the most basic level, it is referred to as manual routing. As the workflow grows in sophistication, it encompasses the capabilities of the more simplistic technology, but also adds an additional layer of functionality and power, effectively creating four different variations of workflow technology.
Routing involves a very simple workflow where assignments are sent through the system manually. They are very simple, straight line processes that rely solely on user interaction and are not often repeatable.
From there, ad hoc workflow is a bit more advanced and can handle more complex processes than manual routing, although they are still unstructured, undefined and typically unrepeatable. It is user initiated; a worker must choose the participants and route for each task.
However, there are limitations with this level of workflow. An ad hoc environment only allows for a user initiated process and does not handle automation, the system relies on people to consistently make correct decisions and act accordingly in a timely manner.
It also cannot handle large volumes of documents or data; only single items can be sent through the workflow.
This will be expanded upon further in the following paragraphs.