Digital Transformation and Workflow Automation
Digital transformation initiatives are currently in vogue across all industries and company sizes. Entrepreneurs launching new businesses have an opportunity to build a scalable, future-proof digital infrastructure without having to move off legacy systems and dealing with change management.
One of the critical components of any digital transformation is a move to workflow automation, specifically regarding business processes. Many organizations are saddled with manual processes that perpetuate despite clear inefficiency and a high rate of mistakes.
Take a simple capital expenditure process, which is most common in the manufacturing sector but exists across many other industries. In this process, someone requests the purchase of a high-ticket, capital item for the business. This request is manually circulated to all the people that need to approve the purchase, usually via email. Ultimately the request gets approved or rejected, and, if approved, the item is purchased.
While that process may sound simple on the surface, anyone who’s dealt with this process knows it’s anything but simple. Let’s start with how the process gets initiated:
- There may not be a standard request form to complete.
- There may be a form, but the person requesting it doesn’t know where to get it.
- The form may be:
- Buried in a shared drive or intranet portal and out of date.
- In an older (or newer) version of Microsoft Word, Excel, or Acrobat.
- Cumbersome to complete and critical fields left blank.
- The form then needs to be sent to someone specific, but whom?
Once the correct form is found, accurately completed, and sent to the right person, the approval process begins. Depending on the type of request and the complexity of the approval process, the request can spend weeks bouncing around the email system. Meanwhile, the original person requesting the item has no idea what’s going on and when they’ll hear back.
This process is just one example, but the sad truth is that this is how MOST business processes work. It’s something that many digital transformation initiatives seek to address with workflow automation.
What is workflow automation?
Workflow automation refers to the design, execution, and automation of processes based on workflow rules. Human tasks, data, and files route between people or systems based on pre-defined business rules.
Workflows are designed by defining tasks, for instance, “Give an Approval or “Complete a Request Form,” and then laying those tasks out visually to simulate the actual process as closely as possible. Each task is assigned to the appropriate person (or group) based on the business rules set up.
An example could be “If a request is for more than $50,000, assign the approval directly to the Finance Vice President in the requester’s region.”
Once this workflow is kicked off, usually by someone completing a form, the automation begins running and handles the workflow from individual to individual and system to system.
What are the benefits of workflow automation?
Reduce Inefficiency and Improve Productivity
By reducing the manual handling of routing and assigning tasks, employees have more time to spend on the tasks themselves as well as other higher-value work. Instead of relying on meetings, emails, and phone calls to keep a process moving forward, the workflow automation system maintains forward momentum.
This momentum isn’t achieved just by routing and task assignment, but also through alerts, reminders, and delegation. These tools are critical for reducing cycle times. This is especially true of delegation, which allows for a back-up task assignment if the originally-assigned individual is unavailable.
Because there is full process visibility, everyone knows who’s been assigned to which tasks and where the workflow currently stands. This transparency reduces the need to have multiple status meetings or “check-ins.”
Reduce Risks and Increase Standardization
Carefully crafted standards and policies can get neglected when there is no automation in place. People will submit the wrong forms, send them to the wrong people, approve things they shouldn’t approve, and generally ignore set standards.
In situations where a mistake or delay can cost thousands of dollars, for instance, in a pharmaceutical product development workflow, it’s a huge benefit to have the guardrails of automated workflow in place. By creating a repeatable, auditable, transparent workflow, processes are much more likely to be followed according to organizational standards.
Adapt to Changes in Process
One of the great things about building an effective, visual representation of a process is that it’s easy to go back and change/adjust things on the fly. For instance, in the “more than $50,000 request” scenario mentioned earlier, let’s say the CFO decides to make the limit $100,000. The workflow administrator simply changes a value, and the workflow is instantly updated.
This adaptability also applies to changes in personnel, tasks, forms, integrations, and roles. Anything in the process can be changed and is instantly reflected in the workflow.
Sometimes these changes are due to a change in policy, in other cases it’s because of a process improvement initiative. Suggestions can be made and implemented to make processes run better and better over time.
How Do I Prepare for Workflow Automation?
Before considering investing in a workflow automation system, you need to make sure the organization or department using it is prepared.
An article on the topic of planning for workflow automation is available on our blog, but here are four key considerations:
- Enlist business process analysts or capable project managers to interview members of the processes. They can develop accurate mockups of each process and sub-process.
- Document the standards, rules, and operating procedures for all your processes, including exceptions.
- Set up time to review and validate all the documentation generated with all stakeholders and executive champions.
- Assign a specific person or group to be responsible for maintaining the workflow automation software and building out the initial processes.
Hopefully, I’ve given you a good understanding of what workflow automation is and why it can be beneficial to your organization. Investing in workflow automation tools can have a positive impact on both employees and the company’s bottom line for years to come.