Project management has always had a part in business growth, especially in larger organizations. The project manager was a critical component to ensuring all the moving parts and people involved in campaigns came together on deadlines, under budget, with work as defined in the scope.
It’s growing into an obsolete approach that is costly, inefficient, sometimes confusing, and cumbersome.
Project management solutions exist, but these tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to consider the scope and scale of organizations and projects.
Thankfully, workflow software has come a long way in offering more customization to businesses. This is important because the premise of project management and improving processes for productivity is still necessary for every organization.
Having workflow software that streamlines those efforts simplifies the undertaking, whether it’s simple process improvement or planning and deployment for projects much larger in scope. The availability of easier-to-deploy workflow software along with the benefits and cost reductions are putting this approach to process improvement in the spotlight for more companies.
“Process awareness and process thinking is getting renewed attention, resulting in initiatives to understand how current operational activities are executed,” writes BPMInstitute editor Gregg Rock. “Businesses are looking to identify company weaknesses in an effort to remove them. Executives are looking for ways to reduce defects, waste, cycle time, and bottlenecks – and their related costs.”
What is Workflow Software?
Workflows are nothing new. Their origins date back to the early 1900’s and the development of the study of rational organization. Engineering pioneers like Frederick Taylor (scientific management) and Henry Gantt spent years picking apart organizational structure, defining ways in which work could be organized in a way that was efficient, displayed visually to make tracking easier.
The above is an example of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management equation for increasing output. Below is one of his charts from his Time-and-motion studies. It’s based on his key observations that human output, like that of factory machines, could be studied and improved with changes to procedures.
Henry Gantt’s studies led to the development of Gantt charts, and the concepts of those early engineers is the foundation for the workflow systems and software we see being deployed today around the world.
Modern workflow software now provides infrastructure to coordinate, track, manage and oversee business processes. The workflow software you use should allow you to define workflows that you will need based on various factors specific to your organization. This would include things like the jobs, tasks, processes, and settings.
Many workflow systems are now capable of a great deal of automation including routing, processing, and integration with various systems to organize elements from assorted sources. The processes can later be analyzed and measured so opportunities for streamlining and making improvements can be identified.
Modern workflow software as we know it today utilize a workflow system that help you:
- Include all events that could occur with a specific project or campaign
- Identify the places at which those events occur
- Establish the flow of tasks throughout
- Enlist the people involved at each stage or cycle
Once established, much of the work can be automated to maintain movement of the process from task to task, and from person to person.
How Workflow Software Streamlines Business Processes
Workflow software is increasingly effective as we make advances in the way organizations can simplify the human element.
Of course, people are essential to business processes. They make judgment calls every minute of every day that impact data, information routing, production planning, logistics and more. Workflow software strips away the extra human elements that can traditionally slow processes down.
Instead of complex decision making, human interaction is reduced to workflow approvals in the software, with the bulk of activity taking place without any user intervention necessary.
Of course, that automation can be customized, which is what makes it so attractive – especially for larger organizations. Likewise, the integration with systems like ERP and CRM solutions make it easy to send information as well as receive it, so organizations can trigger process rules based on specific data.
Organizations use this integration to act as a gateway to larger systems without the need to grant all employees privileges where direct access is unnecessary or could be costly with per-user pricing models.
The Flavors of Workflow Software
Just like you have variations in marketing automation software that are all-inclusive or built for specific purposes, there are also different types of workflow software.
Business Process Management (BPM)
BPM is defined as the discipline of managing processes (rather than tasks) as the means for improving business performance outcomes and operations agility. Processes span organizational boundaries, linking together people, information flows, systems, and other assets to create and deliver value to customers and constituents.”
These are all-encompassing solutions that are designed to manage the entire universe for enterprise organizations. You won’t find these in most SMBs as they tend to be complex systems that require a large budget to develop and maintain.
Workflow Management Software
This is the most common type of workflow software and is designed to minimize or replace many human-based tasks. Workflow software does integrate with other systems, including larger BPM, but their primary purpose is to streamline tasks rather than entire organizational systems.
Thanks to the smaller focus, they’re more common for SMBs, less complex, require much smaller budgets, and are far more easy to implement.
Forms automation is the most simplified form of workflow software and focuses specifically on forms – as the name implies.
While most workflow software will include forms to manage, process and handle data entry, forms automation keeps the process basic. This includes simple submit-send-email functionality. This kind of workflow software is fairly limited and not commonly used in larger organizations. It’s mainly ideal for simple form collections needs and is a relatively easy approach to streamline data collection in smaller businesses.
The Benefits of Simplifying the Human Element with Workflow Software
What makes workflow management attractive outside of enterprise level companies? Are there benefits to SMBs investing in workflow software? Consider these points:
- Workflow software can help you speed up financial processes, like invoicing, by reducing manual data entry and handling requests.
- Human error is reduced, greatly eliminating labor spent on reworking data
- Elimination of improperly approved requests
- Greatly improve compliance with system audits and audit tracking
- Output can be increased, as well as productivity when processes and approval are handled automatically
- Manual decision making can be reduced
- Vast reduction in the amount of paperwork and associated waste, reducing costs
- Being able to identify and remove bottlenecks in production and approval processes
- Reduction in license overhead for enterprise systems
- Easily identify and monitor performance trends throughout workflows
How Industries Use Workflow Software
How industries use workflow software is as diverse as the industries themselves, and the employees who utilize the tools and software each day. Here are just a few examples:
Healthcare – Workflow software can be used to manage prescription receipts, tracking the flow from the prescription being written by a physician, to filing, processing, and eventually, the patient picking up the prescription.
IT – IT teams use workflow software daily to track issues with software and hardware. This tracks not only who placed the trouble ticket, but how that ticket is handled or assigned, how the issues are addressed, tracking the progress of each ticket, and more.
Human Resources – A workflow software in an organization can dictate new hire processes, how time off requests are processed, annual training, payment processing, all the while automating some processes while triggering approval requirements for others.
Customer Service – Workflows can be used to automatically assign investigations of customer complaints, or to assign or escalate customer service issues based on keywords or specific selections on forms. This can streamline the resolution of customer service issues and improve customer communications.
What to Look for in Workflow Software
Of course, not every workflow software is developed the same. While most are cloud-based tools, they don’t all provide the same features for fueling the automation of tasks and seamless collaboration. When choosing workflow software, here are some key elements to watch for in the offering.
They may not all be critically necessary to your specific operation, but the inclusion of all or most of the following elements make it easy to determine if you can leverage the capabilities of that specific solution.
- Creating Workflow Models
The ability to create a visual representation and process model lets you capture the activity chain. This represents the entirety of the workflow, which is a large portion of the job. Being able to visualize any process, workflow, or grouping of tasks can greatly reduce the time it takes to execute and manage any campaign.
- Simplification of Role Based Access
While workflow software is designed to simplify the human element, people are still very much a part of your day to day workflows. For this reason, everyone involved in your projects should be able to understand the role they play, and the key performance indicators they are accountable for.
The portal for your workflow software should have role-based access for team members, with the flexibility to modify tasks and work without directly disturbing the established flow of events in your software.
- Access to Develop Overlapping Patterns
More than a single process likely drives your organization. It’s safe to say that a number of your processes likely overlap, and rely on the outcomes of other processes in order to be completed properly.
For example; a company manufacturing e-liquid for electronic cigarettes being sold to consumers as well as stores need to ship orders out. There’s a complete process for pulling inventory, packaging, and shipping. In order for that to take place, the production process must take place to develop and bottle the product to be placed into inventory. At the same time, the QA/QI team must complete its process for product approval before inventory can be pulled and utilized.
In a case like this, you want workflow software that allows you to track and monitor parallel processes, including when outcomes may shift depending on how and when processes complete.
- Identify Key Individuals within the Workflow
Mapping key stakeholders in a project is critical, especially if a project will last for an extended period of time. On longer projects, you’re likely to have team members exit or complete their role, while new members join.
Because of the ebb and flow of roles on a project, you want an agile workflow software that allows you to amend roles, assign new employees, and modify allocations on the fly without interrupting the workflow.
- Notifications Via Email (or other forms)
Automation and minimizing the human element can greatly improve productivity, but it still needs to be monitored appropriately. The last thing you want is to run an audit and discover that processes have changed without approval, or errors are suddenly occurring.
It’s a fairly standard feature, but make sure the workflow software you choose provides ample notification settings. This way you receive notifications about the progress of tasks, pending activities, overdue tasks, changes in the workflow, and approvals that require attention to keep things moving.
Email is the standard notification medium, but bonus points to any software that allows for notifications through other means such as mobile or browser push notifications, or in-portal alerts.
- Collaboration Capability
For a seamless development of any campaign, it’s not uncommon for multiple departments to be brought in. When it comes to optimizing existing processes, there’s typically some overlap among departments as well.
A result of that is an endless stream of documents, images, forms and more that are shared among teams. Often, those teams need to collaborate within set deadlines across a number of documents.
If you don’t already utilize a platform like Google drive and Google docs or some other kind of file sharing system, you should watch for file sharing and collaboration capabilities offered as a standard feature.
Few things can waste more time than having to dig through old email threads and folders to find a single attachment necessary to move a project or task forward.
Advances in technology aren’t just making automation and workflow management easier for companies; it’s giving organizations of any size far wider reach. This includes sending teams abroad and finding talent in remote places.
If your organization has multi-site operations, team members in the field, or remote workers abroad, then it’s a smart investment to find a workflow software solution with mobile capability.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a custom app is necessary. Moreover, you just want to be able to access the portal and platform from any kind of device where you have a web connection.
It’s not just about accessibility or collaboration, though. You also save a great deal by investing in a cloud-based solution compared to purchasing servers and hardware to handle the automation. It’s easy to scale up with a cloud solution across an infinite number of teams and employees.
- Deep Reporting
Quality reporting and access to data is one of the critical elements you need when investing in a workflow software solution. Most of the processes you have which revolve around people aren’t always measured in ways that make process improvement easy.
For example; you may be able to track the number of inquiries to your IT department. However, it would be helpful – from a process improvement point – to know how long those inquiries take, where they originate from, how responsive your teams are, which IT employees are responding and which are not, what type of requests are received, and so forth.
The right workflow software will provide analytics in a broad manner, or at a very granular level. You get data on every process being handled. While those reports can be run manually or customized for specific data, you want software that provides automated reports to keep you in the loop on performance issues, so you can take action when opportunities arise.
It’s clear that companies recognize the value in investing in workflow software, and that value will only continue to grow. We’ve really just scratched the surface of process improvement and workflow automation.
Further advancements in technology will see a greater reduction in the human element, error reduction, and improvement of processes. Onboarding workflow software now is the first step toward more efficient and effective processes in your business.