WHAT IS WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
What is a workflow management system?
A workflow management system is a software tool designed to help streamline routine business processes for optimal efficiency. Workflow management systems involve creating a form to hold data and automating a sequential path of tasks for the data to follow until it is fully processed.
Tasks in workflows may be done by a human or by a system. With so many options and so many products calling themselves a workflow tool, it’s hard to know what you will get. What was yesterday a simple kanban project management tool is now claiming to be a fully automated workflow system?
3 common types of workflows
As mentioned earlier, there are actually several different types of workflows. In this next section, we’ll examine some of the most common.
1. Project workflow
A project workflow is ideal for keeping complex projects on track. So, in a project workflow, a manager might make a list of all project deliverables. Then, a series of activities could be diagrammed out, illustrating which tasks need to occur and in what order, to create each project deliverable.
For projects that have a lot of moving parts to them, a project workflow can be invaluable. For one thing, once a project workflow is represented visually, it’s very easy for project stakeholders to get a bird’s eye view of what needs to happen for the project to run smoothly, as well as identify any potential project bottlenecks.
However, as you might imagine, one downside of project workflows is that they aren’t repeatable from project to project. Still, while your projects might not be exactly the same, you may find occasional opportunities to reuse some project workflow information over again.
For instance, say there’s an IT project to create new software. One of the deliverables for such a project would be a document detailing the software’s specifications. The process of gathering those specifications probably wouldn’t change much from project to project—allowing for that section of the project workflow to be reused.
2. Case workflow
When envisioning a case workflow, it’s useful to think in terms of a problem that requires a solution—like an incoming IT help desk ticket.
Unlike other types of workflows, a case workflow doesn’t occur in a sequential, orderly fashion. Instead, two help desk tickets might go through completely different workflows, depending on the initial problem.
So, a case workflow is unique because the actual progression of steps isn’t known at the onset of the problem. Those steps can change along the way, or you might even reach one step before realizing you need to return to an earlier one.
To better illustrate this, let’s look at a hypothetical example of two employees who can’t access the Internet. One employee might need their laptop settings reconfigured.
By contrast, the other employee might have their laptop configured correctly already, and even so, still can’t access the Internet. Now, perhaps the data security department will need to get involved, since the problem appears to be unrelated to the laptop’s settings.
At any rate, case workflows are used for items where the correct path isn’t known from the very beginning and is instead, determined along the way.
3. Process workflow
Of the three types of workflows mentioned in this article, process workflows are what most people tend to be familiar with. Process workflows are used to depict repetitive, predictable tasks.
So, for instance, a process workflow might illustrate how vendor invoices get paid, how website content gets created, or how vacation time gets approved. Within a process workflow diagram, the following things are clearly delineated:
- Which tasks need to be performed and when
- Which departments are responsible for handling those tasks
A process workflow also spells out what should occur if there’s a problem within the process. Say, for instance, that you have a process workflow illustrating how vendors get paid. The workflow diagram should include exceptions within the process, such as what occurs if a vendor’s invoice doesn’t get approved.
These are the main types of workflows, and as you can see, the type you’ll want to use will depend on what you’re trying to depict.
However, regardless of the workflow you choose, you’ll find that by documenting such important information, it’ll be even easier to improve your operational efficiency, cut costs, and make better business decisions.
What does a workflow management system (WMS) Do?
When you are in the market for a workflow management system (WMS), you are looking for something that
- Allows individuals to automate repetitive processes
- Follows up automatically on uncompleted tasks in the process
- Gives an overall picture of the workflow along with performance metrics
To get the true value for money that a WMS promises, it should at least have these 10 essential features. Don’t settle for something that can’t keep up with your sequence of operations and doesn’t deliver on productivity.
Features every workflow management system should have
1. Notifications when and where you need them
The key to automated workflows is that you never need to push them. Like a pinewood derby car, as soon as you start a new process, it should keep going until it finishes without anyone needing to follow up.
The key to this kind of flow is notifications. An effective business Workflow Management System will send notifications via email or push notifications on your mobile to remind you of upcoming approvals. Users should also be able to customize the kind of notifications they receive.
2. Parallel branches
All workflows are sequential, but some are unique. Some sequential steps can happen at the same time. Take a travel request or a purchase requisition. It has a very predictable path, but what if it is for international travel? You may need a separate track that handles passports and other details of the upcoming trip.
Adding this kind of complexity should be easy and shouldn’t require a degree in computer science. Right from the form, you should be able to add a branch and create conditional tasks easily.
3. Role-based access control
Many workflows contain sensitive information that is not intended to be shared with everyone in the process. Every Workflow Management System should allow you to customize what each user can see and edit. Making a quick change to this part of the workflow should not break it or affect historical requests.
4. Transparent pricing
Why invest a huge amount of capital into software that may cause you more trouble than it is worth? What if you only want to automate one process between a few people? Do you still need to invest a lot of money?
The best Workflow Management Systems operate on a monthly pay-as-you-go model where the fees are all-inclusive of running costs and you only pay for the number of users accessing the system. If a workflow tool won’t tell you the cost right on the website, it means they are trying to figure out how much they can get out of you based on your size and reputation.
Pick a tool that is upfront and won’t give you sticker shock when the first invoice comes through. As you investigate your options, keep these 10 things in mind. Don’t settle for something less than amazing when it comes to keeping your workflows quick and seamless.
An intuitive, code-free workflow designer
If you ask a process owner to create a workflow, she is likely to draw a straight line with key steps in the process, each requiring input, approval, or denial.
If you ask a programmer to make software for invoice approval workflow, it will start looking like the family tree of Oedipus.
A great workflow management system lets you think in simple linear loops and does all the complex stuff in the background.
5. WYSIWYG form designer
In 2020, there’s no excuse for a form designer to be anything less than awesome. It’s got to be drag-and-drop. And you need fields, all the different types. Text, numbers, maps, calculations, drop-downs, and more! If you aren’t initially impressed at the form designer of your workflow management system, chances are that you will outgrow it pretty fast.
Want to select the next actor of a task from the form? Want to link your form to a different database? Want to display live data from a website? All of this should be very easy to accomplish.
Your form designer should be simple and intuitive and shouldn’t require a consultant to walk you through it.
6. Integration with other cloud apps
Integration used to be a nice-to-have feature for workflow management Now it’s essential.
Workflows don’t operate independently from other processes. Documents, sales reports, cash-flows, calendars, and contact details should all flow smoothly from your workflow tool to your CMS, calendar, email, financial software and more.
If your workflow management system isn’t incredibly easy to set up to integrate with other tools out there, it’s already outdated.
7. Cloud-based technology
The cloud vs. on-premise debate is pretty much over. Choosing an on-premise option is like betting that MySpace is going to make a comeback.
And it’s not just about access to your data from any location. It’s about who’s in charge of updates and maintenance. It’s about compliance and privacy of data. It’s about building a partnership with a vendor rather than just making a one-time purchase. Your workflow management tool needs to exist in the cloud if you want any shot to make it useful for your team.
8. KPI-based reports
Lots of workflow tools out there will let you create a simple workflow. But if you are serious about actually achieving a new level of productivity, you are going to need some solid reporting features.
When you first automate a workflow, you are entering a testing ground. What you thought was running smoothly might be taking much longer than you anticipated. You may realize you need a new step, or find that you have too many steps. A robust KPI-based reporting function in your WMS will let you see and analyze where the bottlenecks are and where to focus your attention.
9. SLA status indicators
A good workflow management system will be your one-stop-shop for all the core processes in your organization. So, your workflow tool may have more than 30 workflows running at any time. When you think about viewing all of these on a dashboard, you need a way to make sure you are staying current on all of your tasks.
SLA indicators can let you know which ones are the most pressing, and which ones can wait while you handle other tasks. The dashboard of your WMS should use color codes or a similar tool to draw your attention to the most pressing workflows.
Benefits of workflow management systems
Here are 7 benefits workflow automation can bring you.
1. Reduced errors
Operating with zero errors is impossible. But being proactive in identifying and setting errors right is something you can work on. With workflow management systems, it is easier to prevent errors from occurring in the first place. And if they happen, your system pinpoints the exact location. You can work out the kinks and prevent the same errors from happening again.
2. Improved connectivity
Workflow management systems connect multiple entities–people, software, and work culture. Employees have communication tools to connect with each other. But what about their work? Work should be equally well-connected to enable high productivity.
Integration between software systems is critical in IT infrastructure. A workflow system draws data from different software tools and runs workflows between them. Most tasks need employees to use more than one application. Workflow systems function as facilitators that pass the baton.
Data on how work happens is slowly pooled in a workflow management system as you use it more and more. You can use the data to improved workflows. Prevent errors and build stronger connections between people and software.
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3. Increased productivity
Employees feel the difference before and after you implement a workflow management system. Since all workflows are automated, teams save a lot of time sending emails and updating information in multiple tools. Employees don’t need to wait with crossed fingers for approvals to reach them. They can track the progress in the workflow system and stay in the loop.
Are critical data missing in an approval? Employees can send it back to someone in the previous step of the workflow and even communicate contextually within the tool. Information is not stuck in a heap of out-of-context emails. Everything happens quickly and smoothly.
4. Redundant manual tasks eliminated
According to this study, repetitive tasks cost $5 trillion a year globally. Office workers spend an average of 69 days per year on mundane tasks. Imagine the amount of productive time you gain if that time is spent doing other tasks that need human attention.
With workflow systems pre-defined business rules do the job for you. Configure the system to trigger steps based on conditions to automatically delegate tasks. For example, if you have a budget approval at hand, you can map the workflow for approvals to reach the right job roles.
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5. Multiple tasks juggled easily
Whether you want to onboard multiple employees, manage IT requests, run internal surveys, raise marketing content requests, or approve travel reimbursements, everything is under one roof.
Requests are neatly organized according to different processes in one workflow system instead of multiple project boards, chat tools, and emails. You can switch between a purchase request and travel reimbursement request in the same tab. No confusion, no delays.
6. Increased trust, transparency, and control
Micromanagement is greatly reduced. The duties of each job role are crystal clear with defined goals. Employees are informed on what they need to do, managers are comfortable delegating ownership over tasks.
Workflow automation squeezes out shadow tasks. Everything happens out in the open, with more control over data accessibility than before. Admins can choose to display or hold back sensitive information to specific job roles or teams.
7. Improved work culture
With many companies working remotely, there’s already enough emails and messages going around. A workflow tool helps keep work organized and trackable. Employees are more collaborative and goal-driven.
Workflow management has the potential to evolve into a company-wide practice that gets engraved in a company’s work culture. When everyone is sold to the idea of structured and streamlined process, you meet your business goals faster.
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