Businesses contain many parts, and all these parts need to work together well to create success. But human beings are never perfect. When you expect many people to work together as a single entity, there are bound to be snags – conflicts in personalities, goals, ambition, and motivation. Enterprise contains workflows – processes repeated over and over – and in each of these workflows, one weak link in the chain can cause a process failure. Automation can shore up these weaknesses, creating much stronger chains. Automation platforms are not an all-powerful or completely pervasive solution. But when automation is done intelligently, with judicious integration of the correct technologies and automated software, it can regulate and control your business in ways that go above and beyond the capabilities of human workers. In a workplace setting, automation has reinvented how we do everything. We rely on technology across the board in manufacturing and in all kinds of businesses, from large to small. This article will describe how your workflow solutions can leverage automation to the most significant benefit.
What is workflow automation?Automation is “a technology concerned with performing a process by means of programmed commands combined with automatic feedback control.” In simpler language, it’s using technological tools instead of human resources to complete tasks. Automation has two main goals: eliminating manual tasks and, when the task cannot be fully automated, minimizing the human work hours that go into its completion. Don’t forget the second piece: In an effective enterprise workflow automation, quality standards remain uncompromised. With advances in tech like robotic process automation (RPA), mundane tasks can be accomplished by bots with greater speed and less error than when done by humans.
The history of enterprise workflow automationFrom our perspective in 2022, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when we all worked manually. Yet it was not that long ago when accounts were tallied on abaci, furniture was handmade piece by piece, and when we needed to work late, we lit candles made individually by the local chandler. Even when the Industrial Revolution brought the advent of mass production, every step of the assembly line was still handled by manually processing. It has only been in the Digital Age that technology advanced to the point where the work processes can be automated. The term automation was coined in the automobile industry in 1946 when substitutes for human beings were no longer simply mechanical. Now humans can focus their energy on more creative endeavors and leave the more straightforward, repetitive tasks to machines.
How does enterprise workflow automation work?Time to get into workflow automation and how we use digital transformation to customize workflow, increase business process speeds, and improve work across the board. First, let’s look at the most prominent application: process automation.
Process automationTo better understand business process management, consider the simple scenario of a customer purchasing a product. In 1950, the customer would go to a store, choose a product (probably speaking with an employee personally), then go to the cash register and pay for that product. The sale would be written in a ledger by an employee to be manually documented in inventory. Maybe over time, using observations from many human interactions, the store owner would gain a sense of who their clients are and which products they prefer and make changes accordingly. But the owner would be just guessing. Compare this with what it’s like to buy a product from a company that uses advanced workflow automation tools. Almost every step of the process can benefit from automation through software solutions:
- The initial purchase can be completed online using an e-commerce platform.
- Automated email can automatically send the customer a receipt or invoice.
- Sales software tools can log the sale and notify procurement of the change in inventory in real-time.
- The connectivity of cloud-based services and social media can be leveraged to gain an idea of the general profile of the customer. You can use this information to create a very accurate picture of the people who interact most with your company.
Beyond process automationComprehensive enterprise workflow automation is more than just a series of automated steps. The most significant aspect of adding this technology is its ability to control which actions to take and in which order, according to a set of conditions and predefined criteria. Once a workflow is triggered, no arbitrary human involvement is required. Depending on the complexity of the workflow, other decisions may be necessary. For example, an HR workflow for disciplinary action might require a manager to determine whether the discipline made an adequate apology. But that decision is part of the workflow. When it happens, who signs off, and what actions result are all clearly defined and logged for future auditing or oversight requirements. At no point is a critical decision about how to proceed left to someone unqualified to make it, nor is there an opportunity to sweep anything under the rug without someone being held accountable. Once initiated, the HR workflow will require that the proper steps are followed. From our sales example, the automated workflow triggered by a new customer sale might include the following sequence:
- The customer is added to the CRM.
- After-sales communication sent to the customer, based on predefined rules
- The customer is assigned to a specific service area based on demographic info
- The marketing platform is updated with conversion details like source
How is workflow automation different at the enterprise level?Any organization can benefit from workflow automation, whether a single professional, a mom-and-pop business, or a multinational corporation. No matter the size, business tasks can be automated – from customer relationship management, like responding to customer questions, to IT security policies, like disabling a former employee’s access to company resources. The difference in scale is significant because, for a small organization, these tasks could conceivably all be done manually. If you only have a hundred customers and a sales staff of one, they can respond to each customer promptly using nothing more complex than their email inbox. And if one employee out of five leaves your company, it’s no trouble to change their email password, forward correspondence to another inbox, and take away their parking pass. But with enterprise workflow management, you’re talking about thousands of employees and potentially millions of customers. Any business process at that scale suddenly becomes anything but simple, and trying to do it all manually is either a colossal labor cost or an intractable bottleneck for whichever department is responsible. An enterprise that doesn’t use automation will quickly be left behind by more nimble competitors who have a better grasp of workflow automation software to save time and money.
Why should I use enterprise workflow automation?Scale is an essential factor in the decision for business users, but here are a few more specific reasons why automation benefits businesses:
- Reduced labor costs: automating tasks means saving employee effort and, therefore, salary payments can be significantly reduced
- Employee satisfaction: no one enjoys doing mindless, repetitive work; those employees can now focus on tasks that require more discretion and creativity
- Consistency: automating workflows means that the same situations will result in the same outcomes, preventing arbitrariness and leading to more user satisfaction
- Accuracy: less human involvement in simple tasks minimizes human error
- Oversight: automated workflows mean that every aspect of a task is logged, which lets you see exactly where problems are occurring and where improvements are necessary
- Security: with fewer decision points comes tighter security and fewer opportunities for things to be overlooked
What are some types of automation tools?You’re probably already using the simplest, most basic automation tool: external software. But even the use of software has evolved. Companies can use out-of-the-box installable programs, internal customized customer management systems, and SaaS – Software as a Service, the future of automation integration. With SaaS, internet-based cloud apps and code platforms have allowed employees to work with each other and their customers faster, more effectively, and from remote locations. Examples of SaaS range from internal communication (email services and virtual-meeting apps like Zoom and Slack) to comprehensive automation services like those offered by J-Curve. Apart from SaaS, there are two main types of solutions when it comes to automation:
- High-level, one-size-fits-all solutions are often the simplest. They don’t require alteration and can be used out of the box. These are useful if the processes you’re looking to automate are common but less useful if your needs are unique or very specialized.
- Custom solutions are more costly, and utilize in-house or external developers to create personalized workflow tools for your business use case.
When is enterprise workflow automation most helpful?According to McKinsey, 60% of workers spend more than a third of their time on automatable tasks, and 50% of tasks can be automated using existing, established technology. Automation is a tool that more businesses should be using to their greater advantage. Of course, there will always be tasks that are too complex to be automated successfully or require a human being’s creativity or decision-making skills. Those activities might look like creating unique branding design and consistent messaging across all channels or choosing the best candidate for a managerial position where factors like personality and management style need to be considered. However, many aspects of enterprise business are standardized, and tasks that will benefit most from workflow automation are repetitive and break down easily into discrete steps. It may not be worth automating something that doesn’t involve a lot of repetition, especially if a new tool needs to be designed. By sifting through your workflow processes and considering budgeting, you can usually pinpoint areas where human decision-making isn’t necessary.
How do I start using enterprise workflow automation?The key to success in this area is initial planning. Here are the main steps any business should follow.
- Identify the main workflows that take place in each area of your business.
- Break these workflows down into a series of events. Flowcharts are a handy tool when analyzing workflows.
- For each event, identify a trigger and an action. Triggers can include input from outside users, a new entry in a database, or a condition like a time or a date. For each trigger, identify the action that should follow. An action can be a straightforward task or a series of nested tasks.
- Examine these sets of triggers and actions and identify repetitive ones that require minimal input or analysis once the workflow has begun. This list will form the basis of your automation programming. Workflows should be automated using these steps:
- Define goals: What exactly do you want to accomplish through automation?
- Write business rules for each trigger and resulting action(s). For example, what tasks are created when a new hire accepts an offer? When one task is completed, which tasks are triggered?
- Assign permissions: Many workflows need sign-offs at critical stages to maintain security. Who can create requests? Who can approve requests?
- Create the automation: This will depend on what platform you are using.
- Testing & Monitoring: Verify that the goals defined in the first step are being met, and ensure that the automation has the desired result.