What is workflow automation and why does it matter?

Workflow automation can help your business do away with repetitive tasks, freeing up time for employees to focus on more complex problems.
19 April 2018

Workflow automation can make human error a thing of the past. Source: Shutterstock

The workflow automation market is expected to reach nearly US$17 billion by 2023, up from US$4.7 billion in 2017. But what is it, why does it matter, what function does it perform in the new world of digital business and where do we go to get it?

A sister technology discipline related to business process automation and all forms of IT process orchestration and automation, workflow automation is the management, optimization and streamlining of administrative processes and tasks. As fair as that broad brush definition might hopefully be, unfortunately, it still doesn’t tell us much.

What, actually, is workflow automation?

The trouble with workflow automation is that everyone appears to be pretty cloudy on what it involves. This has left it (arguably) open to abuse by technology management consultants who do little to clarify what these tools actually do.

Sometimes also called workflow management, workflow automation is software that is capable of pushing a task through a business by one step, or several steps… and sometimes in entirety. Automation works best on repetitive and relatively structured or semi-structured tasks. The more unstructured tasks are, the harder they will typically be to completely automate without human interaction.

Let’s cut to the chase and clarify with an example. Recruitment can be partially executed through workflow automation. Bart Turczynski at online resume company uptowork explains that a company automating at this level will first need to set up a web ‘landing page’ that lists job openings.

“For most candidates, especially interns, a pipeline flow can be set up that automatically replies to the incoming applications, archives their submissions, notifies the person responsible, forwards crucial information to the candidate and puts them in touch with the delegated staff member. A quick phone call is then scheduled. Hence, a chunk of workflow has been automated,” said Turczynski.

The automated business machine

It’s not hard to see how this technology could be pushed further. Even in the above example — why not assign potential candidates with a ‘forms-based’ questionnaire and execute another step in the recruitment process through automation?

We can take these processes further argues Lucy Pamment in her role as head of product for supply chain software specialist Access Group. She argues that one of the greatest benefits of automation for businesses is in material requirements planning (MRP).

“Workflow automation software for MRP monitors what workplace materials (of any kind) are committed (for any industry) and calculates further requirements. The technology enables businesses to import sales orders, check stocks of raw materials and components and confirm schedules,” said Pamment.

Correctly applied to an enterprise IT architecture, this type of technology can theoretically reduce human-generated errors and save administration time. Pamment reminds us that workflow automation for materials also prevents overbuying or running out of stock, thus saving on wastage and improving cash flow in the process.

Monitoring the machine

Some specialists in this field offer a core automation platform alongside technologies to monitor workflow automation execution itself, just to see how effectively tasks are being automated. Camunda offers a tool with flow charts, reports, and analytics so that customers can see precisely what steps have been executed, the status of orders for customers, and detailed information related to them and why they are stuck in the process.

Overall we can say that information related to all types of work tasks is being described with increasing detail often with the aid of machine learning-based algorithms. VP of product at content solutions software company ASG Technologies Rob Perry says that ‘smart content’ allows us to build workflows without human engagement.

“For example, matching invoices with purchase orders and tasks such as automatically paying bills can all now be subject to workflow automation efficiencies. Workflow design tools are becoming graphical allowing business users to easily create and deploy basic processes,” said Perry.

But there is a cultural mindset shift needed here. Managing director of UK headquartered Bluebird Support Services Limited says that the more detailed workflow automation happens when the business owners recognize that their operations are made up of lots of processes – repetitive actions – which, once identified, can be made more efficient. The human mindset has to change to recognize where tasks can be automated, she says.

Handle (automation) with care

As we apply workflow automation to our IT stacks, one essential careful caveat should perhaps be put on the table. Let’s remember that it was Bill Gates who said…

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

… so let’s engineer automation carefully into the new fabric of digital business that we seek to create for tomorrow.