How to take advantage of workflow automation
Learn how to harness the power of workflow automation to drive more efficient business processes and cut business spending.
Workflow automation enhances an organization's operational effectiveness and positively affects financial performance by saving time and identifying areas for efficiency improvement.
However, the concept of workflow automation might be unclear: in the age of AI, what does it mean to automate your business processes?
In this guide, we’ll help you navigate the concept of workflow automation by covering the following:
- A clear and precise definition of workflow automation.
- Explain why workflow automation is essential for successful business operation and discuss the possible advantages.
- Practical examples of workflow automation applicable to your business.
- Guidance on how to implement workflow automation in your organization.
What is workflow automation?
Workflow automation streamlines mundane, repetitive tasks that traditionally consumed human hours.
One might conjure images of mechanized assembly lines after mentioning workflow automation. However, this is a misconception—it's robotic process automation.
The true essence of workflow automation involves digitizing and automating commonplace office tasks—like email dispatch, data entry into software, and task delegation.
Workflow automation invariably occurs through workflow management software, terms often used synonymously. This software essentially creates a digital replica of your processes, automating some aspects.
Suppose we consider an example of an employee onboarding process which follows these steps:
- The new employee submits paperwork through the company website.
- HR manually enters employee data into their dedicated software.
- The data is forwarded to the HR lead for approval, who endorses the documents.
- The team lead devises initial tasks and goals for the new employee.
- The office manager prepares the employee's workstation.
The automation of this process can be achieved by:
Step 1: Employ workflow automation software to streamline the sequence of tasks.
In the context of the above example, once the new employee completes their paperwork (step 1), the workflow software automatically triggers the next task—step 2, assigning it to the HR department. Following HR's data input (step 2), the HR lead receives an automatic notification to proceed with step 3. Once approved, the software assigns the team leader their task (step 4), which continues sequentially until the entire workflow is complete.
Step 2: Automate specific tasks within the overall workflow.
For instance, in our example, HR can automate manual data input in the second step. With the appropriate workflow automation software, the new employee's submitted data is automatically transferred to the HR software, eliminating manual data entry.
So, the revised workflow looks like this:
- The new employee submits paperwork on the website, and the system automatically transfers it into HR's software.
- The system sends the transferred data to the HR lead for approval.
Many organizations have numerous workflows ripe for automation. Automating these processes liberates employee time, allowing them to concentrate on more essential tasks.
Types of workflow automation
There are two main kinds of workflow automation: business process automation and robotic process automation.
Business process automation
Business process automation uses dedicated workflow automation tools to optimize tasks.
For example, your human resources department might automate the new employee contract approval process in their recruiting app.
Once someone drafts the contract for a new team member, the system may automatically send it to the legal team or other business stakeholders for review and approval. Upon their approval, the system routes it directly to the new employee, eliminating the need for a human to send the email.
Marketing automation is another typical example of your marketing team using an automation platform. With automation, teams can craft and deliver email campaigns to communicate with customers continuously.
Robotic process automation
Robotic process automation (RPA) leverages software bots—not physical robots—to automate mundane back-office tasks. These tasks may include form completion and filing, data extraction, and archiving, among other administrative duties.
While teams have employed RPA for quite some time using custom APIs (application programming interfaces), modern low-code and no-code tools, which feature user-friendly drag-and-drop interfaces, have democratized access to RPA. Recent AI tools such as UiPath and Automation Anywhere have made the automation of complex workflows much simpler and more efficient, allowing teams to build more robust automated systems in less time.
Four essential benefits of workflow automation
The advantages of employing workflow automation include:
Without automated workflows, staff members must assign tasks to each other instead of letting communications get buried in Slack or emails.
Workflow automation software simplifies the process of assigning tasks, which significantly reduces the chance of human errors. It also alerts employees when a deadline is nearing and warns management when a workflow isn't performing as expected.
Utilizing workflow software provides clarity regarding responsibility. It enables management to have an overarching perspective on staff activities and to identify if an individual is on the brink of missing a deadline.
It is possible to configure email alerts for when a workflow is underperforming. Simultaneously, staff members can consult a unified dashboard with all their tasks arranged according to the urgency of their deadlines.
Reduction in errors
By integrating task accountability and communication automation, we can substantially decrease the likelihood of mistakes within the workforce.
Every team member clearly understands their duties, deadlines, and the work scope of their colleagues.
Enhanced profitability and productivity
As a consequence of the benefits above, you can expect to see an increase in productivity and a boost in your bottom line.
For instance, automated approval workflows and programmed reminders mean employees spend less time waiting for approval of purchase orders, enhancing efficiency.
How to automate processes
Automation’s primary job is to streamline time-consuming manual processes, resolve bottlenecks and reduce the likelihood of human error.
But any automated business workflow only works as well as its design. Follow these seven steps to cutting out inefficiencies using automation:
Diagram your existing workflows
Before you dive into any automation platforms, map out the process as it currently stands.
A diagramming tool is a great visual way to do this, though a simple list might suffice for more basic workflows.
This process gives you absolute clarity on the workflow to be automated and might trigger potential process improvements or help you spot opportunities to make the workflow more efficient.
Consider which tasks can be automated
Next, identify the tasks in the workflow that you can automate. For instance, while designing a purchase approval workflow, the relevant authority must sign off on a specific purchase, making this step non-automatable. However, once someone fills out the form, you can automate sending the purchase order to the stakeholder.
Review your workflow automation tech stack
Now is the time to look at the tools you have in your SaaS stack. Ask: Do we have the capability to create the required automation recipes for this workflow?
If the answer is no, you should skip back to the strategic sourcing phase and consider onboarding a new software platform to manage the process.
Determine how automation will function
Next, make a plan for the automation rules to be programmed.
For instance, the rules you’d program for the purchase order approval process might include:
- When your employee raises a new purchase order, populate employee and supplier data
- When they complete a purchase order form, send it to the head of procurement
- If approved, send the PO to the supplier
Program your automation recipes
This step is where you jump into the tool (or tools) you will use and implement the rules according to the plan you created in the previous step.
Test and reiterate
Doing a few test runs before you roll out the automated workflow is always wise.
Invite end-users to test the workflow, too. They’ll have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The goal is to try to break the workflow so you can resolve any bugs before its official launch.
Implement and integrate
Once you iron out the bugs, communicate the new automation rules to the relevant team members and practice them in real-world scenarios.
Real-life workflow automation examples
Did we convince you to try workflow automation for your business? Great!
Then let’s discuss implementing workflow automation using the three most common examples.
Automating the client onboarding process
Most client onboarding processes follow the same steps. Usually, they look something like this:
- The client fills out a form on your website
- You transfer that data to a Google Sheet or CRM (where you keep track of inbound leads)
- You set up a kickoff call with the client
- If you close the client, you send them the relevant contracts and paperwork
- You send a welcome email
- You create a client folder on Google Drive
- You ask the client for access to their software and accounts (e.g., Google Analytics, CRM, relevant databases, etc.)
Here are a few steps you could automate:
- Once a client submits the data via website form, automatically transfer the data to a sheet or CRM
- Auto-reply to the form submission and send the lead a link to Calendly to set up the meeting
- Once the client is signed, create a Google Drive folder and send instructions to the client on giving you access to their software and accounts
Automating repetitive HR processes
Most HR processes can benefit from workflow automation, including:
Getting employee onboarding right is essential. After all, onboarding is your first real interaction with a new hire. If you want them to stick around, creating a good impression matters.
A structured, automated onboarding process helps make that happen.
To avoid exposing your business to potential liabilities, offboard your employees properly. Workflow automation lets you do this with significantly more accuracy.
The process of taking a leave can be hectic without workflow software. Many forms must go back and forth between an employee, HR, and management. Workflow software makes this 100x simpler by digitizing the approval workflow.
In this case, the employee hits “launch” on the leave approval workflow, inputs their data, and the software automatically assigns tasks to the relevant employees, ensuring that the workflow gets completed ASAP without any hiccups.
Automating error-free finance processes
Like Human Resources, many financial processes stand to gain from workflow automation, including:
- Purchase requests
- Invoice issuance
- Vendor approvals
- Investment authorizations
- Travel expense requests
- All processes necessitating approvals from multiple departments
Many large organizations grapple with intricate processes that hinder everyone's productivity without workflow software. Consider, for instance, an urgent purchase request. Without an appropriate workflow approval process, the request could quickly become buried under a mountain of emails, taking weeks to gain approval.
However, with workflow automation, all requests are centralized, and the initiation of the relevant process is all that's required. The assurance that automation brings means everything will be completed punctually, streamlining operations professionally and efficiently.
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