What Is Workflow Automation?

5 min read

How workflow automation improves business operations, IT network administration and DevOps collaboration.

Organizations are moving toward broader workflow automation across business operations and within IT processes. This helps to speed up processes and improve communication.

Workflow automation optimizes processes by replacing manual tasks with software that executes all or part of a process. Today, this is usually done through workflow automation software that consists of low-code, drag-and-drop features and adoption-friendly UIs.

Many tools also include artificial intelligence (AI), though this isn’t required to successfully automate workflows. Rule-based logic programs are equally effective in addressing workflow inefficiencies and providing easier collaboration.  

Benefits of workflow automation  

Benefits for businesses

Automation reduces human errors and eliminates many time-consuming and repetitive tasks, such as manual data entry. Organizations with outdated, manual processes cannot reliably scale with labor- and capital-intensive processes. By adding automation, businesses have improved capacity for scalability.

Workflow automation also benefits businesses in the following ways:

  • Creates processes that reduce costs
  • Streamlines task management
  • Reduces time in a process cycle 
  • Decreases errors from manual entries or oversights
  • Automates approval and document flows

Benefits for developers and operations (DevOps)

Workflow automation springboards improved releases and clearer communication channels between developers and operations, two traditionally independent areas. It upends common DevOps barriers — such as bottlenecks and follow-ups — that result from siloed developer and operations channels.  

Benefits for IT network administration 

Automating workflows creates better administrative oversight across cloud, network, operating system and departmental interactivity. Additionally, it adds a critical layer of visualization to better configure, oversee and analyze network health, security and deficiencies.

Types of workflow automation

There are two types of workflow automation: Business process (BP) and robotic process (RP) workflows.

Business process workflows

Business process management (BPM) methodology is how businesses structure processes to best serve customers. It drives business process workflows toward increased efficiency to reach mission-critical business goals. In many cases, workflow automation software is designed with BPM philosophy. Software automates business process workflows to optimize tasks that were historically performed manually. Excel's autofill and macro features are early examples of workflow automation. 

Robotic process workflows

Today, software automates robotic processes (known as robotic process automation or RPA) and is designed for robots to perform work similarly to humans. In many cases, bots work alongside IT (as well as in other fields) to support administrative processes. Bots can identify and suggest the most relevant information to solve processing errors. Bots can also mitigate help desk inquiries, login authentications and intervene in processing errors.

Workflow automation is a technical term for a practice that has been in use for hundreds of years. Assembly lines and manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution and agriculture, thereafter, were some of the first industries to use RPA workflows. Though, these were machine — not software — based.  

Workflow automation use cases

You can apply automation to most types of workflows. For example, you can automate employee onboarding template documents for human resources or set and automate approval workflows for all of your team members.

You’ll find workflow automation software in most fields and industries:

  • Marketing: Marketing Operations Processes (MOPS) use workflow automation for marketing campaigns, customer communication channels and for measuring metrics and marketing analysis.
  • Sales: Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software also provides workflow management. It automates customer communication, form completion and departmental collaboration. For instance, a CRM can automate approval flow notifications and update internal dashboard data when a customer has taken a specific step, such as signing a document or entering information.
  • Finance: Automation increases consistencies in payments, moderates compliance requirements and supports greater accuracy in forecasting and revenue collections. 
  • Manufacturing: Workflow automation offsets shifts in supply and business structures. It reduces redundancies and improves quality-control errors. Automating workflows specifically cuts down purchase, budget and supply chain approval and cycle times. Manufacturing can automate workflows in purchase requests, contract management interactions and go-to-market product development projects.
  • Information security: IT automation software mitigates security threats with more nimble responsiveness. Incident report automation and integration with existing security tools and guidelines can help IT better manage hybrid and cloud ecosystems. Companies can also automate workflows to monitor cyber threats for increased security.
  • IT operations: For in-house network operations, workflow automation helps manage network users across multiple departments, such as sales, finance, legal and administrative teams.
  • Systems management: IT as a service (ITaaS) is a type of software that enables managed cloud services for enterprise businesses, which includes workflow programming. Workflow automation software creates centralized controls for configuring, deploying and overseeing business networks. Software defined networking (SDN) and software defined wide-area-networking (SD-WAN) are two distinct IT network management systems for which workflow automation enables greater integrative oversight. Workflow automation lets IT more easily manage these systems in real-time. 

The future of workflow automation

Workflow automation startups are innovating the workflow process to offer standardized network automations, approval processes and data-syncing across applications with integrated API solutions.

Most significant is a design shift to low-code workflow automation, which broadens the scope of who can create and deploy workflows to include decision makers and direct collaborators. The result is that organizations may move away from top-down organizational structures to more symmetrical, collaborative systems that hasten process improvements.

AI in workflow automation is another big trend in the enterprise. AI-powered automation lets businesses draw on data patterns and machine learning to employ predictive analysis and insights for improved processes.

These solutions stand to transform the IT network ecosystem, where network administration is considered one of the last manual processes yet to be automated.  

Workflow automation software coming to market today will include features that advance IT’s ability to control and navigate network issues. Visual workflows will gain traction for easier workflow creation and mediation across IT networks. 

Businesses can also count on templatized workflows that can be used as building blocks to manage future automations, as well as integrative features with pre-existing workflow automations.   

Workflow automation and IBM 

IBM’s workflow automation software is a low-code solution that integrates with commonly used third-party cloud solutions and employs low-code applications and machine learning. 

IBM’s primary workflow automation offering is IBM Cloud Pak® for Business Automation. It enables businesses to connect processes, information and people for a holistic business view. IBM Cloud Pak for Business Automation also includes analytics, collaboration features and a business rules management system.

Our solution is flexible — designed to operate any style of workflow. It leverages rule-based logic to create automated workflows for business operations. Workflows can be standardized and reused to reduce inefficiencies and give your team more time for high-value tasks.

Learn more about how IBM Cloud Pak for Business Automation enables your business to leverage scalable features across your business operation.

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