What is workflow?

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. While 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 is opening up more opportunities to improve a wider range of business processes.


Read on to learn the workflow definition, how business-driven workflow automation evolved, what use cases are most common, and what workflow engine capabilities address today’s business needs.


The evolution of workflow

Today, we define workflow as a sequence of tasks that is triggered by an event and produces one or more outcomes. Computer systems can be used to automate workflows by detecting triggers, assigning tasks, executing outcomes, and generating progress and status reports. The same systems can also be used to accommodate rules-driven workflows, allowing designers to determine the sequence of tasks and events based on business rules.


Hardly a new concept, workflow automation grew in the 1990s, along with the emergence of business process management (BPM): a discipline whose focus remained on narrow, deep, and complex processes such as claims, contract, and inventory management. BPM does allow organizations to design, model, execute, monitor, and optimize sophisticated and complex business processes. But BPM also requires complex workflow diagrams and charts to model business processes, which call for the expertise of software developers.


Here’s an example of Pega BPM management.

Pega BPM management

Source: Pega


As organizations move toward a customer-obsessed operating model and faster response times, digitizing all business functions becomes an imperative — not just those considered business-critical. 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.


Here’s an example of low-code workflow with Mendix Studio Pro.

Mendix Studio Pro

Source: PR Newswire


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.


Here’s an example of no-code workflow with Box Relay.

Workflow with Box Relay

Key capabilities of workflow engines

No matter the sophistication, every workflow tool should support three major types of functionality.


1. Workflow creation and modification

  • Tools to create and modify workflows: For some workflow engines, the only way to create a new workflow is to write code, 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 process owners with no technical skills can use to create and modify workflows. To help non-technical users with defining workflows and creating them, low-code and no-code workflow engines often come with a set of pre-defined workflow templates with industry-specific logic. The advantage of enabling business users to create a workflow is that, while they may lack technical skills, they are the most familiar with the processes that need to be automated.  
  • Rules-based logic: Some workflow process engines allow designers to express conditions upon which different steps should be followed. This “if this, then that” (IFTTT) logic is important in business process modeling.

2. Workflow execution

  • Document routing: In reaction to a trigger, the workflow engine moves the flow to the next step, notifying the person responsible for the next task, and passing content to that person, as appropriate. If rules-based logic is included in the workflow, the engine may evaluate a condition to determine which of several possible tasks should follow.  
  • Task management: A workflow engine creates tasks and assigns them to the appropriate person, along with the right deadline, as specified during the workflow creation process. Associated with each task are a start time, a completion time, a status, a person who is responsible, and some form of content.  
  • State handling: As a process causes a change in state (usually involving a change in the state of content), the workflow engine reacts according to the design of the workflow. In some cases, this means generating an alert; in others, it may be to move on to the next task.  
  • Event notification: A workflow engine may notify users of different events, such as a folder being created, a file being opened, or a task nearing its deadline.  

3. Workflow monitoring and exception handling

  • Visibility and control: Workflow engines generate reports on the status of running processes, and on completion times and other metrics associated with completed workflows. The workflow engine may allow administrators to make changes to a running process.  
  • End-to-end audit: Since workflow and collaboration systems have typically been separate in the past, the only way to get a full picture has been to combine audit reports from the two systems, a time-consuming and error-prone method that introduces compliance risks. When workflow and content collaboration are combined, its easy to get a unified audit report across the entire content and workflow lifecycle.  
  • Timeouts: In cases where a task is not completed on time, the workflow engine may stop the task, generate an alert, and continue the stream as indicated by the workflow design.


In addition to these primary features, workflow engines might 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.


Finally, what’s a workflow engine without security and compliance? Administrators need to control who gets to create and modify workflows, who gets to view notifications, and which users get which rights with regards to any given content. The engine should be able to 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. The most 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 come as 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 solved 20 years ago have now evolved to micro-efficiencies at scale for hundreds (if not thousands) of processes across a business. Taking advantage of this efficiency requires 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 majority of companies expect the volume of data and information to double in the next two years, with the majority (60%) of the information being unstructured (e.g., contracts, conversations, and invoices).


This explosion of content, paired with the understanding that the majority of business processes are user led, have 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 on a weekly basis. Moreover, these processes consumed nearly half of their time (see graphic below). This includes everyday routine tasks like reviewing contracts, approving invoices, creating new customer deliverables, or submitting inputs to weekly/monthly/quarterly plans.



These 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.


Common content-centric workflow use cases

Content-centric workflow is most commonly applied to the following two broad categories of use cases.  

1. Review and approvals: Processes involving task assignment and file movement amongst stakeholders. For instance, reviewing and approving sales contracts by sales management and legal teams, or processing of vendor invoices by procurement and finance teams.

2. Project/people onboarding: Processes involving the creation of pre-determined file and folder structures and orchestration of access control for stakeholders. For instance, initiating a new project or onboarding a newly hired contractor.

 content-centric workflow


These processes 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), or 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 and/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 involved content back and forth messages with attachments, reminders to update files, and status meetings. These processes where people resorted to email/IMby 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, and finance teams that process approvals and plans with budget implications.


6 benefits to automating workflows across the business

In 2017, IDC Research looked at the benefits that organizations expected to gain from content-centric workflow automation.¹ IDC 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 changes 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 enable them to do their jobs more effectively. The better the tools that people have to work with, the more productive they are. On the other hand, the less they rely on IT, the more IT can focus on value-added projects with wider impact across the organization.

3. Increased revenue: By giving front-line 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 a deal towards closure, the more likely you are to win the deal and increase sales.

4. Reduced costs: By streamlining and automating processes, you reduce paperwork as well as 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 ad-hoc as well as automate routine processes on a single platform, Box streamlines and simplifies processes that otherwise require bolt-on workflow tools with productivity suites. Box addresses the varying degrees of business processes with the following key products and capabilities.

  •  No-code: 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 to support the lightweight processes often supported by email, it’s simple enough to build workflows in minutes, automating the handoff of content as it flows through typical review and approval processes, for example. Further, Box Relay inherits all the advantages of the underlying Box cloud content management platform: frictionless security and compliance, integration with third-party applications, and seamless collaboration with people both inside and outside the organization. Learn more about Box Relay.
  • Low-code: 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. These 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.  
  • BPM: Automate the flow of content across BPM tools. Box has pre-built integrations with 1,400 best-of-breed applications, including workflow vendors such as Nintex, ServiceNow, Pega, IBM, and Workato. Learn more about our Box partners.


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.  

¹Drive Digital Transformation by Transforming Content-Centric Workflows, IDC, 2017


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