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Workflow automation: 25 years of tried-and-true success

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1993 was a year of dynamic changes in politics and culture. It was also the year that IBM released its flagship enterprise workflow automation software: IBM FlowMark.

Since then, workflow automation technology has emerged as the leading front-end solution for enterprise digital transformation initiatives. IBM continues to provide leading solutions for designing and managing workflows to help drive growth.

A brief history of workflow

  • Early 1990s. The first workflow automation software solutions, based on workflow engines, were released. This software replaced basic, paper-based processes with electronic ones, enabling companies to replace paper-based task-routing activities with automated electronic-form processes.
  • Late 1990s. Features such as modelling tools, business rules and more were added to analyze, model and describe business processes. It helped companies analyze the graphical view of “as-is” processes in an organization and contrast it with “to-be” processes to make them more efficient.
  • 2005. The modern era of workflow automation began with the introduction of business process management (BPM) methodology and tools.

IBM has been part of it all, starting with the launch of IBM FlowMark in 1993 and continuing through today, as you can see from the below timeline graphic. A quarter of a century later, Business Automation Workflow is at the forefront of enterprise automation for improving productivity, visibility, faster time to market and improved accountability.

Workflow automation 25

The future of workflow

Workflow automation software has already reached the cloud, making it easier for people to collaborate within different cloud-based applications, wherever they are. What’s next?

Three words: intelligent workstream automation. Based on our interactions with clients, I believe the future of workflow will be intelligent, meaning the technology will continue to evolve to help reduce the management of understanding what work is the most important to do and who is the right resource (human, robot, system API) to complete it.  This significantly reduces the reliance on manual intervention by being able to “learn” from human work patterns to adapt workstreams via workflow automatically.

In the next five to 10 years, I anticipate companies are likely to see advancement in three key areas:

1. Machine learning and workflow 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is taking its strategic place in both operational and strategic business process management, changing the ways we do things. For example, robotic process automation (RPA) is already being used to automate routine, manual tasks to help reduce errors and increase speed. Going forward, it’s likely that more intelligence will be added to enhance RPA’s ability to observe and learn from human patterns to optimize front- and back-office experiences. Likewise, machine learning is poised to revolutionize workflow, helping to enable companies to trigger new processes, reroute running processes and make action recommendations based on predictions.

2. Low-code or no-code workflow software

Workflow software requiring minimal or no coding will continue to be a strategic priority to make process automation more accessible to the entire organization, especially line of business. According to a 2017 survey, three-fourths of organizations report that at least some of their applications are developed by employees outside the IT department.

3. Text-message-based workflow

The de facto communication method for the new workforce is likely to be text messaging. In some instances, we’re already seeing this. For example, SMS marketing is on the rise due to high read and response rates. It’s thus likely that enabling text messaging and text message-based workflow will be a big driver for the next generation of productivity gains in the enterprise.

IBM Business Automation Workflow continues to evolve to help meet emerging demands, just as it did 25 years ago, evolving from workgroup-style and document-oriented workflows to workflow automation on cloud to more intelligent automation.

Here’s to another 25 years of relevant innovation and improvement.

Learn more about how IBM can help you design and manage start-to-finish workflows at scale.

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