What is workflow?
Every day, you and your team have to complete a series of tasks. The tasks are often repetitive, meaning they stay the same day after day. Repetitive tasks can become boring for your team to perform and lead to mistakes. They can also take a lot of time, distracting team members from more valuable work and projects.
Fortunately, there are ways to streamline the process of performing certain tasks, saving your team time and effort and reducing the risk of mistakes. Workflow management lets you automate tasks and processes so your company and team can focus on the most important things.
Let’s explore workflow
The concept of workflow has been around for decades. Often described as a process that moves a document or task from one step to another, the ultimate goal of workflow is to improve the speed, reliability, and standardization of complex business processes.
There’s a need for workflow tools now more than ever. The rise of data and the move to a cloud-first world is changing the landscape of business processes and the workflows that support them. This new trend opens up more opportunities to improve a wider range of business processes.
The evolution of workflow
We define workflow as a sequence of tasks. Once the sequence completes, it produces at least one outcome. For example, a workflow might begin when an employee submits a request for expense reimbursement. The outcome of the workflow process is either the employee getting reimbursed or therequest getting denied.
In the past, workflows were manual. The employee would fill out a paper form and hand-deliver it to the appropriate department. Someone from that department could then read over the request and decide what to do about it. If it was approved, the employee might have gotten a paper check. If denied, they might have received a letter explaining the reason for the denial.
An early example of a workflow organization tool is the Gantt Chart, invented by Henry Gantt, a mechanical engineer. The chart creates a timeline for a project and uses horizontal bars to show the progress of each task required. Although the chart is still in use today, it is an example of a manual workflow process that requires a human to track changes and keep it up to date.
Now, computer systems can automate workflows by detecting triggers, assigning tasks, executing outcomes, and generating progress and status reports. The same systems can also accommodate rules-driven workflows, allowing designers to determine the sequence of tasks and events based on business rules. Instead of an employee manually filling out a paper reimbursement form, they might click a few boxes on an online form, then submit the form electronically. A computer can read the information on the submitted form, look for certain trigger words, confirm that it follows the rules, and then decide to approve or deny the reimbursement request.
Workflow automation grew in the 1990s, along with the emergence of business process management (BPM)—a discipline whose focus remained on narrow, deep,complex processes such as claims, contract, and inventory management. BPM lets organizations design, model, execute, monitor, and optimize sophisticated and complex business processes. It also requires complex workflow diagrams and charts to model business processes, which call for the expertise of software developers.
As organizations moved toward a customer-focused operating model and faster response times, digitizing all business functions — not just those considered business-critical — became an imperative. This emerging business trend gave rise to “low-code” workflow, where out-of-the-box scripts and workflow templates adapted to each process require minimal technical skills of citizen developers.
Even more progressive is the concept of “no-code” workflow, spawned by the desire to allow all business users to automate processes to drive engagement and achieve efficiencies via economies of scale. With no-code, business users can create and modify a workflow without having to rely on IT. Box Relay is an example of a no-code workflow design.
What is a workflow engine?
A workflow engine is a software program that ensures the tasks associated with a workflow get completed in the appropriate order. The engine understands the sequence in which tasks need to be completed and ensures that as soon as one task is completed, the next one starts. The three functions of a workflow engine include the following:
1. Workflow creation and modification
The complexity involved in creating and altering workflows can vary from engine to engine. Some workflow engines require users to write code to create new workflows, which means software developers are needed for the job. “Low-code” workflow engines require complex configurations and a small amount of code, which means IT experts are needed. “No-code” engines provide intuitive user interfaces, like drag-and-drop, that allow almost anyone to create and modify workflows without extensive technical knowledge.
Low-code and no-code workflow engines often come with a set of predefined workflow templates with industry-specific logic, making it even easier for non-tech-savvy individuals to use the software. In many cases, the software end user likely prefers no-code or low-code products. They might not be tech-savvy, but they are the most familiar with the processes that need automation. Giving them the chance to build their own workflow allows them to create automated tasks that make the most sense for the project.
2. Workflow execution
Once the workflow is created, a user can execute it, meaning they set the workflow into motion. Often, there are several components of workflow execution.
The first component is task management. The workflow engine creates the tasks that are part of the process. It assigns them to the correct individual or program and issues a deadline for each one. Every task should have a start time, end time, status, assigned individual, and the associated content.
The workflow engine needs to keep the process on track. Marking a task as complete triggers the workflow engine to move to the next phase or task. During the move, the content might be transferred from the first user to another user. Depending on the type of workflow used, there might be several options available for the next step in the process.
The design of a workflow engine allows it to recognize changes in the state of a process. When there's a change in the process state, such as a task getting marked as complete, the workflow engine knows how to respond and might send a notification to users or start the next task.
Event notification can take place for a variety of reasons. The workflow engine might notify users whenever someone creates a new folder or file, when a deadline approaches, or when someone opens or modifies a file.
3. Workflow monitoring and exception handling
In addition to creating and executing a workflow, the software also tracks the progress of processes and determines how to handle any issues that arise. Workflow engines generate reports on the status of running processes and on completion times and other metrics associated with completed workflows. These engines may also allow administrators to make changes to a running process. If a task is delayed or a deadline is missed, the workflow engine can stop the process, create an alert, and continue as the workflow design indicates.
In the past, workflow and collaboration systems have typically been separate, meaning the only way to get a full picture has been to combine audit reports from the two systems. Combining separate reports takes time and can lead to errors. Combining workflow and content collaboration provides businesses with a unified audit report across the entire content and workflow lifecycle. Some workflow engines also interface with popular office productivity suites, allowing users to perform workflow tasks with their favorite office tools. Furthermore, the workflow engine might integrate with content management systems and other enterprise applications.
Security and compliance are two more components of workflow monitoring. Administrators control who gets to create and modify workflows, who gets to view notifications, and which users have which rights regarding any given content. The engine should enforce data privacy, only allowing content to be visible as needed — and it should support workflows that include people outside the organization, such as customers, vendors, and partners. Complete workflow engines include features that help organizations adhere to industry and government regulations — features such as document watermarking, content retention, content disposition, and signature handling.
No-code workflow changes the game
As organizations move to digitize more of their business, it should be no surprise that process modernization is their top priority. Creating an agile organization in the face of fast-changing priorities is now vital for survival. The traditional scale and efficiency benefits that BPM initially offered have now evolved to micro-efficiencies at scale for hundreds— if not thousands— of processes across a business.
Taking advantage of this efficiency requires the flexibility of process owners — users with no developer experience — to adjust and modify processes and deviate from the status quo to accommodate fast-changing requirements. It’s not as much about dealing with sophisticated workflow diagrams and complex workflow charts anymore as it is about accelerating relatively smaller but high-volume and time-consuming everyday processes.
While the efforts of process modernization are underway, businesses are also witnessing an explosion of content-centric processes. The volume of data and information companies use has increased steadily over time. The majority of that information, like contracts, conversations, and invoices, is unstructured.
This explosion of content, paired with the understanding that most business processes are user-led, has opened the door for no-code workflow solutions. According to a Box survey of more than 100 business decision-makers, over 73% had routine processes that occurred weekly. Moreover, these processes consumed nearly half of their time. This includes everyday routine tasks like reviewing contracts, approving invoices, creating new customer deliverables, or submitting inputs to weekly, monthly,and quarterly plans.
User-centric, no-code platforms allow people on the front line — those closest to the processes in question — to respond in a very timely manner to an ever-changing market and competitive environment, rapidly creating and adjusting workflows.
Types of workflows
Content-centric workflows can take several forms, depending on the structure of the process and what occurs along the way:
1. Case workflow
Sometimes, you might not know what steps you'll need to take to get from the start of a process to the end. As you collect more and more information, the way forward becomes clearer. Case workflows are excellent examples of workflows that use "if, then" rules. Examples include insurance claims and technical support tickets. A customer might submit a support ticket outlining their problem. Based on the information provided in the ticket, the workflow determines the next step. It might go to a support agent, or the customer might be directed to an online tutorial.
What happens can vary based on the case. The online tutorial might not solve the problem, in which case, the customer gets routed to a support agent. If the support agent solves the problem, the ticket gets closed. If not, the customer moves along in the process, perhaps to a manager.
2. Process workflow
Some workflows are very repetitive. They move from A to B to C and so on. Once the process is complete, it might begin again. Unlike with a case workflow, there's no need to create "if, then" rules for a process workflow. It will almost always be A, B, C, and so on.
Examples of process workflows include invoice approvals or purchase order (PO) approvals. The user submits the invoice or PO, it gets reviewed, and a decision is made. Process workflows allow you to complete several of the same tasks, such as batch approving invoices or POs, simultaneously.
3. Project workflow
A project workflow combines elements of a process workflow with elements of a case workflow. The workflow can move from A to B to C while also allowing for variations based on the results of each task. Usually, project workflows are reserved for larger-scale projects that require a lot of repetitive tasks, such as designing a website or producing a newspaper.
Another way to look at the different types of workflows is to consider the rules they follow or the paths they take. For example, some workflows are sequential. Each task directly affects the task that comes after it but not any other tasks.
Other workflows use a state machine model. They provide options for the tasks. For example, an employee submits an expense reimbursement form but forgets the receipt. Instead of rejecting the form, the workflow sends it back to the employee to request a receipt. If the form contains certain keywords, the process flags it to be sent to a manager for review before approval.
Some workflows are rules-driven. The tasks in the workflow are notcompleted sequentially but instead are based on a defined set of rules. The project moves forward, but there is considerably more room for variation.
Common examples of workflows
Take a look at some common forms to get a better idea of how to use workflows:
1. Reviewing and approving contracts or invoices
Review and approval of contracts, invoices, or other types of content usually involve a case workflow and a state machine model. For example, the vendor submits an invoice. A person or application reviews it, confirming that the vendor provided the services or products listed and that they are charging the agreed-upon price.
If the invoice passes review, it moves to approval. Once approved, the invoice gets paid. The process begins again when the vendor submits their next invoice. But if there's an issue with the invoice, it needs to travel to the appropriate individual for manual review or correction. Perhaps it gets sent back to the vendor for corrections or needs manual approval from a manager.
The review and approval of contracts typically follow a similar process to reviewing and approving invoices, but the team is often different. Signing the documents is often part of the workflow process, and that step can be easily included in the workflow, especially if an e-signature capability is integrated.
The steps when reviewing and approving a contract might look like this:
- Create contract
- Send to management for approval
- Send to contractee, such as new vendor
- New vendor signs and returns contract
- Returned contract is approved and signed by your team
- A fully signed contract is distributed to appropriate parties
2. Onboarding employees
Workflow processes can also be part of the employee onboarding process. A candidate submitting an application for a position might be what triggers the start of the process. From there, the application can be accepted or rejected, perhaps based on the use of certain keywords in the resume or cover letter.
An approved application can move to the next phase, which might be a manual review by a member of the HR team. Rejected applications might receive a "Thank you for applying" letter. After review, accepted applications can move to the next phase, which can be a "No, thanks" letter or an invitation to interview.
The workflow continues until a candidate is made an offer, which sets in motion the need for offer letters and signatures. The workflow then might include e-signed offer letters to accelerate the hiring and recruiting process, with final documents stored in a secure HR system.
Typical steps for employee onboarding:
- Candidate submits application
- Application is reviewed and accepted
- The candidate is contacted for an interview
- Interview is scheduled
- After the interview, the candidate completes and submits the test assignment
- Test assignment is approved, a candidate receives an offer
- Candidate accepts position
- Candidate file is created
- Candidate submits necessary paperwork and identification
- Candidate direct deposit is set up
- Candidate receives a welcome packet
The workflow process may be started by different kinds of triggers, including:
- File-based actions (e.g., uploading a file)
- Folder-based actions (e.g., creating a new folder)
- Metadata-based actions (e.g., the status of a document changed)
To find out where content-centric workflow automation can improve your business, look for processes that create, modify, or act on content, involve multiple people or stages, are fairly routine, and occur frequently. A quick tip for individuals and teams to help spot such processes is to look through their email and instant messaging (IM) applications to see which ones involve content — back and forth messages with attachments, reminders to update files, and status meetings. The processes where people resort to email or IM by default, rather than as a conscious choice, are usually good candidates for automation.
Other processes that can be automated are those involving cross-functional groups that collaborate, review, and manage common content across its lifecycle. Examples include:
- Line-of-business managers who collaborate with HR and legal teams on contracts
- Marketing professionals who work with product management and sales to build and distribute go-to-market assets
- Finance teams that process approvals and plans with budget implications
In 2017, IDC Research looked at the benefits organizations expected to gain from content-centric workflow automation. It discovered:
In one study, line-of-business executives and managers estimated that fully automating their document-driven business processes would yield a 36% increase in revenue, a 30% cost reduction, and a 23% reduction in risk. Other studies point to more than a 30% reduction in time spent on document-intensive processes, 30% to 40% reduction in errors, and 25% to 30% productivity increases, depending on the specific functional area and process.
These expectations are spot on — and customers who have already deployed content-centric workflows know it. Here are the benefits they’ve seen:
1. Faster cycle times
By facilitating handoffs, sending reminders, and automating manual steps, you accelerate turnaround times. The quicker you identify redundancies and bottlenecks, the more optimized your workflows get, resulting in even faster cycle times.
2. Increased productivity
By letting your users create and modify workflows, you help them to do their jobs more effectively. The better the tools that people have to work with, the more productive they are. Additionally, the less support employees need from IT, the more IT can focus on value-added projects that have a bigger impact on your organization.
3. Increased revenue
By giving frontline employees the tools to create and monitor workflows that perfectly fit the sales process to customers, you accelerate deal cycles. The quicker and smoother you move toward closure, the more likely you are to win the deal and increase sales.
4. Reduced costs
By streamlining and automating processes, you reduce paperwork and system overhead. The less paperwork you have, and the more efficient your processes, the more you save costs for business operations.
5. Reduced risk
By monitoring workflows from start to finish and having ready access to audit trails and reports, you reduce the risk of non-compliance. The more visibility and control you have on your processes, the easier it is to adhere to regulatory requirements, such as those protecting data privacy.
6. Reduced errors
By using repeatable processes to create and modify business-critical content, you minimize errors. The more you can standardize and automate your workflows, the less likely you are to introduce mistakes that require rework.
How Box simplifies content-centric workflow
Simply put, Box combines the best of both worlds — content management and workflow automation — into one platform. Box allows content to follow seamlessly across applications and people so that business processes are automated, agile, and secure. With the ability to collaborate in an ad-hoc way as well as automate routine processes on a single platform, Box streamlines and simplifies processes that would otherwise require bolt-on workflow tools with productivity suites. Box addresses the varying degrees of business processes with the following key products and capabilities.
The Content Cloud is an easy-to-use platform designed for all stages of the content lifecycle. If you haven't yet moved to the cloud, don't worry. We have you covered there, too. Box Shuttle offers a simple and cost-effective way to move all your content from legacy systems to the cloud.
Once your content is fully migrated, you can take advantage of our workflow automation and business process management tools. Plus, if your content workflow requires a signature, Box Sign gives you natively integrated e-signatures right where your content lives in Box.
You can automate manual processes with Box Relay. With Box Relay, users can build self-serve workflows with “if this, then that” (IFTTT) logic through an intuitive, no-code workflow builder. Designed for lightweight processes often supported by email, Box Relay makes it simple to build workflows in minutes, automating thehandoffof content as it flows through typical review and approval processes.
Box Relay also takes advantage of the underlying Content Cloud — frictionless security and compliance, integration with third-party applications, and seamless collaboration with people both inside and outside the organization.
You can automate the flow of content across applications with Box APIs. Box is an open content platform with a substantial set of APIs that developers can use when building new or enhanced applications. The content services plug into systems and applications, simplifying content delivery by programmatically managing how content is accessed, collaborated with, and secured in the cloud.
For example, Broadcom uses Box APIs to connect its product lifecycle management systems to the cloud through an ERP integration, delivering content ready for consumption across its distributed manufacturing model.
Business process management (BPM)
Automate the flow of content across BPM tools. Box has pre-built integrations with 1,500+ best-of-breed applications, including workflow vendors such as Nintex, ServiceNow, Pega, IBM, and Workato. Learn more about partnering with us.
Many organizations strive to automate manually intensive business processes in order to improve efficiency and reduce errors. Workflow tools provide a great way to solve the growing volume of needs for workflow and process modernization.
Get started with Box today
Work smarter, not harder. Box Relay simplifies your workflows and integrates with the rest of the Content Cloud. To see how our workflow software can help your company streamline its tasks and processes, contact us to schedule a demo today.
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