Everyone has a morning routine that proceeds nearly the same way every day. We get up, brush our teeth, take a shower and put our clothes on. Every morning, this predictable routine repeats itself. It's like clockwork. It rarely, if ever changes. Think of your morning routine like a workflow.
A workflow is a predictable, predefined set of tasks that all run in a particular sequence. For example, you wouldn't put on your clothes before you take a shower. Each step in a workflow is a series of actions that are made to accomplish an end goal. For a morning routine, it's to get ready for the day. In business, it may be to on-board a new employee, approve an expense report, deliver an email campaign and so on.
Workflows are just routine, predictable processes that can be predefined and mapped out in a logical order.
As you can imagine, in business, workflows abound! If you take a step back to analyze a company, you will inevitably discover predictable patterns everywhere that can be transformed into workflows.
Due to a workflow's predictable nature, they are ripe for automation. Workflow automation typically refers to the genre of software tools that provide a graphical interface allowing a customer or user to define each task in a workflow, link them together and either just document or execute the tasks in sequence.
Workflow automation also can have a scripting component. There are many popular scripting languages out there like Bash, PowerShell, Perl, Python, etc. We can only do so much with a graphical tool dragging and dropping objects around the screen. It's just not flexible enough. Even the best workflow automation tools can't possibly support every niche need that every company has.
By providing a scripting component in a product, vendors create a catch-all solution. If the customer's use-case isn't supported and they have a scripting whiz on staff; no problem! Customers can create customized tasks which can take input from other steps in the workflow, run code against that input and return necessary information that succeeding steps need.
Example of Workflow Automation
Human Resources, for example, has a typical workflow that could leverage workflow automation; vacation requests. In a large company, a vacation request may need multiple layers of approval from management, verification of an employee's coworkers' schedules to ensure coverage and more.
Think about all of the possible activities that must take place when an employee requests a vacation in a large company. On the surface, it doesn't feel daunting, but if you map out the process, something as simple as approving a vacation can get complicated!
- An employee fills out a vacation request form. Paper form? Web form?
- Form gets sent to the manager for approval. Email? Slack notification?
- Manager verifies the schedules of the team to ensure coverage is necessary. If coverage isn't there, the manager has to deny the request or suggest a new time? How? Phone call, email, text, in person?
- Manager checks company vacation policy to ensure vacation is allowed. What HR site is that on again? Is it up to date?
- The manager checks the employee's time off to ensure he/she still has enough. Another system?
All of these back and forth tasks is what workflow automation solves. It typically links together many systems and makes decisions and takes action based on predefined rules. If the business has an HR system that has the employee's allotted vacation time, why not just have automation software check? Instead of the manager manually checking the employee's coworkers' schedules, why can't software check for availability between date 1 and date 2 and calculate coverage? These logical tasks are perfect for workflow automation.
If you Google "workflow automation", a plethora of options will come up ranging from free to really, really expensive. The solution you need depends on your budget and how advanced you'd like to go. You'll find that workflow automation software is split into two broad categories; consumer and business. Consumer products like IFTTT and Zapier tend to be free or inexpensive but with limited support for business applications.
If you need an enterprise-level product capable of complicated if/then conditions, recurring tasks and deep support for popular enterprise applications, you'll probably need business-level workflow automation software. If you're in a large enterprise, the terminology changes slightly in the form of business process automation where services like K2, WorkFusion, and others lie.
Automate All the Things
I'm a firm believer in automation, and it astounds me how many businesses are not leveraging more workflow automation. Just because it's possible to perform all of these tasks manually, over and over again, doesn't mean it's the right choice. I believe many people are dying from 1,000 cuts if they don't implement more workflow automation.
Day to day, the workflow to approve an expense report, request time off or set up an account for a new employee may seem trivial because we get used to the process. This is dangerous. It's essential we continuously analyze our existing business processes and look for these predictable workflows so we can offload these mundane, routine tasks to workflow automation technologies.