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Published: 8 January 2024
Contributors: Gita Jackson, Michael Goodwin

What is a digital workflow?

A digital workflow is a process completed electronically using computers and software—and often automation—rather than manually.

Broadly speaking, it’s a fancy way of saying that you’re using computers and modern technology to work and taking advantage of all the features of a computer-based workplace to get things done. A manual workflow is one done by hand, without computers and software.

Once an organization digitalizes a workflow, it is often automated to reduce or eliminate human involvement. Often, this transition to digital workflows helps makes processes more efficient and creates time for employees to focus on higher-value work. A digital workflow can be as simple as emailing a PDF invoice to a client rather than mailing a paper invoice, or as complex as fully automating the onboarding of new employees. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, digital workflows have become increasingly popular—and indispensable—as organizations transition into remote work. In a report from Insight (link resides outside ibm.com), the research firm reported that one in three surveyed respondents said that they would leave their jobs if remote work were no longer an option. In a Statista survey, over 60% of people surveyed (link resides outside ibm.com) said they already work in a place where workers have the option to work from home.

In the modern business world, digital workflows are now as commonplace as the manual workflows that preceded them.

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Examples of digital workflows

Digital workflows are used to improve processes in a wide variety of industries and use cases. A few examples of digital workflows include:

Using automation software to check resumes for specific keywords

In a manual process, applicant’s resumes must be analyzed by hand, which can be time-consuming. With automation software, you can set filters for specific keywords to help identify the best applicants to bring to the next stage of the process.

Using continuous delivery and continuous integration to automatically implement code updates

Continuous delivery allows for new code in a program that passes automated quality checks to be added to a code base, and then pushed out to production. Continuous integration takes all new code changes and then automatically combines them back into the main code base. Making code changes manually would require an approval process that substantially slows down the implementation of code updates.

Using software to automatically route invoices to the appropriate party

Processing payments manually often requires collaboration between different departments to make sure that the correct amount of money is going to the correct person. If an invoice that needs approval automatically reaches the correct party to approve it, you can shorten the amount of time it takes to complete this task.

How do you implement digital workflow automation?

To digitalize and automate your workflows, you need to understand how the processes work manually. You can do this by performing a workflow audit:

Map the current steps of a particular workflow

Creating a map of all your manual processes can be difficult and time-consuming, but this process helps identify digital workflow opportunities for your current manual workflow system.

Identify processes prime for digitalization and automation

Processes that require much time but are repetitive and relatively easy to complete are perfect candidates for automation, like basic data entry.

Evaluate and choose the best software options for your processes

There are many apps available to help digitalize your workflow. Although you can use advanced solutions like artificial intelligence, some automation tools are much simpler, like the creation of templates to make invoicing easier.

Initiate, test, and adjust

Once you have identified the key manual processes to automate, you can begin building digital workflows. Some common areas for digital workflow implementation are human resources processes like employee onboarding, business processes like data entry, and finance processes like invoice approval. There is digital workflow software that specializes in each of these specific business operations.

Your new digital workflow may not work perfectly the first time around, and that’s fine. Once a particular process has been digitalized, it’s wise to perform regular process audits to make sure that the workflow is functioning as intended and is driving greater efficiency. 

For example, if you’re using automation software to screen the resumes for potential candidates but realize you’re missing talented applicants, you may need to check and adjust the metrics and keywords the software has been trained to flag.

After you implement your process, it’s important to continue optimizing your workflows as business needs and technologies evolve.

Digital workflows, BPM, and BPA

Digital workflows, business process management (BPM) and business process automation (BPA) are all closely related. BPA refers to the process of automating repetitive, time-consuming tasks so that employees have the time and mental energy to focus on more critical tasks. The automation of said tasks help to build out a digital workflow.

BPM is a philosophy of improving your workflow management by aligning business processes, including automated, digital workflows, under a unifying strategy. A strong BPM practice that includes regular workflow audits helps you understand what tasks should be digitalized and automated.

What are the benefits of a digital workflow?

Transforming your workplace through digital workflows can help your business save time and money. It can also create more transparency in how tasks are completed. Over time, digital workflows can help you understand how to further refine your business processes.

Optimize and streamline business processes

Digital workflows allow you to simplify and streamline labor-intensive business processes. While not every digital workflow process is efficient, many kinds of manual workflows are inherently inefficient.

For instance, doing all your bookkeeping by hand creates opportunities for human error, and can be time-consuming. Digital bookkeeping reduces some of the risk inherent in asking a human being to do their own math.

Create time for more valuable work

Digital workflow automation decreases the amount of time that is spent on repetitive tasks, like sending a welcome email to a new hire while onboarding them. The less time spent on these manual tasks, the more time that can be spent on more essential tasks, increasing productivity overall.

Increase workplace transparency

Digital workflows create a shared record that helps all team members stay up to date on the progress of a task or process. This transparency helps keep all stakeholders accountable for their portion of the project and helps keep projects on track. A shared process record can also be valuable in clearing up any questions or discrepancies that may arise.

Provide hard data about workflow and process efficiency

When you automate manual processes, you’re also creating data about how much time is spent on these processes. This can give you a better idea about where your bottlenecks are and allow you to continue to adjust your workflows.

Enable remote work

During the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work became incredibly popular. While coming to the office used to be the norm, increasingly employees have adjusted to spending at least part of their time working outside of the office. Digital workflows are the scaffolding of remote work, and without them it would not be possible.

What are some digital workflow obstacles?

Digital workflows can deliver substantial value to your organization, but they are not without challenges. Some common obstacles include:

Digital workflows are not “plug ‘n’ play”

To implement a digital workflow, you must understand the technology and how it benefits your workplace. Not all digital workflow automation software is created equal, and some solutions may not be appropriate for your workplace or the task at hand.

For example, if you work in a small office where everyone is expected to appear in person, then perhaps you don’t need to implement a digital workflow for meetings.

Technological literacy and access

Introducing a new process into a workflow often requires training or re-training, but digital processes can be more complicated. It’s not a sin to not know your way around a computer, but a digital transformation of your workplace might require training that does not come easily to all your employees.

Additionally, digital workflows are, well, digital, and especially in the case of remote work, require computers, and internet stability that can handle the new workflows. If a workflow is completely digital and your employee cannot access the tools that they need because of an internet outage, then they won’t be able to complete their tasks.

Digital does not always equal efficient

Certain business processes don’t need to be digitalized, or at least not entirely. It’s true that emailing back and forth creates a searchable log of a conversation that keeps people accountable. But if a decision needs to be made quickly, a phone call is probably more efficient.

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