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Workflow 101: What Is Workflow and Why Does it Matter?

May 03, 2023 (9 min read)
Streamline your business processes by creating a workflow

Workflow management software is becoming increasingly popular across industries. Research conducted by the Market Research Future concluded that the market for Workflow Management Systems is worth over $55 billion and will grow 30.5% between 2020 and 2030, and that growth makes it an absolute necessity for today’s businesses, no matter the industry.

But what is business workflow? The automation of business practices has a lot of components to understand before you’re able to fully get a grasp of why workflow is so critical and popular--and how that impacts the world as a whole. The underlying importance of a workflow is all about streamlining processes—but there’s much more to it.

Here, we’ve put together the foundations of what workflow is, why it matters, how certain workflow processes differ across software and industries and how to implement workflow practices. The future of work is changing, and workflow tools are as much a part of that change as the Covid-19 shift to work-from-home culture was.

Get on board with this unmissable trend by first understanding the basics:

What does workflow mean? 

 “Workflow” can best be defined as the process of tracking and automating specific work-related tasks to make a company more efficient and allow for regular analysis of productivity. This is most commonly achieved with workflow software tools, which allow businesses to sign employees up as users and create task management systems.

 An example of workflow from the perspective of a UX design contractor at a software firm could look like this:

  1. The contractor receives a new assignment, based on a bug that was flagged by a user via customer service
  2. The contractor accepts this assignment and places it in their “to do” pile
  3. The contractor completes the fix and sends it along for review to other employees in the system
  4. After approvals, the contractor archives the task and the data is saved

The company then can see how quickly the task was completed from submission through approval, and the contractor can easily track their hours for invoicing. The workflow software might have also made it easier for the contractor to see the incoming notification and to know who to send the work to for approval, so a lot of time and energy is saved in the process.

Using this example, we can identify the three key components of a workflow: input, or the trigger event; transformation, or the work done in response to the trigger; and output, or the final product. Any workflow tool, whether created in-house or by a third-party, must keep these general components in mind as the outline for steps of a workflow.

Why workflow matters

Workflow has a long list of positive benefits to offer a company and its employees. According to a survey conducted by KRC Research, 90% of business leaders and employees believe that workflow automation offers major advantages.

Workflow is efficient

One such gain is in productivity; a streamlined work model reduces confusion and optimizes pace and output. In fact, 42% of the KRC Research survey participants said that automation would increase their speed in completing tasks. Workflows often shorten the amount of time needed to onboard new employees, they reduce email back-and-forth and they identify where timeline hiccups happen to reduce ongoing mistakes.

Streamlined data analysis

Another major benefit is data analysis with in-depth looks into the company as a whole. By viewing the full course of work, employers and higher-ups can identify which steps created issues and can home in on those erroneous pieces of the puzzle a lot more quickly than without step-by-step tracking.

Data can also help teams see what part of their process took the longest, so managers can hire more employees to focus on shortening the turnaround time for the most grueling steps of the work.

Increase in customer satisfaction

A third gain from workflow creation is the result of combining the first two benefits: customer satisfaction. In the example provided earlier, a customer flagged a software bug and the UX designer received that input shortly after the trigger event. This caused a quicker turnaround on the fix, and a far better customer experience.

This example came to life in 2021 when, according to a report published in Gartner, Turkish insurer Aksigorta automated its claims response system and the claims handling time decreased from 17 days to 12— a nearly 50% improvement.

Workflow tools ensure that issues and complaints never get buried in the mess of daily life. By automating the filing process, companies will be able to track every single piece of input until it’s adequately addressed.

MORE: How to choose the right workflow technology tool for your company

What is a workflow process? 

Of course, not all workflows are created equal. When discussing such a general, industry-agnostic concept, it’s important to note that certain models work more successfully for different companies. Here are the workflow processes to consider as you build workflow for your company. 

Linear workflows

Many people’s first assumption is that all workflows follow the linear (sometimes called sequential) setup, wherein a straight arrow takes a task from beginning to end. This is certainly useful for many simple task-oriented jobs, but it is not the only system. The linear model relies on each new assignee to complete their task for the work to move forward, which can result in lag time for the product, but it’s also a very clear way to ensure that tasks are completed and never dropped.

Cyclical pattern workflows

An alternate workflow process model to know is the cyclical (sometimes called feedback) pattern. In this iteration, a single task cannot go directly from “point A” to “point B” because certain steps require the assignment to be moved backward.

Our example of the UX designer showcases a cyclical pattern—the designer submits their work to higher-ups, and those approvers might return notes or feedback that require the task to be re-addressed by the designer, therefore moving it back in the line.

The benefits to this process are that the task is thoroughly examined, and multiple sets of eyes co-sign its effectiveness. However, too many feedback loops can create a long lag in the completion time and can result in a “too many cooks in the kitchen” type of mentality at the workplace.

Parallel model workflows

Perhaps an even more popular option of workflow design is the parallel model. In this case, multiple employees may be assigned the same task. If different departments are both necessary to the completion of the task at a single stage, it might create a fork in the road that splits into two parallel lines until the task reaches the output phase.

It’s especially crucial to have data analysis options when this type of model is in use, as a task can more easily be dropped if one crucial party is too far ahead or behind the other. This model is beneficial, however, in its ability to activate multiple teams at once.

MORE: Research, simplified: Meet Nexis®‚Äč Hub

Implementing workflow practices

While nearly 74% of employees surveyed by the Gartner studagy reported having experience with automation technologies, workflow processes still require a great deal of onboarding. If businesses opt for a third-party technology, it’s likely that most of their employees do not have specific experience with that tech and will need extensive training. Setting up trainings with the tool developers is a crucial first step to implementing the new practice.

Once employees have a sense of familiarity with the tool, they also will need a transition period with a specific end date to ease them into the new way of working. Companies should be very clear about when they expect all employees to be using the new workflow process instead of their old work models, and frequent “office hours” with tech specialists to answer remaining questions can help employees feel supported in the transition.

Workflow across industries

As we’ve acknowledged, workflow processes vary greatly across industries. Here are some microcosmic examples of how this larger idea applies to specific sectors:

Workflow in media production

Professionals working in media production are likely overwhelmed with tasks, feedback and the struggle of prioritizing. At any point in time, a film company might have employees conducting research for a film, others editing clips in post-production, while others are gathering materials for pre-production, and workflow implementations can help keep teams on the same page.

Because so many perspectives are involved in the making of media, it’s very likely that media production companies will make use of the cyclical style of workflow to allow for many phases of approvals and re-edits until the project is complete and signed off on. Professionals in this industry will also likely want to split tasks into parallel workflow lines so that teams can do their jobs simultaneously and increase the pace of completion.

MORE: Everything to know about generative AI in media production

Workflow in finance

Teams in the finance industry are certainly familiar with the importance of monitoring new trends and staying up-to-date on rising investment-worthy businesses. This kind of trendspotting is hard to quantify when there’s a massive influx of change daily, so splitting up key sources can be a crucial way to clarify the process for employees.

For instance, using a workflow system that allows specific employees to be assigned their own list of sites to monitor for news would ensure that no one is doubling up on the same efforts and that the time spent on trendspotting is optimized.

MORE: How to use big data analytics in finance

Workflow in professional services and communications

People in the professional services industry, like consultants or agencies, might have a hard time with the regular influx of new clients. When a business is catered specifically to helping thousands of individual cases or numerous businesses, it’s difficult to keep records straight and find easy, satisfactory ways to enroll new clients into the system.

A workflow system is critical in these scenarios, as it could help each business create fool-proof methods to track client progress and ensure that all the customer’s needs are being addressed appropriately. That way, you never confuse client deliverables or present the wrong ad campaign to the wrong prospect. 

MORE: Best practices for a modern PR campaign: Research the brand

Workflow in nonprofit development

For the nonprofit sector, all the above issues apply and more. Smaller, growing nonprofits might struggle with tracking their expenses and donations, which could result in dissatisfied donors and even legal concerns for the company. Using a workflow system that automatically logs and tracks the task of intaking a new payment or paying an employee invoice will allow nonprofit leaders to keep their finances solid and dissuade any bigger efficiency concerns. 

MORE: 2023 trends for nonprofit professionals

Start updating your workflow

Workflow processes are being implemented at a growing rate across all industries because of their massive benefits. People at all levels of the business—from C-Suite to new customers—will notice the increased productivity and decreased ratio of errors when work tasks are automated, and it will soon become obvious when a business is lagging behind in automating their tasks. 

While there might be a tough learning-curve, your business will only benefit by taking a closer look at your workflow practices--including how you conduct and share research. Start by examining what you already have in place and decide on one aspect of your business workflow that can be streamlined to benefit all involved. You'll be amazed at how much more effiicent and productive you and your team are, and how many mindless tasks you can take off your plate, raising team morale and boosting your bottom line.