Businesses are often looking to increase efficiency and be more effective. This is where workflow management comes in: it’s software used to help automate businesses tasks so they can be managed and maintained. Effective workflow management software identifies inefficiencies helps automates processes, which frees up workers’ time so they can better utilize their skills.
Often confused with Business Process Management (BPM), workflow management uses technology to improve the flow of specific tasks. BPM, on the other hand, is a discipline that focuses on coordinating work across all resources. Workflow management software can be used as a part of BPM, and both are ultimately used to make businesses run more efficiently. In this article, you’ll learn more about how workflow management is used, the different types of workflow, features to consider, and gain tips from experts on choosing workflow software.
Popular Uses of Workflow Management Software Today
There are two general types of workflow: a function-based system that automatically informs the next responsible person for a task, and one that replaces paper-based processes. Both types of workflow management software seek to improve efficiencies and reduce the number of errors. When you consider the number of tasks that traditionally have been handled manually and would benefit from automation, it’s easy to see why workflow management software is becoming so popular among a diverse set of industries. Here are a few popular uses:
- HR Onboarding/Offboarding: Automating the paperwork that needs to be completed by employees helps reduce user error and saves valuable time for HR personnel.
- Compliance: Manage compliance programs, track requirements, schedule events, and set alerts to be notified of critical due dates throughout the entire process.
- Marketing and Design Teams: Set up a system that can serve as both a central repository for storing campaign assets and an approval process for ushering marketing materials via automatic notifications.
- Project Managers: Use workflow management to assign staff to projects, automate tasks, send alerts, and track status.
- Invoice Processing: Automate how invoices feed into the accounting system and set them on a path for approval, budget reconciliation, and automated payment.
There are workflow management solutions specific to each of these industries that focus on automating a specific task, so it’s imperative that the software is compatible and can integrate with existing solutions in a workplace. Conversely, you can also find a workflow management solution that’s more of a Swiss-army knife and can be used to automate tasks across a wide range of business processes. Regardless of which type of software you choose, you’ll be glad to learn that the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC), a consortium consisting of developers, adopters, consultants, analysts, and research groups focuses on defining process-related standards so workflow management systems are compatible.
5 Helpful Tips from Business Pros on Choosing Workflow Software
It may seem obvious to automate mundane tasks that can potentially introduce critical errors into an existing system. But how do you find a system that’s right for you and your team? We asked business pros to provide insights on picking workflow management software. Before you start evaluating software options, however, there are a few key things you should figure out.
1. Evaluate the Existing System
Truly classifying and understanding how everything in your business works is the first phase of workflow management deployment and optimization. The organization’s stakeholders must get all of their managers and subject matter experts involved in this stage. These team members will often be able to offer the best insights regarding what needs to be represented in the processes, and will also identify ways to adjust strategy to meet the shifting demands of the organization. – Dennis Thomas, Chief Technology Officer at NeuraFlash, creator of a Salesforce customer service application.
2. Identify Your Workflow Challenge
The discussion around workflow management software arises out of general frustration with the existing workflow. It's crucial to take the time to really dig into those general frustrations in order to identify specific pain points. Without that information, you can't identify specific solutions, which makes it infinitely more difficult to pick the right software for your organization. – Rachel Dotson, Marketing Manager at Sanebox, developer of an e-mail filtering solution.
3. Pick a Solution Your Team Will Use
Approach any application with those staff who will be using it day in and day out. What are their requirements? Is the interface easy to use? Is it customizable to your needs? I'd highly recommend to any growing business that they favor those applications that can be customized to your business' needs - after all, no two businesses are alike, so why should their use of any particular application be the same also? – Jessica Thiele, Marketing Manager for VL Inc., providing data integration services for the omni-channel.
4. Take a Test Drive
When you've whittled your options down to 2 or 4, spend some time trying to actually use each one. For example, try loading your workflow with all of the bells and whistles you need, and then run 5 mock instances that take different paths through the workflow. Even if this takes a few hours for each piece of software it's worth it. This is one area where switching costs down the road will be steep - you're going to want this software to last years with you. - Amanda Moskowitz, Founder/CEO at Stacklist, a company focused on helping entrepreneurs make faster, easier, and smarter decisions about the business tools they use to grow their startups.
5. Determine Your Metric for Success
How will you know if your workflow management plan is operating properly without having a comprehensive plan in place to measure performance? Establishing a metrics system that allows management to quickly and efficiently monitor performance across divisions is key to operations moving in the right direction to meeting the organization goals. Using the existing system metrics of the old workflow management process can provide the organization with a baseline to measure current progress and future opportunities. - Dennis Thomas
What to Look for in Workflow Management Software
Once you have identified the workflow problem you’re trying to solve, met with key stakeholders along with those who will use the system, and determined how you’ll be using workflow management software, it’s time to start evaluating offerings. As mentioned earlier, workflow software comes in many different flavors. (Interestingly enough, it’s not always called ‘workflow management software,’ so be open to all possible solutions - at the end of the day you want a solution that works for your company, so it shouldn’t matter how it’s labelled.) Here is a comprehensive list of features that are often found in workflow software:
Design Elements: Many programs will allow you to create your own templates and build custom web forms. These features focus on how much you can customize the look of your solution:
- WYSIWIG Form designer
- Create Dashboards
- Workflow Diagrams – Use this to create diagrams of how work flows through a system. If you simply want to create a workflow diagram to help determine your needs, try a diagram-only online software solution that supports the industry standard BPMN 2.0 notation. Look for an online app you can download and share the diagram, so you can attach it to your workflow software solution.
- Drag-and-drop interface to create a workflow diagram/Workflow wizard
- Types of workflows: standard, mobile, custom, social, HR
Procedures: Besides automating tasks, think about what else you want to be able to do with the software. This list can help you start thinking about existing processes you may want to automate:
- Initiate process requests/user requests
- Analytics/Run reports
- Intake project request
- Launch projects
- Allocate resources
Automation: These features focus on making tasks easier. When evaluating these features, determine how much control you want to have over a process:
- Build automated workflows
- Business rules for accounts payable/receivable – financial tracking
- Workflow routing
- Role-based dashboards/access control
- Delegates predefined and ad-hoc procedures
Cloud/Repository: Consider what you want to store online and make easily accessible to anyone using the system. Here are cloud-based management features:
- ECM (Enterprise Content Management)
- Document management
- Digital asset management
- Scalable platform
General Software Functions: These are not particularly specific to workflow management software offerings, but it’s still worth evaluating these features before making a decision:
- Build apps
- Open source
- Integrate with APIs, WebHooks, other cloud services
- Amount of users
- Subscription vs complete purchase
How Companies Use Smartsheet for Workflow Software to Dramatically Improve Business Processes
Shaw Uses Workflow Management to Maintain a Sustainable Company
Shaw Industries Group, a global flooring provider, takes a holistic approach to sustainability - not just in the product they produce, but in how they run their business. The company uses workflow management to consolidate the hundreds of systems in place into a simplified process that eliminates waste and fosters a flexible, efficient, and sustainable business model. Before moving to a new workflow management system, the company determined it wanted a system that worked seamlessly across platforms, locations and teams, was easy to use (meaning the existing workforce could get up and running on it with minimal training), and was accessible to both internal and external teams virtually anywhere.
Shaw turned to Smartsheet to implement a solution that would make managing their projects a consistent experience at all their locations. They used master templates to create reports and streamline business processes. Additionally, the Smartsheet mobile app was an ideal companion for workers in the field who could update data on-the-fly. “With Smartsheet, we’ve eliminated many of these one-off project management systems and simplified our process,” said Torrance L. Ford, Director, Supply Chain Business Solutions for Shaw.
An Extreme Solution to Connect a Global Supply Network
Extreme, a Siemens Enterprise Communications Company and global provider of wired and wireless network infrastructure and security solutions, designs 70 percent of its products in-house while the rest come from Original Design Manufacturers (ODM) located around the world. It is essential to have access to the most up to date information when working with these partners. One mistake could delay production and cost Extreme as much as $100,000. It was clear the company needed to adopt a “cloud first” approach to improve visibility and increase collaboration and efficiency. When the company’s New Product Information (NPI) group began looking for a workflow management solution they wanted something that was easy to deploy, cloud accessible, and robust while still being flexible. They found Smartsheet, an intuitive cloud-based solution that was powerful enough to accommodate their current and future business needs.
Since adopting Smartsheet, the NPI team now has a central repository that can also track all NPI activities in real-time so Extreme employees and ODMs have instant access to status updates and critical information when they need it. The team takes advantage of Smartsheet’s automatic reminders to keep processes moving along, while the multiple sheet views are ideal for looking at the larger picture to see if a project is on track or lagging behind.
“All of the projects that our NPI group tackles revolve around a very linked chain of information,” said Brad Martin, then VP of Engineering and Quality. “Using Smartsheet to collaborate and work together, we’ve seen our team save weeks of time on each product. We have a much lower level of mistakes to manage from concept to realization, the level of quality is much higher, and we’re able to bring product to market much faster.” The solution has proven so popular and effective that other Extreme teams have taken to using Smartsheet to manage various aspects of workflow.
Loyola University Gets the Gift of Web Forms
The Gift Processing Department at Loyola University is responsible for inputting all donor contact information and processing each gift. It’s imperative that the information in the database is current and accurate since other school departments may need to access it, as well. With four campuses and over 150,000 alumni, the University has a wide network of patrons - this creates a lot of data for the Gift Processing Department to track and manage. The team spent a lot of time fielding requests and dealing with last minute fire drills. The former process process required creating Excel files to complete requests and then emailing them to the team, and was too time consuming and cumbersome.
Enter Smartsheet and its useful web forms that have completely automated the data request workflow for Loyola’s Gift Processing Department. Now, Loyola employees simply need to completely fill out a data request web form and submit it. The information on the form is automatically fed into Smartsheet where it can be assigned to one of the gift processors. The team also took advantage of Smartsheet’s alerts feature, so that when an urgent request comes in, the team is automatically alerted via email.
“Smartsheet has had a huge impact on my team, helping us streamline our work and track requests,” said Stacey Hughes, Director of Advancement Information Services, Loyola University. “While you can’t always see our work, my team is always booked solid. Now I’m able to use the Calendar view of our schedules to communicate with other departments. Their response? ‘We had no idea you were this busy.’ Now, our two-week guideline for requests is understood – and respected. It’s exciting to see the positive effect that increase in respect has on my team.”
Port of San Diego Marketing Team Stays on Budget with Smartsheet
Marketing all the exciting events and activities happening at the Port of San Diego involves a lot of moving parts, information, and people. The Port of San Diego covers 34 miles of waterfront filled with 17 public parks, two cargo terminals, a cruise ship terminal, the harbor police department, and the leases for hundreds of businesses around San Diego Bay. The marketing team which must manage budgets for multiple marketing funds, venue requests for various Port of San Diego properties, and all promotional activities.
Justin Kanoya, Marketing Projects Manager for the Port of San Diego, started looking for an alternate solution when he realized the marketing team never had real-time status of budget line items. His search for an intuitive solution that didn’t require a lot of training and could streamline the invoice process led him to Smartsheet. “I immediately felt Smartsheet was an ideal fit for us because it was modeled after Microsoft Excel, but so much better because it was online. Since many processes and projects were already being tracked via Excel, the team wouldn’t have to learn a new tool, which was a big advantage,” said Kanoya.
Now the budgeting workflow for marketing is completely automated. The system tracks the status of hundreds of invoices and gives the team a clear picture of how much money is available to spend at any given moment regardless if they are sitting at a desk or meeting a vendor in the field. In fact, since Smartsheet has been so useful in automating the invoicing process, the team uses it to track deadlines in the Calendar view, access the Port’s database from anywhere via the mobile app, and employs web forms to manage venue requests and RSVPs.
Build Powerful, Automated Approval Processes and Workflows with Smartsheet
Regardless of the type of workflow you create, you’ll want to build it in a reliable, automated platform that seamlessly connects to your other business processes and tools and provides easy collaboration. One such tool is Smartsheet, the world’s leading SaaS platform for managing and automating collaborative work. Smartsheet is designed to increase work agility and collaboration by providing a powerful platform for organizations to plan, track, automate, and report on work.
You can build automated approval processes without a single line of code, complex formulas, or help from IT. Achieve faster progress by creating automated approval requests and automated update requests that are triggered based on preset rules. Use Smartsheet to automate and streamline the following approval processes: time card tracking, sales discounts, procurement, HR hiring, content, and more. Plus, Smartsheet integrates with the tools you already use, to seamlessly connect your efforts across applications.
Get from idea to impact, faster, by building a powerful, automated approval process in Smartsheet.
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