A workflow is a system for managing repetitive processes and tasks which occur in a particular order. They are the mechanism by which people and enterprises accomplish their work, whether manufacturing a product, providing a service, processing information or any other value-generating activity.
Within business process management, a workflow can be defined as a simple series of individual tasks, while a business process is considered more complex, consisting of multiple workflows, information systems, data, people and their activity patterns. A workflow is distinguished by its simplicity and repeatability, and it is generally visualized with diagram or checklist.
Workflow management software assists in simplifying and optimizing a business process within an organization. It largely does this by coordinating interactions among different stakeholders or between individuals and information systems. Workflow management systems route tasks to the appropriate employee at the right time, providing the pertinent information and nudge to expedite work along the overall process. It also supports manual and automated tasks through document management for activities, like expense reports.
Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer, is credited with the scientific management theories that are foundational to workflows. He sought to increase industrial efficiency by analyzing manufacturing processes empirically with the goal of reducing waste and standardizing best practices.
His theories along with those of Henry Gantt—the developer of the popular Gantt chart— continue to inform project management and industrial engineering today. Workflows help to plan and monitor projects in a methodical and logical way, allowing teams to achieve important deadlines and milestones.
The concept of workflow has also been used within the related discipline of operations research, which applies analytical methods to examine the nature of work. In operations research, techniques from statistics, game theory, and artificial intelligence are utilized in combination with management science to solve complex real-world problems.
Since workflows are composed of discrete step-by-step tasks, they can be easily visualized through a diagram or flowchart. Workflow mapping, also known as process mapping, provides a deeper understanding of the overall workflow process, enabling optimization and/or full or partial automation.
Workflow diagrams are built using the following steps:
Manual processes are susceptible to human error, inefficiencies and inconsistencies that can disrupt product quality and customer experiences while automated systems are inherently efficient, consistent and scalable. Business process management (BPM) can assist in automating mundane tasks using technology known as robotic process automation (RPA). RPA is well-suited to perform repetitive tasks such as automatically generating an email response when a customer fills out a request form, transaction processing or communicating with multiple databases while processing an insurance claim.
Almost any operational procedure in any industry can be described as a workflow, assuming that it’s composed of repeatable steps. Some use cases include:
By employing automated systems or formal analytic strategies to improve workflows across an enterprise, stakeholders can see many benefits, including:
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Use this guide to help you get to the truth about the urgency, the value, the opportunities, and the limitations related to automating work.
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A longtime leader in business process automation, IBM provides automated workflow capabilities in IBM Business Automation Workflow. This is a flexible, complete environment to streamline and automate processes to enhance agility, visibility, and consistency across the enterprise.