What Is a Workflow Engine?

5 min read

Learn how workflow engine software automates tasks to support a focus on higher-value work.

A workflow engine is the application that runs digital workflow software. It enables businesses to create and automate workflows — in many cases, with low-code visual builders.

A workflow engine converts traditionally manual workflows from IT-guided tasks to human and software-managed processes that route and direct information paths, responsibilities and collaboration channels for the most efficient use of resources.

From a purchase-order notification alert that a task has been completed to initiating a workflow API that calls a workflow engine to change state and transition to a new task, workflow engines are the backbone of automated processes.

Workflow engine integrations

Innovation in workflow engines has enabled organizations to integrate workflows for Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and across common business operations — such as contract approval and management cycles — to increase scalability. 

Workflow software includes workflow process automation functionality for fully automated or hybrid workflows. It can automatically complete tasks or create notifications for task completion or interventions — from the beginning of a process to completion.

Here are some common ways you’ve likely interacted with workflow engines:

  • Hybrid process: When ordering take-out, you may place an order online and pay at pick-up.
  • IoT interactions: You receive an alert notification that a package was delivered along with a picture showing where it was placed.
  • API connectivity: When you click a button to an external site, a workflow API responds and opens a new page. Upon completion, it re-routes you back to the original site.  

You might wonder whether workflow engine software is the same as workflow management systems (WMS). Simply put, a workflow engine is the software that runs workflow management systems. The workflow engine application is at the core of running the software.

Benefits of using a workflow engine

At this point, the benefits are likely obvious; decreasing your workload or making it more efficient with automation is always optimal. But workflow engine software can benefit every aspect of your business. The strongest benefit is in its potential to enable businesses to reach mission-critical goals with optimized processes.

Support higher-value work

Workflow systems, which run on workflow engines, are integral to business process management (BPM) methodology as an optimization tool. The software automates tasks — from the most menial to more complex processes. Across software, hardware and human-orchestration tasks, workflow engine software mediates low-value work and redundant tasks with automation. The solution frees-up employees from time-consuming tasks to focus their talents on higher-value work and helps improves operations in every area of business.

Operational benefits

Across businesses, these are the most common benefits:

  • Solves communication fractions and creates improved collaboration
  • Reduces redundancies in steps and reduces human error
  • Supports business compliance
  • Lowers costs by guiding information and task flow in a more efficient manner
  • Enables employees to focus on higher-value work
  • Optimizes information access and timing
  • Pushes a project to completion to reach business goals 

You might prefer software that is highly customizable for your developer team if you’re seeking to build out a new product or integrate it into your current digital workspace. Or your business might opt for workflow engine software that is less technical in nature.

In either case, you’ll want to understand how the software aligns with your organization’s automation needs and goals.

How a workflow engine works

Workflows are typically initiated or resolved based on pre-set times and deadlines, so that when one task is completed, another is initiated for human-lead tasks. In the case of internal network server tasks, workflow engines can automate these with set, timed cycles.  

Workflows route a series of tasks, pushing them from one step to the next. They not only automate tasks, but they also decrease decision-making processes by guiding the process to the most efficient step. They are designed to do so with set deadlines or with timed response.

A workflow engine is designed as a group of microservices so that multiple processes can occur at once. There are two common types:

  • Developer-friendly software
  • Low-code software

Developer-friendly workflow management systems are typically open-source solutions that support Java. Low-code software is designed so that you can configure workflows with a visual user interface or visual designer.

However, most workflow engines apply a business process modeling notation (BPMN) process model as the diagram structure that guides your workflows. 

From server and application workflow tasks to employee approval processes, data processing and onboarding, workflow technology helps you customize each of these use cases.

Moreover, workflow engines typically use representational state transfer (or RESTful API) software. This technology lets applications interact in a network environment, which in turn enables your organization to integrate a workflow solution with your cloud service and other platforms you currently use.

Rule-based vs. time-based workflow architecture

Workflow engines run on both time-based and business-rules engines, meaning that rules can include a set of logical conditions or are initiated by a set time or deadline.

This design functionality lets multiple users concurrently execute a part of a task that is relevant to their role. For example, a customer might see only one part of a service screen, while an administrator and sales executive are privy to additional pertinent information. That might include customer status, signature status information or any outstanding documents and information needed to complete a sales cycle. Once a part of the cycle is complete, a workflow engine can trigger differentiated notifications segmented for the customer, sales executive and administrator.

Intelligent automation design

Applying artificial intelligence (AI), workflow engine designers have begun to create more intelligent automation. Intelligent automation in workflow engine design is a combination of rule-based and AI structures. For example, by using AI, a workflow engine can extract contextual information from a document and route it to the right recipient for approval or the next step. It can also factor in data from previous process instances and optimize on this by re-routing a process.

Workflow engine features

Workflow engines enable your organization — particularly IT administrators — to perform less manual, repetitive work. Some solutions let you design the process, while others limit the extent you can develop and design a workflow. Many software options on the market today include some or all of these features: 

  • Low-code configuration and management with visual designers
  • Drag-and-drop visual workflow builders
  • Version control
  • User-authentication to control access
  • State-persistency, which frees up memory for longer-term processes, such as contract management.
  • Code-based, developer-friendly customizations
  • Support to run over a long period of time, for longer process lifecycles

Applications for workflow engines

Some workflow engine software is better for hardware and IT-based functions, while others work better for end-to-end customer-centric workflows.

Nevertheless, workflow solutions are a path to digital transformation across industries. Use cases include the following: 

  • Healthcare: Workflow systems can track and process virus tracing and vaccination data. Healthcare professionals can also deploy remote, mobile medical support.
  • E-commerce: Workflow engines enable you to configure and enhance the customer purchase and checkout experience.
  • Customer service centers: Service centers can route chatbot interactions to live support based on set parameters to increase customer experience.

Workflow engines for business processes

Workflow management is the process of orchestrating business operations, including internal and external processes, that make up business processes (BP) as a whole, says Gartner

Business processes are the central systems of your business operations. Workflow engines are the software and technology that create workflows, which can serve these key goals. To that end, business process managers commonly employ workflow engine software as an essential tool for optimizing legacy processes.

IBM workflow engine software supports higher-value work

IBM enables your business to replace the need to create a native IT infrastructure and, instead, quickly optimize processes that lead to higher value work and productivity.

IBM Business Process Manager on Cloud offers a comprehensive business process management lifecycle platform for low cost to scalable business growth projects and business needs.

The platform provides developers with workflow application design, testing, deployment and monitoring functionality. 

Learn how the Business Process Manager can help your business improve processes, reduce costs and securely scale. 

Learn more about IBM Cloud Pak® for Business Automation, a set of integrated market-leading software designed to help you solve your toughest operational challenges.

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