What is workflow management? (A definition and guide)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 28 March 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Effectively managing workflows within an organisation is a great way to boost productivity, reduce costs and promote more efficient collaboration between your teams. As a result, there are now a host of software solutions available that can help to streamline your workflows. Understanding the management of workflow can help you to increase automation and make task management easier. In this article, we explain what workflow management is, the different types of workflows, the features of workflow systems and their benefits.

What is workflow management?

Workflow management is the term used to describe a system that businesses put in place to organise and coordinate a specific set of tasks. Once these tasks are complete, they typically produce a particular outcome that helps the organisation reach certain outlined objectives. Managing workflows helps to optimise task completion and where possible automate systems to increase productivity and reduce errors.

Though the terms workflow and process are frequently used interchangeably, it's important to understand that there is a key difference. The term process describes a comprehensive group of activities that's typically made up of more than one workflow. Whereas a workflow is a smaller set of actions that you can repeat to produce a singular outcome. The type of management that you use is dependent on the scope of the task, with processes being used to manage much broader objectives.

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The different types of workflows

There are typically two types of workflows that you may choose to follow depending on the tasks you wish to complete, including:

Sequential workflows

These types of workflows operate as a sequence of events, with each new step being dependent on the completion of the step before. These often rules-based workflows typically follow a logical pathway to achieve an end result, with each task following on from the next much like a flowchart. For example, when purchasing new equipment the first step is to obtain a quotation, then approve it, raise a purchase order and receipt goods so that the finance team can pay the invoice.

Parallel workflows

Unlike sequential workflows, parallel workflows, also known as state workflows, allow your team to perform multiple tasks alongside each other. For example, the office manager can send notify the HR team that a team member has handed in their notice of resignation while simultaneously requesting the purchase of a new printer from the finance team. Though you can perform parallel workflows concurrently, they may sometimes be dependent upon each other to achieve an overarching objective.

The transformation process

When introducing a workflow sequence, the goal is usually to make it as automated as possible. To help you understand how automation works, it can be useful to understand the structure of a workflow. You can enter each stage of the task into the workflow system and store the data to help the users to carry out their jobs. Consider each stage of the workflow as part of the transformation process:

  • Inputs: Using the purchasing team as an example, an input might include a quotation for new goods that needs approval so that you can raise a purchase order.

  • Transformation: This is the action that, once taken, gets the input to its next state. This could include obtaining authorisation for the new goods and raising a purchase order to be sent to the supplier.

  • Outputs: These are the results of the transformation process and could include another input at its next state, such as a pro forma invoice for the finance team to pay so that goods are released. It could be the end result of the workflow, such as the shipment of goods being received.

When managing workflows, you can allocate rules with clear guidelines to each stage to then be automated within a management system. Each stage of the workflow can be set up as a task and assigned to a team or user for them to action. In most cases, you can track the workflow right up until completion, turning a concept into actionable work with a clear end result.

Related: Guide to workflow: definition, components, processes and uses

Workflow management systems

There are a variety of software solutions available that are designed to help manage workflows and make them easier to automate and execute. It's possible to confuse the systems available to manage workflow with business process management (BPM) platforms, so it's important to remember the differences between workflow and processes when choosing the right solution for your needs. Though each workflow system has its own unique features to assist management, here are some common features included in most software solutions:

  • the ability to create clearly defined workflows

  • customisable and automated task notifications

  • form creation tools

  • capabilities to manage documents

  • workflow data recording

  • performance insights and other reporting features

  • integration capabilities with other software solutions

  • the ability to assign access permissions to external business stakeholders

Many workflow solutions are commonly offered as software-as-a-service (SaaS) products, making them easy to integrate and affordable to run. These services provide a simple solution for automating repetitive workflow activities necessary to carry out larger scale business processes. As many workflow software solutions are also cloud-based, they allow for easy collaboration with both internal and external stakeholders worldwide.

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The benefits of workflow management systems

Many companies invest in an automated workflow system to help manage operations within their organisation, as they provide a range of benefits for both internal and external stakeholders. By transforming manual processes into streamlined and automated workflows, businesses can often operate much more efficiently and cost-effectively. Here are some of the benefits of introducing an automated system to manage workflows in an organisation:

Greater team collaboration

Many companies utilise management solutions to improve collaboration within a team and with external stakeholders. By creating customisable forms within the system, external stakeholders such as vendors and customers can easily make requests and send data to your internal colleagues both efficiently and securely. With the ability to set up automated alerts when new requests arise or when the status of a task changes, teams can collaborate faster and operate more efficiently through the stages of the workflow.

Related: 9 workplace collaboration benefits

Standardised processes

By setting up rules for each task, centrally storing up-to-date documents and creating a clear sequence of events for each stage of the workflow, processes can become much more standardised. Every member of the team can clearly understand what their responsibilities are at any stage of the workflow and repetitive menial tasks become automated. This allows your employees to focus more effectively on important tasks, improves overall productivity and allows less room for error resulting in more consistent outcomes.

Easier performance tracking

Software systems provide easy to follow audit trails that can help managers effectively oversee the various stages of the workflow. Many solutions offer intuitive dashboards that can track progress in real-time. They also provide you with the ability to create custom reports using key metrics that can help to drive informed decision-making surrounding both simple tasks and company processes.

Related: How to write an effective performance improvement plan

Improvements to profitability

When employees are following a more efficient workflow they have the ability to get more done and provide a higher level of service to your customers, which can improve brand reputation and loyalty. By eliminating unnecessary tasks, reducing resources and making workflows more time-efficient you can also reduce overall business costs. This can significantly improve your bottom line and provide more value to investors, shareholders and other stakeholders.

Related: What are profitability ratios? (With examples and formulas)

Empower employees

With a vast increase in the number of employees working from home, systems to manage workflow make it even easier for employees to work remotely. As tasks are clearly outlined and easy to track, adopting a workflow system can empower employees to work autonomously with confidence. By using automated processes during the onboarding process you can also often ensure that new starters have a positive experience when entering their new role. Whether an employee has been in their role for a few weeks or a number of years, a clear system ensures everyone understands their duties.

Related: What is empowerment in the workplace? Examples and benefits

Provides visibility

Workflow systems can also improve transparency between a business and its stakeholders by making the stages of the workflow more visible. A clear workflow can help to explain to stakeholders exactly how a business operates. This can be a useful tool when bringing on new clients as you can set clear expectations from the outset of a project and demonstrate step-by-step how the organisation can meet their specific needs.

Related: What is business transparency and how can you promote it?

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