What is Workflow Management?

Workflow management is a discipline focusing on how organizations digitize and eventually automate their business processes. In this article, we are giving an overview of workflow management, the key related concepts, and how it helps optimize processes within the organization.

The article will elaborate on the following topics:

  • What is a workflow?
  • Workflow vs. process
  • Workflow vs. lifecycle
  • Workflow components
  • Workflow management vs. business process management
  • Workflow management vs. project management
  • Benefits of workflow management
  • Tips for workflow management (including a ready-to-use workflow mapping template)
  • What is a workflow management system?
  • When to start investing in the workflow management system?
  • Choosing a workflow management system

What is a workflow?

A workflow is a sequence of steps that brings the desired business result and requires coordinated input from different people or systems. Therefore, the success of a workflow depends on the contribution, communication, and collaboration of those people and systems.

An example of a workflow is the actions involved in onboarding of a new employee. Let’s imagine there are only three actions required: creating a corporate email account, arranging a welcome team meeting, and assigning a mentor for the new employee. In this case, the visualization of the workflow may look like this.

The following components describe this workflow:

  1. It has an end goal – facilitating the new employee’s smooth transition into their assigned job.
  2. To achieve the goal, the team needs to complete several tasks.
  3. Every task requires specific input. For example, the system administrator creates a new account, the team manager schedules the welcome meeting, and the HR manager assigns a mentor for this employee.
  4. The workflow steps are interconnected. Some workflow steps depend on the previous actions to be completed. For example, the team manager can only schedule the meeting with the new team member if there is a new active email account. Such a connection between two workflow steps is called a conditional connection.

Many use the term “workflow” to describe how they use productivity tools like calendar apps and task managers to navigate their personal tasks. Search for “productivity workflow” on YouTube to get some inspiration! However, in this article, we’ll focus on workflow management in the business context.

Every organization deals with numerous workflows to maintain business operations. Workflow management and automation are highly applicable to IT service management due to the clear and well-defined stages that support tickets typically follow. Contact our sales team to learn more about Alloy Navigator, our solution for IT service and IT asset management. The product has one of the market’s most flexible workflow management systems.

Workflow vs. process

While in business these terms, workflow and process, are often used interchangeably, there is still a distinction between the two.

According to a definition given in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a process is “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.” In contrast, a workflow is described as “the sequence of steps involved in moving from the beginning to the end of a working process.”

Simply put, a workflow is a set of rules that supports a process from the start to the result. If a process is a “what”, then a workflow is a “how.” For instance, in the process of employee onboarding, there is a workflow that brings this process to life by describing the steps and the dependencies between them.

Let’s take the task management workflow in a small team as an example. Once the manager creates a ticket, a workflow starts. In this case, a workflow is a mechanism, a set of predefined steps that supports work on this task: sending reminders to the assignee as the due time approaches and updating the manager on the progress via email. Whereas the word “process” is more abstract, representing the overall concept of ticket resolution.

If you still find the distinction unclear, relax. In real life, it’s not that important to know the exact difference. It’s more important to understand the value and implications of both concepts. If you approach processes as workflows consisting of steps and connections between those steps, you can automate tasks and save time.

Workflow vs. lifecycle

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines lifecycle as “a series of stages through which something (such as an individual, culture, or manufactured product) passes during its lifetime.” In ITSM (IT service management), a lifetime typically refers to the duration when a particular asset is in use and brings value to the organization. For example, a laptop goes through the following stages during its lifecycle: acquisition, usage, repair, hardware updates, and depreciation. Collectively, these stages form the laptop’s lifecycle.

On the other hand, a workflow describes the steps needed to achieve a specific result and the dependencies between these steps. For example, when this laptop crashes, a repair request by its owner triggers the repair workflow.

Workflow components

The following characteristics can be helpful in describing a workflow:

  1. Workflow objects, such as a support request or a work order,
  2. Workflow phases or statuses: these are the phases through which a workflow object passes from creation to task completion,
  3. The sequence of steps: the order of workflow statuses,
  4. Conditions: the rules that describe when and under which requirements the next step occurs. What actions should be taken? Whose approvals are needed? How much idle time should pass before an alert?
  5. Roles/responsibilities: the people from the team with permission to perform actions needed to move the workflow object to the next step.

Workflow management vs. business process management

Business process management has a broader scope than workflow management. It aims to increase the efficiency of the business processes across the enterprise. Workflow management, on the other hand, is responsible for the optimization and coordination of activities within specific repetitive tasks. Therefore, workflow management is often only part of larger business process management campaigns.

To understand the difference, let’s look at the activities typical for each domain. Business process management activities may include the following:

  • Identifying which processes can be automated and which should stay the same for higher efficiency,
  • Implementing automation tools: choosing automation software according to its features and integration capabilities.

As for workflow management, its usual practices might be:

  • Workflow mapping: determining the workflow objects, statuses, their sequence, the rules for workflow execution, and those responsible at every stage,
  • Designing collaboration tools within a workflow: ensuring that team members working on one task use the most efficient document-sharing tools that align with the workflow logic and timelines.

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Workflow management vs. project management

Workflow management and project management are two distinct management disciplines. They are not directly related, but often their practices overlap.

To gain a better understanding of the distinction between workflows and projects, let’s compare the two concepts. People confuse them because both projects and workflows have an end goal and consist of tasks. By completing these tasks, the desired goal is achieved. Most importantly, both projects and workflows serve as tools for reaching a specific result. However, these two concepts differ at the core. A project manages tasks that lead to a particular goal by coordinating people, time, and resources. On the other hand, a workflow is a way to organize an ongoing multi-stage process by building the optimal dependencies between the stages.

Project and workflow management revolves around the optimization and enhancement of these respective endeavors.

Benefits of workflow management

Workflow management makes daily tasks easier and helps avoid tedious manual jobs. Let’s delve deeper into the advantages that all of this brings to the business.

  • Better operational performance and fewer errors. If you approach processes as structures and document them, it will be easier for your employees to replicate the tasks.
  • Better visibility of potential problems. Detailed descriptions of each step and role make it easier to investigate and address any problems that may arise, and this is another notable benefit.
  • Time and cost savings. Your employees won’t have to complete boring, repetitive manual tasks and will be able to focus on challenges that require creative thinking and actual human input. This could lead to cost savings for you as an employer.
  • Higher employee satisfaction. On the other hand, employees having enough time for their assigned tasks means better engagement and motivation.
  • Easier HR management. It’s easier to find a worker for a clearly defined role. Think of the stereotype many employees share: working in a large company is less stressful than in a young startup. Indeed, in a large company, workflow design and role separation are already done when they’re hiring somebody for a role. For many positions, following instructions is enough to deliver the needed output. For a recruiter or an HR leader, transparent workflows mean less time aligning expectations with the hiring managers and shorter time-to-fill.

Tips for workflow management

These best practices will help you get started with workflow management or improve the existing procedures:

  1. Don’t expect workflow management to fix a broken process. Examining every step of an inefficient process before redesigning it is crucial for finding improvement ideas. Imagine a manufacturing company facing delays in a device’s assembly process. The management decides to automate as many manual tasks as possible. However, the delays persist because the underlying causes, such as low employee motivation and frequent breaks, were not addressed. Workflow management is not a magic wand and will only be able to solve some of your organizational problems.
  2. Avoid over-automating. There’s still a place for people’s decisions. Over-automating makes workflows rigid and less adaptable. Let’s take the customer support team as an example. While it is common to have reply templates for requests on social media and email, making standard replies mandatory can lead to inappropriate, irrelevant, or outdated responses.
  3. Pay more attention to cybersecurity. Digital transformation makes business processes faster and cheaper but also more vulnerable to attacks. Imagine a traditional bakery that decides to embrace digital transformation. They introduce state-of-the-art ovens, automated ordering systems, and online payment methods to speed up their operations and attract more customers. However, the digital systems, while efficient, create new vulnerabilities that hackers exploit, compromising customer data and posing a constant threat to the bakery’s security.
  4. Take advantage of visual workflow design tools. Don’t just rely on your memory to keep the entire picture. In workflow management, visualizing can significantly help when dealing with complex multi-stage processes. Flowcharts similar to our illustrations above are especially popular.

However, if all you have is a pen and paper, or a text document file, you could use this simple Workflow mapping template. At Alloy Software, we use it when strategizing a new workflow.

It contains the following columns:

  1. Workflow phase: the title of the phase,
  2. Status: the corresponding status in our internal task management tool,
  3. Actions and roles: this column describes what is done during this stage, by whom, and what are the prerequisites for moving to the next stage,
  4. Next status: the status of the next workflow phase.

The scheme works very well for documenting previously undigitized processes.

What is a workflow management system?

A workflow management system is a software tool that helps you manage workflows by leveraging automation, analytics, integrations with other apps, and other tech-enabled mechanisms.

Workflow management is most commonly only a part of the feature set that a software provider offers to solve a particular business problem. Popular business apps like Office 365 and Slack also have workflow management features, although they are not the main focus of these applications.

Workflow management is part of Alloy Navigator’s offering, as well. The out-of-the-box version of our product comes with a variety of pre-installed standard workflows that you can customize or build upon to suit your needs. With Alloy Navigator, you can apply workflow automation to any object in your IT infrastructure and involve external apps without cumbersome integrations. Book a call with our sales team to learn more about Alloy Navigator.

When to start investing in the workflow management system?

Well, you should have done this yesterday 😊

People might search for workflow management software based on different needs. If you’re a manager in a small team and wonder if you need some workflow automation tool, we recommend starting with these simple steps:

  1. List all repetitive team tasks. You can arrange a brainstorming meeting at this point to get on top of all potentially automatable tasks.
  2. Break down the tasks you listed into steps. How many steps each of them contains? Commonly, if a job consists of more than two steps, it’ll very likely benefit from workflow automation.
  3. How many people collaborate on each task? Again, the rule is simple: automation is likely an option when more than one person’s input contributes to the result.

If you work for a larger company, chances are you’ve already had some experience designing and automating workflows for the team. Choosing workflow management software is more challenging as you need to take more into account: integrations with other related systems, data migration, and the learning curve.

Choosing a workflow management system

Below, we’re bringing a list of critical features that differentiate one workflow management system from another. When choosing workflow management software, prepare to decide what your needs are in each of these aspects:

  1. Scalability. Do you plan to grow the team, and if yes, how significantly? It might seem that purchasing software with high scalability potential is always a good idea – to have this “just in case.” However, if you don’t plan to significantly increase the number of employees, additional features tailored to larger teams aren’t worth it. They’ll distract your attention by bringing no ROI.
  2. Integration capabilities. How many apps will you need to integrate with a new one? How complex are integration mechanisms with each of the vendors? By answering these questions, you can prioritize workflow software vendors.
  3. Cloud or on-premises. While cloud solutions are becoming a default option for SaaS, on-premises tools still offer a variety of benefits. Usually, they’re more secure against cyberattacks, are more customizable, and can be accessed even from areas with no Internet. On the other hand, cloud software is typically cheaper, faster to launch, and requires no local hosting.
  4. Customization options. Do you plan to develop your workflows by adding something new and building on the existing ones? If you’re sure the workflows you rely on will remain the same, you should search for specific software with ready-to-use workflows typical for this industry. However, we at Alloy Software approach workflows differently. Our flexible workflow engine makes our solution useful across industries.

Workflow experts from our sales team will help you analyze your ITSM needs and make the most out of Alloy products. Reach out to us!

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