A Comprehensive Guide to Workflow Engines

By Joe Weller | January 7, 2022

Workflow engines simplify essential project management tasks. We explain how to implement and use them in your organization, including best practices and expert advice. 

In this article, you will find a list of workflow engine benefits, how they differ from business rules and process engines, and expert tips for implementing software.

What Is a Workflow Engine?

A workflow engine, also known as an orchestration engine, is software that automates complex business processes. Usually, this software links to a database server and uses pre-coded scripts to manage and maintain workflows. 

Solomon Thimothy

Solomon Thimothy, Co-Founder of Clickx, explains workflow engines as “a form of templating.” He says, “They let someone with a predefined set of requirements format a series of steps for repetitive tasks and preemptively allocate resources for maximum efficiency.” By implementing workflow engines, managers can both automate simple tasks and simplify complex ones.

How Does a Workflow Engine Work?

A workflow engine operates by automating, or task routing, a workflow input by the user. The engine tracks tasks and notifies users as they are completed with information regarding next steps.

Jordan Bishop

“A workflow engine automates the process of implementing some business practices and ensures that processes are followed exactly as they should be,” says Jordan Bishop, Founder of Yore Oyster. Workflow engines allow users to input an existing workflow, set deadlines, and schedule notifications. This software can keep track of many workflows at once, which makes it easy to oversee the progress of multiple projects or tasks. 

There are two main types of workflow engines: low-code and no-code. Low-code engines require a basic level of technical skill to operate and typically need a developer for installation and maintenance. No-code engines tend to be more affordable and user-friendly because the software itself does the programming.

If/Then Approach to Setting Up a Workflow

One of the most common ways to simplify a workflow is by implementing an if/then function. By using a workflow engine, you can tell the software that if certain conditions are met, then certain actions should be taken.

Workflow Engine Flowchart

If/then functions are simple, binary responses to yes-no questions. For example, if a task deadline is approaching, the workflow engine will determine whether or not that task has been completed. If yes, then the software will send a notification to the user that the next task can begin. If no, then it will send a reminder that the deadline is approaching. 

Alternatively, a developer might program an if/then workflow to trigger when a user completes a specific task. For example, if a new user signs up for your service, then the software might send a welcome email. If/then functions become more complex as additional branching pathways form, but at its core, every branch is a simple yes-no question.

To learn more about creating a workflow, read our guide to project management workflows.

How to Use a Workflow Engine

Workflow engines are customizable for any simple or complex workflow. By following the four steps listed below, you can create and implement a workflow engine that best suits the needs of your business or department: 

  1. Identify a Repetitive Process: Many processes can be simplified with a workflow engine. Choose a process that your organization frequently uses that, after some level of automation, would improve efficiency and minimize time spent on unnecessary tasks. 
  2. Create a Workflow for the Process: Identify and list every step in the process, from beginning to end. Include all tasks, large and small, that are needed to complete the process successfully. For help creating workflows, see our list of free workflow templates.
  3. Set Deadlines and Notifications: Set a deadline for each step in the workflow and create automated notifications to keep users apprised of upcoming deadlines. Different tasks will have different timelines based on their complexity, so give users reasonable deadlines based on your experience. You may also consider sending notifications to project managers as tasks are completed.
  4. Monitor and Adjust as Needed: As you use your workflow engine over time, make adjustments to deadlines, process steps, and automated notifications. Too many notifications delivered too frequently might overwhelm project managers and be counterproductive. Consider setting up a dashboard where team members can monitor mundane tasks easily. Read our guide to analyzing workflows to learn more.

Why Use a Workflow Engine

Workflow engines simplify tasks and make processes more efficient. By automating repetitive tasks and notifications, you can ensure that your team spends their time and resources productively. 

A workflow engine can remove hours of repetitive work from your team’s schedule. Team members will no longer have to spend time writing emails that could be notifications or following up about the status of processes. With a workflow engine, everyone can track project status in real time. Some engines even allow for tiered access, so you can provide customers with a login and allow them to monitor progress on their own.

Dave Ericksen

“Workflow engines are the epitome of automation for most businesses. While having zero errors is impossible, they make it possible for you to prevent many errors from ever happening in the first place. Furthermore, if multitasking had an image, it would be workflow management systems. They can onboard employees, run surveys within the company, manage IT tasks, and approve travel reimbursements, all at once,” says Dave Ericksen, Founder of WaterZen.

Examples of Using a Workflow Engine

Workflow engines have utility in numerous industries and applications. From connecting remote workers to approving vacation to invoicing, we’ve outlined some of the most common uses of workflow engine below:

  • Working Remotely:
    Nick Drewe
    Remote work has become more common than ever before. Nick Drewe, Founder of Wethrift, explains how digital workflow engines have helped his fully remote business stay organized and efficient.

    “Since my workers come from various parts of the globe, we often experience turnover delays. Project collaboration is increasingly challenging for remote teams like us since our employees follow different time zones and work hours. Fortunately, workflow engines address this issue. Instead of relying on messaging platforms for project updates, our workflow engine automatically tracks and processes orders. Furthermore, we don’t wait for teammates to log in to the platform. Everyone can work on their own terms and leave the scheduling to the automated workflow engine,” Drewe says.
  • Onboarding: The paperwork involved in onboarding new hires can be labor-intensive and time consuming. To streamline the onboarding process, you can use a workflow engine to set up new employee profiles, send and file forms, and deliver welcome emails and employee handbook information.
    Workflow Engine Invoicing
  • Managing Finances: Use a workflow engine to send invoices to clients, remind them when payment is due, and file receipts. Similarly, workflow software can confirm that payroll data is accurate and on time and that checks are sent to accounts in a timely manner.
  • Managing Inventory: Some workflow engines are compatible with inventory monitoring software and can check item sales against inventory. You may even be able to create a workflow that writes order lists or automatically places orders when necessary.
    Workflow Engine Vacation
  • Approving Vacation: The wait for vacation approvals can be frustrating and costly. Create a workflow to check an employee’s available vacation against their request and compare it to other requests in the department. By doing so, managers can confirm vacation requests or identify potential scheduling conflicts swiftly.
  • Content Publishing: Content publishing can be complicated and time consuming. From conception and research to drafting, editing, and fact-checking, there are many steps and checks in the process. “We're in the business of personal finance blogging,” says Bishop, “so this is especially important for automating tasks like choosing the content we're going to write about and the products we're going to review, and other minimal tasks like editing, revising, and fact-checking. Streamlining all of these small processes are some of the benefits that adopting a workflow engine has amounted to.”

Benefits of Implementing a Workflow Engine

A workflow engine offers numerous benefits when implemented. The successful use of workflow engines can lead to an increase in your efficiency, improved employee morale, and better standardized reporting between departments.

Devon Fata, CEO of Pixoul, shares what he wishes he had known about workflow engines from the beginning: “When I first started experimenting with workflow software, I thought they were gimmicks. What could they offer that a good calendar app, spreadsheets, Dropbox, and good communication skills weren't already giving me? I wish I had known how effective they would be and how much time and effort they would save me. I would have started sooner.”

Below are some of the benefits you can expect to see with the proper implementation of a workflow engine:

  • Efficiency and Accuracy: Task routing processes through a workflow engine allows you to be consistent and to improve processes over time. By building on the successful workflows of the past, you can remove redundancy and decrease the chance of human error. “The result of using workflow software is accurate data across all stages of my business, meaning that I can take my business in the direction I want it to without worrying about the little things,” says Bishop.
  • Accountability: Creating workflows and assigning tasks gives team members a clear understanding of which tasks they are responsible for. When errors or other problems arise, team members can reference the workflow engine to see who is accountable for each step in a process.
  • Cost Saving: Workflow engines save money by reducing repetitive busywork and improving individual employee productivity, but they may also allow a company to save money by reducing headcount. “We’ve eliminated the need for many midlevel managers because our workflows are scheduled and managed by the software,” says Drewe.
  • Accessibility: Workflow engines allow tiered access to all of the ongoing processes in an organization. By looking at dashboards and reports, team members can see where their work fits into the larger process, managers can view the status of workflows and oversee complex projects, and executives can get insight into how the company is operating as a whole. “Ideally, you will gain visibility into tasks and business objectives on an enterprise-wide scale,” says Thimothy.
  • Standardization of Procedures: Workflow engines can help managers standardize procedures and reports across departments by applying similar workflows to multiple teams. You can also reduce wait time for deliverables and streamline communication between departments by automating notifications. “Take advantage of real-time alerting to ensure compliance across all teams,” suggests Thimothy.
  • Identification and Maintenance of Best Practices: A workflow engine is a great way to continually improve your procedures. By establishing effective workflows and then tweaking them as needed, you can ensure that your procedures are always up-to-date and efficient.
  • Improved Morale: Team members feel better when they know they aren’t wasting their time. Use a workflow engine to reduce busywork and help employees feel a sense of accomplishment as they complete valuable tasks.

Workflow Engine versus Business Rule Engine

Workflow engines are software that automate and standardize workflow processes. A business rule engine, however, is software that automates rules-based decisions. Many businesses employ both to help streamline routine tasks.

Business rule engine code is external from workflow engine code and can be applied to several existing workflows at once. Sometimes, they are different products altogether. A business rule is something like “free shipping on orders over $50” or “all employees are entitled to three weeks paid vacation each calendar year.”

Bishop helps describe the difference between workflow engines and business rule engines. “Business rules engines are designed for more complex, hierarchical processes that involve a series of steps. Workflow engines are for more generic and simple, few-step processes. This makes a workflow engine better for small and more basic business processes,” he says.

  Workflow Engine Business Rule Engine
What does it do? Simplifies and automates strings of steps that together complete a task Applies a business rule to existing software functions
Why is it useful? Saves time with automation, allows visibility of tasks, and aids in approval of simple decision making Aids in more complex applications of decision making
When does it apply? Any time that defined, repetitive tasks are undertaken Any time that specific, predetermined criteria are met
Where do you find it? Workflow software Enterprise applications


Workflow Engine versus Business Process Engine

Workflow engines define the steps needed to complete tasks. Business process engines provide integration between software and departments to maintain complex business workflows. Usually, IT departments manage business process engines; a manager overseeing a process might handle a workflow engine.

Business process engines link human and software activities and create checkpoints between various software integration and decision-making tasks. This software manages multiple IT infrastructure layers from front-end and user-facing displays to back-end development and external software communication.

Thimothy explains, “While workflow engines are based on process design and business process engines are rules based, they both have to deal with administering processes. Among the many purposes that these engines may be used for include converting data among different formats, managing inventory levels, scheduling projects, tracking progress on team-based tasks, or centralizing administrative documents so that they can be accessed by others when necessary.”

Tips and Best Practices for Using a Workflow Engine

Adopting new software can be daunting, but workflow engines get easier as you grow more familiar with them. We’ve asked experts who use workflow engines in their daily routines to give us their best advice for managing workflow software:

  • Keep It Simple: When it comes to integrating workflow engines, the simpler, the better. This is especially true when using a workflow engine for the first time.
    Marcin Jablonski
    Marcin Jablonski, Chief Commercial Officer of LV BET, says, “Don’t make your models too complicated. It’s easy to get carried away with kitting out your workflows with all kinds of bells and whistles with pretty software options, but this will only make them more likely to break, and at the end of the day, the only important thing is that your team finds it easy and clear to work with. Also, don’t try to integrate too many separate teams into one workflow. It’s a lot easier to create separate ones and then link them together.”
  • Integrate Your Existing Software: Choose workflow engines that are compatible with the tools you already use. Programmers design many of these tools so that they work together and become more effective when paired.

    “The best hack I have discovered regarding workflow engines is the automatic sync with your accounting tool, using webhooks, to generate an invoice. When the deal is changed to ‘closed or won’ in the engine, the automated workflow will trigger a webhook that will link up with a third-party application. The webhook will carry the invoicing email to the module with necessary information like customer name, deal value, and mode of payment. With proper authentication, the invoicing tool then generates and sends the invoice to the customer. This has saved our company loads of time as we do not have to log in to our accounts to send invoices anymore. The engine does the job for us,” says Ericksen.
  • Understand That Workflow Management Improves Morale: Don’t underestimate the morale-boosting power of workflows. Good workflows are important for saving time, but they also help maintain a productive and invested workforce.

    “When I started my workflow engine journey, I was not aware of its importance in promoting a healthy work culture. A workflow tool or system helps keep communication clear and the workload minimal, and it aids the employees in tasks that would otherwise take hours to complete. If I had known this, my company culture would not have suffered during the pandemic and would have been in much better condition,” says Ericksen.
  • Build Out Your Workflow Engine with a Plan: It can be tempting to dive right in and start building out your new engine, but you will have more long-term success if you have a solid plan in place.
    Ryan Fyfe
    Ryan Fyfe, COO of Workpuls, shares the method he used when setting up his workflow engine. “First,” he says, “you need to identify the input states to the workflow. Create a vocabulary of these items and modify your architecture to extract this information on an as-needed basis. Second, take a look for any unwanted side effects in the inputs. Workflows are usually expensive or time-consuming to start due to network or data processing bottlenecks that result from polling values that don't actually need immediate attention. Third, define strong assumptions about how you want outputs delivered. For instance, if a drive has any unprocessed files on it, then slow down processing until there are no more files left to process. This will allow certain functions to continue without having lots of intermediate states between parsing files and old output.”
  • Create an Organized Naming Structure: A solid organizational naming and storage structure for your workflow information makes it easier to find information and access it later.

    “Use metadata tools to categorize tasks in your workflow for easy retrieval from messy inboxes or when scrolling through time-based archives,” suggests Fyfe.
  • Incorporate Records Management and Information Lifecycles: Many companies store sensitive information on their customers, such as account numbers. It is important to consider the privacy needs of customers when incorporating their information into your workflow engine.
    Teo Vanyo
    “Compliance reporting for high-risk information, including personal or identifiable details, is continuously evolving and is something you will have to deal with,” says Teo Vanyo, CEO of StealthAgents. “Workflows should be designed with this in mind. It may seem impossible to construct a coherent and usable system knowing that protocols may change. Still, with adequate structuring and document management, changes in protocols or reporting requirements may be quickly updated. Good design will also allow you to automate many of these operations, lowering the risk of human error and further saving employees time.”
  • Track Metrics and Estimate Costs: Workflow engines make it easy to see exactly how much time is spent on each task. Fata shares how he uses his workflow engine to maximize productivity.

    “Good workflow software can also double as a time-management and goal-setting tool. You can set predictions for how long a task will take, compare it with real-world performance, and try to set new personal bests. This gets extra powerful when you combine it with billable hours. You can then determine exactly how much a given part of a project will cost,” he says.

How to Choose the Best Workflow Engine for Your Company

When choosing a workflow engine for your business, ask yourself what specific features you will need. Consider the costs involved in implementation, ease of use, and ability to integrate with existing software.

“The best workflow engines are universal engines that can execute almost any process of your company and are not limited to team-based projects alone,” says Thimothy. Choose something that is both powerful enough to get the job done now and will scale with you as your business grows.

Bishop also shares his top choices for features in a workflow engine: “The features I look for are a user-friendly interface, something that is easy to train new employees on, and multiple-platform support.”

Before choosing your workflow engine, consider the following variables:

  • Workflow Engine versus Business Rules Engine: Do you need a workflow engine or a business rules engine? Consider that you may ultimately need both.
  • Features: Which features do you need and which can you manage without? Avoid paying for features that you know you will not use.
  • Usability: Is this engine low-code or no-code? Consider the technical ability of your team members, both now and as you imagine your team will look in the future.
  • Cost: How much does this software cost and how much will it save? Are there ongoing costs? Consider which option will make the most financial sense for your organization.
  • Integration: Does this workflow engine support software I am already using? Consider what existing softwares this engine will need to be integrated with and how simply and effectively that can be accomplished.
  • Multiple Platform Support: Can this engine be accessed easily across multiple platforms and operating systems? Is there mobile accessibility? Consider the team members involved in a process and what their accessibility needs might be.
  • Customization: Can I customize the look of the software, dashboards, notification times, or deadlines? Consider what features you will need to customize to fit the needs of your organization.

Master Your Project Management Tasks with Smartsheet

From simple task management and project planning to complex resource and portfolio management, Smartsheet helps you improve collaboration and increase work velocity -- empowering you to get more done. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed.

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.


Discover a better way to streamline workflows and eliminate silos for good.

Try Smartsheet for Free Get a Free Smartsheet Demo