Before exploring the concepts of “workflow” and “workflow automation”, it is important to understand the problem they were designed to solve.
That problem is: Time allocation.
Do you spend enough time on the tasks that generate actual business value? Do you spend too much of it on manual or menial tasks? Do you lose it fixing errors – yours or someone else’s?
In 2018, Pace Productivity Inc. conducted a research on how much time sales representatives spent on actual selling and sales-related activities.
Prior to handing them a portable time tracking device, the respondents were asked to estimate their most important tasks.
Sales and sales-related activities, expectedly, were in the clear lead with 77% cumulative importance rating; These included everything from prospecting to marketing, relationship building, networking and business meetings.
Routine tasks like time planning, ranked the lowest, scoring 10%.
It is easy to imagine the shocked faces of the respondents when they learned just how big the discrepancy between task importance and the actual time spent on it had been.
It turned out that sales representatives had been spending just as much time doing sales as they had administrative work, 22% and 21% of their workweek (respectively). That is over 10 hours per week spent on the tasks that do not generate concrete business value.
In this post, we look at how automation optimizes workflows, or more specifically, how technology can help professionals in all fields increase their focus where it is needed, minimize room for error and improve performance.
But, first, let’s see what a workflow is:
What Is Workflow?
A workflow is, usually, a visual representation of a set of routine tasks required to complete a routine goal.
For example, if we were to draw a diagram to represent a typical instance of a process as a blueprint for a team to follow, or if we were to create a document outlining it, that diagram or document would be called a “workflow”.
Creating a workflow to visualize or outline a routine goal and tasks to complete it, improves performance on many levels: it accelerates learning in newcomers, helps others stay on track and minimizes room for error.
Many of the workflows can be entirely or partially automated, reducing the numbers of tasks necessary for successful goal completion. Read on to learn more.
What Is Workflow Automation?
Workflow automation refers to the usage of software and other tools to organize and streamline manual and laborious routine tasks.
doForms is one such tool. Our mobile forms automate numerous types of on-site data collection and processing tasks. Here is an example:
JLL is a world-leading investment management company that specializes in real estate. A few years ago, they were commissioned to manage a system-wide renovation for over 11,500 stores across the US.
Without doForms, their workflow would have looked something like this:
- Routine goal: in-depth on-site space assessment of each store for the purpose of renovation planning
- Routine tasks: visit the site, manually fill out an 80-page document with detailed descriptions of the space, take photos, go back to the office, open the program, create a new file, transcribe all the collected data, correlate and upload photos to the designated store files and process all the information for the next step which is renovation planning
A manual workflow like this would have taken hours upon hours for each store, and it would have left ample room for error: Questions could have been overlooked, handwriting or notes undecipherable, information misunderstood resulting in faulty transcriptions and so on.
Luckily, with doForms, JLL were able to automate the most time-consuming parts of their data collection.
Here is what the process looked like post-workflow automation with doForms:
- Routine goal: in-depth on-site space assessment of each store for the purpose of renovation planning
- Routine tasks: visit the site, enter all the data into a pre-designed doForm, including direct photo uploads and answers to all the questions that would have otherwise been recorded in an 80-page document. Click save and that is their goal achieved.
Just like that, workflow automation shaved off several hours of tedious data entry. That is a significant improvement on its own. Now multiply it with 11,500 stores!
Moreover, automating a workflow like this nearly eliminated room for error; Required fields alert the surveyors when they’d omit a question, and the entire data entry process is digital and completed on-site, so no painstaking deciphering of handwritings or scouring photo libraries, trying to match and upload the right pictures to the right store files.
How To Automate A Workflow
Analyze Current Workflow(s)
Before spending time on searching for workflow automation software and tools, or implementing any of them, be sure to thoroughly analyze your current manual workflows or other business processes that signal the need for automation.
Run internal research using interviews, surveys, monthly report analysis or other methods you find suitable to identify the exact bottlenecks that hinder your team’s productivity.
Sometimes the actual problems are not as intuitive as they may seem, and research of this kind can help uncover them and provide deeper insight into the possible solutions.
In some cases, automation may not be the answer or even possible because, as Forbes warns, not all business processes are good candidates for automation.
Workflow Automation Software: How To Look For The Right Type
Now that you have pinpointed the exact bottlenecks, it is time to search for workflow software that can help you remove or surpass them.
The best way to go about this search is to either use the type of the workflow or to use the specific bottleneck as the key parameter.
Here are a couple of concrete examples:
Case #1: If you are looking to automate the (digital) welcome kit distribution part of your staff onboarding process, using “HR workflow automation software” as a query would probably do quite well in satisfying your search.
Case #2: For this example, let’s go back to Pace Productivity Inc.’s research that revealed how the inefficient administrative practices ate into the time and focus that should have been allocated to sales and sales-related activities.
If any of the participants in the study were to look for a solution to this problem, they would be wasting time searching for “administrative workflow software.” The diversity and scope of administration as a business concept is so wide that anything from data entry to email correspondence and inbox management could be considered an “administrative process.”
Therefore, to find the right workflow automation software, you will want to be specific in your search, using the exact type of solution to your problem/bottleneck as your query, like “mobile forms” or “email scheduling software”.
4 Examples of Workflow Automation Software
Types of workflow software are many and highly diverse. Here is just a glimpse into what’s out there:
- Workflow Management: Project and team management software solutions like Asana come with functions that allow you to create workflows for different departments.
- Integrated Apps: This type of workflow automation software lets you connect unrelated apps so they feed each other data and perform rule-based actions of your choosing. In other words: it’s a workflow created for and carried out entirely by your apps. Zapier is the market-leading app integration and workflow automation tool. An example they use to illustrate an instance of their service is integrating Gmail – Dropbox – Slack and creating a task for your apps to automatically download every attachment that lands in your Gmail to your Dropbox account and send you an alert of the completed activity via Slack.
- Lead/Customer Interaction: Used mainly in sales for lead cultivation purposes, this type of software automates interactions between your organization and new subscribers or other contacts. Hubspot is a perfect example of this. Their Sales Hub comes with features that allow you to create workflows for customer interaction, automating your welcome messages, triggering changes in contact property lifecycle stage, CRM lead type, etc.
- Mobile Forms: The way we capture, store and process data has changed radically since the rise of smartphones and tablets.
Solutions like doForms allow organizations to custom-make digital forms for field workers to use on-site. Forms like ours allow them to quickly and efficiently capture information from anywhere, and store it via the cloud directly within the organization’s centralized system, improving data accuracy, responsiveness and customer experience.
Look For Use Cases
Once you’ve identified a few workflow software solutions that can answer your requirement, consult their use cases.
In some cases where the workflow is a standard procedure across industries like simple data entry (for instance: name, contact info, and date of birth) into the centralized system, this step may not even be necessary.
Some industries, however, require a more complex data entry system. Besides the standard “fill in the blanks”, JLL needed a mobile form that would allow them to snap and directly upload photos.
In requirements like these, consulting use cases can give you a better idea of what the system you are considering can do for you.
4 Workflow Automation Trends That Are Changing The Landscape
Workflow automation landscape is changing rapidly, following the pace of the tech industry.
Here are the trends that are expected to play an important role in the evolution of workflow automation software in the foreseeable future:
1. Increased Investment in Business Process Management (BPM) Technology – And With It, Workflow Automation
BPM is part of operations management where businesses seek to understand their current processes and look for ways to optimize and automate them. These can be repeatable or one-time, structured or unstructured.
Workflows represent the repeatable and structured business processes, and therefore, fall within the scope of BPM.
According to the Red Hat and Signavio-sponsored BPTrends Report, over 50% of organizations were planning to increase their investment in BPM technology by up to 100% over the course of 2 years (including 2019), 9% of them claiming that their investment would “increase by more than 100%.”
With this increase in demand and investment, more workflow software is populating the industry, while the established players are sharpening their focus and making their products more sophisticated
2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) Automates Decision Making
This one comes as no surprise as AI has been transforming businesses and entire industries for years now.
When it comes to workflow automation software, AI is mainly playing a role in automating decision making.
Think of HR solutions. By analyzing a number of parameters like leave quotas, seasons, award systems and past trends, AI-infused HR solutions are becoming able to approve or reject leave requests, create leave schedules and apply bonuses “on their own”.
3. End-To-End Workflow Tools Lose In Favor Of Highly Specialized Ones
TechTalks hints to users’ changing preferences in favor of more niche and specialized workflow automation tools.
They claim that users are moving from end-to-end solutions towards piecemeal integration of tools as these accelerate the manual process and are well-positioned to “grow more sophisticated” over time, leading to a fully automated process.
4. Customization As A Key Component Of Workflow Automation Software
A one-size-fits-all approach to designing solutions is no longer valid in today’s tool-prolific markets.
Vendors have realized that each organization is unique, and so are their requirements. Therefore, in addition to highly specialized solutions, the technology has to be flexible enough and customizable to the users’ preferences.
doForms is a perfect example of this. As a mobile forms and workflow automation tool, doForms facilitates data entry for all on-site data collectors. However, our mobile forms are fully customizable and feature-rich, providing value to small businesses and enterprises alike.
All in all, workflow automation is an evolving process that is proven to help businesses generate more leads, improve employee efficiency, and boost revenue potential.
Workflow automation comes in many forms, from artificial intelligence to mobile forms that enable easy data capture – like doForms.