What are digital workflow solutions?

How the mapping of repeatable processes can help drive business efficiency

Digital workflow solutions are the latest manifestation of a business strategy that started all the way back in the 1920s. At its most basic level, a workflow involves setting out the steps that one or more people must complete in order to achieve a repeatable business goal.

There are two different methods for this: Sequential, when each task must be completed in order to move onto the next one and parallel, when various tasks in the set can be undertaken at the same time.

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For example, a sequential workflow for an audit may look like this:

Whereas a parallel workflow may look like this:

Parallel workflows clearly save time by running three processes at the same time (i.e. in parallel), but they may not be suited for every situation.

Both the parallel and sequential processes laid out above are repeatable: The same template can and should be used each time an audit is due to take place unless there's a significant reason to make changes. And this is one of the key facets of the workflow system - the system isn't used as a one off, it's used again and again. This helps in two ways: Firstly, whether it's auditing, onboarding, expenses requests, software development or anything else, everyone involved knows what steps should be taken, meaning nothing gets lost in the mix. Secondly, it speeds up processes - particularly if some elements can be automated.

What are the advantages of digital workflow solutions?

Digital workflows bring the workflow process up to date. Whereas in the past workflows may have been planned and displayed on whiteboards and flip charts (or before that, blackboards), now they are created and displayed virtually in specialist workflow software.

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Using digital workflow solutions has several advantages. Firstly, the very real danger posed by someone accidentally wiping clean the whiteboard - partially or totally - is removed. And, thanks to cloud backup the virtual equivalent of this - someone deleting a crucial file or the hardware it's stored on being damaged - is also removed.

Using digital workflow solutions also simplifies the process of amending any given workflow - additional nodes can be added, tasks can be renamed and linear processes can be made parallel, all with a couple of mouse clicks and keystrokes.

Finally, digital workflow solutions that can be accessed remotely - through the cloud, for example, or via VPN connecting to on-premise hardware - also enable teams to collaborate effectively even if some of them work remotely or they're spread across several offices.

What are the disadvantages of digital workflow solutions?

Realistically, there are very few disadvantages to using digital workflow solutions. Most software will allow users to undo changes if something is deleted, modified or added in error. Standard backup and recovery processes for the entire business should also mean that deleted files can be resurrected if they were removed by accident.

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One potential pitfall, however, is overcomplicating processes. While it may be tempting to use a shiny new piece of software to map out the minutiae of approving a travel request, in reality a simpler workflow is preferable.

For example, this is detailed, but not very helpful:

This, on the other hand, contains all the necessary information, but is much clearer

Additionally, not every task needs a workflow applied to it.

Even creating this kind of workflow - at least if humans are involved - is largely a waste of time.

Workflow automation

An ancillary benefit of using workflow software is it can help identify processes that can be at least partly, if not entirely, automated. Take the travel request example above: It would be easy to run a piece of software at the finance department level that identifies if a request is in accordance with company policy, rather than have a human review each submission. If the outcome is contested, it can always be sent for review by a real person but those occasions are likely to be minimal.

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Many other projects, both large and small, will have points that can be automated that will only become fully visible once laid out in a digital workflow solution for all to see.

Some of the extremely mundane and repeatable tasks can be automated in their entirety - or near enough. For example, in the milk workflow above, an IoT-enabled smart fridge could automatically monitor the levels of milk it contains every hour and order more once the quantity dips below a certain threshold.

This could also potentially reduce wastage through artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics, for example, where specialist software can be used to pick out patterns in usage (maybe less milk is used on a Thursday and Friday than on Monday, for example, so less needs to be ordered in order to replenish stocks sufficiently). We're a little way off a robot being the one that delivers the milk and restocks the fridge, but never say never.

How to pick the best digital workflow solution

There is an enormous range of digital workflow solutions on the market, which means you're virtually guaranteed to find a product that's right for your needs.

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Here are some things to consider when investigating the options on offer:

  • What do you want to use this software for - do you have a test case, for example?
  • How many people will be using the software?
  • Do you want to use cloud-based software?
  • Do any of your existing service providers also offer workflow solutions?
  • How much do you want to pay and how do you want to be billed (one-off/monthly/annually)
  • Do you need your workflow tools to integrate with your existing business software?

As with any investment, take your time to investigate all options available before taking the plunge with one.

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