Posted in Workflow Automation

What is a workflow? Everything you need to know with examples.

Automation and digital transformation aren’t easy to understand. There’s a lot of jargon such as workflow management, low-code platforms, and process automation.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • What exactly is a workflow,
  • Why you should improve workflow efficiency,
  • How you can digitize your workflows using modern, visual workflow software,
  • What business benefits will accrue today, and
  • How automation prepares you for an increasingly data-driven future.

What is a workflow?

What is a workflow?

A workflow is simply a well-defined and repeatable set of tasks performed to achieve a specific goal.

Organizations rely on workflows for everyday activities such as approving a purchase requisition or onboarding a new hire. The sequence of tasks in each case is well-defined and employees perform the same sequence on a routine basis.

While individual workflows may have 3 tasks or 10, the general concept is the same: each task delivers data from Point A to Point B with all the required signatures, checks, reviews and authorizations.

What isn’t a workflow?

A workflow is (i) repeatable and (ii) moves data. If it doesn’t repeat, then it’s a one-time event with an end – a project. If data doesn’t move, then it’s a to-do list of unconnected, individual tasks.

Neither can be considered a workflow.

Workflow Example

Let’s take a look at a simple example – approving a purchase requisition and issuing a purchase order. This is a frequent activity that every organization performs on a routine basis as part of their procurement process. Here are the steps:

  1. Employee

    Create a requisition with a list of items being purchased. Provide complete vendor details and prices.

  2. Manager Approval

    Review purchase request and approve it, reject it or return to the employee for corrections.

  3. Additional Approval

    If the total amount exceeds a certain threshold, get additional approval from the appropriate Vice President or the CFO.

  4. Finance Review

    Review the purchase request, allocate each line item to the proper budget and ensure vendors are approved and meet corporate requirements.

  5. Business Office

    Issue a formal purchase order and send it to the vendor. Save the PO documents for later reconciliation with the invoice.

While the above list describes the sequence of tasks that must be performed to issue a purchase order, most people wouldn’t describe this as a workflow. A workflow typically includes a graphical, flow chart type of view of the sequence of tasks.

Creating a Workflow Diagram

Typically, most people will start with a workflow diagram and supporting documentation. Most likely, they’ll use tools such as Visio, PowerPoint or Google Apps and create a flow chart that visually shows the sequence of tasks and the flow of information. It might look something like this:

Purchase order flow chart
Purchase Order Workflow flow chart

They’ll export this diagram as a PDF or an image dropped into an Excel sheet or Word document. Perhaps, they’ll even print it out.

Workflow Documentation

In almost all cases, the diagram is accompanied by documentation. This is a set of [often detailed] instructions for each step. Sometimes, the documentation itself is very complicated (e.g. see Yale University’s instructions or the University of Vermont‘s 49 page PDF), especially if the workflow has a significant amount of conditional routing. For example:

  • If the employee works in Sales or Marketing, the purchase request must be approved by their direct manager and the VP of Sales.
  • However, if the PO is for a capital project, additional levels of approval are required e.g. the CFO or even the CEO for large projects.
Workflow documentation

Ultimately though, the diagram and documentation are useful and far better than a simple list of tasks. They allow people to visualize the workflow and understand it better.

With a picture in front of them, employees can often perform basic workflow analysis and identify bottlenecks and ways to improve the process so that it runs more efficiently.

Well documented workflows also result in fewer mistakes (e.g. sent to the wrong person), less training for employees and faster approvals.

This isn’t something trivial: a timely PO approval could mean the difference between on-time delivery of a project vs an unexpected delay. Project or product delays result in unhappy customers and unmet expectations.

What is workflow software?

Since efficient workflows are good for business, the next logical step is to digitize them with workflow automation software. This kind of software helps you transition these daily activities online. Employees spend less time on manual purchase order approvals, new hire onboarding, or time off requests.

What exactly does it do?

Instead of a diagram with complicated instructions, you encode the sequence of tasks in the workflow using the software and give everyone electronic access. The system automatically routes data to the person who needs to perform the next step, notifies them, issues reminders if they’re late and ensures that key business standards are not bypassed.

Any modern workflow system also includes visual diagramming capability so people can still easily visualize the sequence of tasks.

Purchase Order frevvo workflow

For example, frevvo’s visual workflow designer can graphically display a purchase order workflow as shown in the image.

Not everyone needs to view the overall workflow. frevvo’s system includes a task list view with filtering and searching for employees who need to perform specific tasks. For example, Finance department employees can simply view a list of pending purchase requisitions for review and act upon them.

When workflows complete, the system saves the submission data [including any attachments] to a built-in repository or exports it to a document management system, SQL database or other internal system.

What are the benefits of workflow automation software?

In a nutshell, workflow software helps optimize your processes and makes them more efficient. With an electronic workflow, you’ll see these benefits:

  • Efficiency: Employees no longer waste time chasing paperwork, trying to track down where their approval is stuck, or fixing errors. The software automatically validates data and applies business rules for routing to minimize errors. It notifies people electronically and sends reminders so people don’t have to do it.
  • Analysis and optimization: With an electronic system, you can easily visualize past workflows and analyze them to see where the bottlenecks are. Perhaps, your CFO takes 10+ days to approve purchase orders slowing down projects. You might notice this and decide to reduce bureaucracy by eliminating CFO approval for certain purchases.
  • Accountability and auditing: Since there’s an electronic record of who did what when for each individual workflow, it’s easy to find out what happened when something does go wrong. No more time wasted wondering why things didn’t work out – you can immediately find the reason and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Reduced environmental footprint: Approval workflows require signatures. With paper or Excel, that means wasteful printing. Automated workflows help burnish your green credentials and save money since approvers can simply sign electronically on their mobile device. Reduced paper usage adds up to substantial savings.
  • Prepare your organization for the future: New technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence are rapidly becoming mainstream. But, these technologies rely on digital data. If your processes are manual, your proprietary business data – arguably your most valuable asset in the future – is locked up in filing cabinets and network drives. You can’t take advantage of ML and AI. In an increasingly data-driven world, automation is the first essential step towards becoming a data-first organization.

Real-world examples of business workflows

Hopefully, you’re now excited about automating everyday workflows in your organization and all the benefits thereof. Where to start? Let’s look at some common examples we’ve seen.

Purchase Order Processing

Purchase Order Processing

This is a super-common everyday activity. Purchase order processing is the transactional part of the overall procurement process. Procurement and purchasing are related but different.

The actual process varies from one organization to another. Maybe, it starts with a purchase requisition for internal approval and ends with the finance department issuing a PO. Perhaps, it includes invoice reconciliation – that’s where accounting reviews invoices and reconciles them with purchase orders and receiving before making payment. The process ends upon payment.

Read more: The Definitive Guide to Purchase Order Process Automation

At frevvo, our process has the following steps:

  1. Employee creates an electronic purchase request. It’s just an e-form in our internal HR portal with line items and supplier information.
  2. frevvo routes it automatically to their manager, who can reject it outright, return the request to the employee for corrections, or approve it. It includes escalations so the manager is reminded if it takes longer than 48 hours.
  3. If a PO is required (a rarity in our case), it goes to our AP department. They issue a PO and send to the supplier.
  4. The process returns to the original requesting employee.
  5. When the items are received, the employee checks them off and sends it on to the AP department.
  6. AP receives the invoice and pays it.
  7. The process terminates by notifying the employee. It saves all documents to our internal systems.

It’s simple and easy and no one wastes time trying to figure out where their purchase request is sitting.

Time Off Request Handling

Time Off Request Workflow

This is another routine process on which we don’t waste time. First, we encourage [and even require] our employees to take time off. Second, we’ve automated this so that it’s easy and seamless.

Our process looks like this:

  1. Employee creates an electronic time off request. It’s just an e-form in our internal HR portal but it integrates with vacation data and applies business rules so that employees cannot request something invalid e.g. more days than they have [another rarity for us].
  2. frevvo routes it automatically to their manager for approval. Rejections are rare since the system has ensured that the request is valid. It includes escalations so the manager is reminded if it takes longer than 48 hours.
  3. The process then electronically updates vacation data on the back end and notifies the employee.

Read more: A Comprehensive Guide to Efficient Time Off Request Forms

Simple, easy and painless. The entire process takes all of 2-3 minutes and we never have to think about it.

New Employee Onboarding

New employee onboarding

Here’s another routine process – we’re still small and don’t hire tons of people. Nevertheless, it’s amazing how nice it is to have a simple, electronic new hire onboarding workflow. Our process is easy:

  1. Send a welcome email with a link to the onboarding workflow.
  2. Where possible, the new hire completes most of the form before coming to the office. They provide every unique piece of information just once and sign just once and save the partially completed form.
  3. Once in the office, they complete any remaining information. The workflow automatically generates Federal and State W-4s, a Federal I-9 and any other required paperwork.
  4. It then routes to I.T. who creates the necessary accounts, security credentials etc. and sets up mandatory training.
  5. Finally, it routes to HR for one-time payroll, vacation and other setup.
  6. When it’s completed, frevvo sends an email to the new hire with a copy of their documents and saves them to our internal systems.

Read more: Best practices to improve new employee onboarding and orientation

Once again, automation makes onboarding a new hire painless. They can get to meeting their new team, learning about their new job and getting comfortable in their new environment within 10-15 minutes of arriving at the office. No more getting bogged down for a couple of hours with paperwork, multiple signatures etc.

Sales Order Processing

Sales Order Processing

This is a crucial process to accelerate. After all, the last thing you want is for your sales to be delayed because of internal inefficiencies. At frevvo, we’ve made this process super-fast and easy:

  1. Sales person fills out an e-form on our portal. The form already encodes all our products and configurations. The most common orders are pre-filled, totals are auto-calculated etc.
  2. It then routes externally to the client via email. The client clicks a link in the email and reviews the order. It contains line items as well as links to relevant legal / contractual documents. If correct, they sign it otherwise reject it back with comments to the salesperson for fixes.
  3. frevvo routes back to the salesperson, who reviews and forwards to Billing.
  4. Billing invoices the customer electronically and saves the Sales Order.
  5. When we receive payment, Billing pulls up the pending order, and checks off a Paid box.
  6. frevvo issues a license key automatically where possible otherwise it sends the order to Fulfillment.
  7. Upon completion, frevvo notifies the salesperson and the client that the order was completed.

Read more: The ultimate guide to online sales order forms that boost sales

Once again, the process is drop-dead simple. It’s designed to eliminate errors and corrections and reduce the time to close the deal.

How to automate your own workflows

Using easy workflow software like frevvo to turn your everyday workflows from wasteful manual versions to efficient electronic form is straightforward. Using our simple visual tools and pre-built templates, anyone can drag and drop to automate purchase orders, new hire forms, travel reimbursements and other everyday processes in the organization. You won’t need to hire expensive programmers or invest in pricey consulting. Check out the 6 min video below to learn more.

Simple visual tools for business process automation

frevvo includes everything you need to meet real business requirements:

  • Get started quickly with pre-built templates.
  • Drag and drop in the form designer to create sophisticated forms.
  • Use the Visual Rule Builder for powerful, dynamic behavior.
  • Define routing by dragging and dropping and via visual wizards.
  • Sign forms electronically without printing.
  • Automatically deploy forms and workflows on mobile devices.
  • Connect to SQL or another business system using point and click wizards.
  • Authenticate via your existing mechanisms e.g. Active Directory.
  • Generate required PDFs automatically including signatures e.g. W-4.
  • Save resulting data and documents electronically.
Modern, visual tools for dynamic forms and workflow.