We’re all looking to work better – faster, more efficiently, and with less need for direct, manual input. Manual tasks like data entry are the killer of creative, productive work, and modern technology has, in part, coalesced around automated workflow systems.

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Many businesses are turning to workflow automation – a powerful tool that automates complex tasks and activities within their business processes. With these automated tools, their employees (and, by extension, the organization) are much more flexible, scalable, and competitive.

This is the ultimate guide to workflow automation – how it works, how you can adopt it, and how to navigate benefits and challenges.

What is Workflow Automation?

Workflow automation automates tasks within a business process to maximize time and efficiency. The goal of workflow automation is to increase efficiency, accuracy, and overall productivity across the organization.

There are several core aspects of workflow automation, including:

  • Streamlining Work Processes: Workflow automation tools help organize and streamline various processes within a business environment.
  • Monitoring: Workflow automation solutions often come with monitoring and analytics capabilities. This allows managers and stakeholders to track performance, measure outcomes, and identify bottlenecks in processes or the organization.
  • Compliance and Audit Trails: Automated workflows can be designed to adhere to regulatory requirements and industry standards. They also provide a clear audit trail of who did what and when which is crucial for compliance and accountability.
  • Integration: Workflow automation platforms often integrate with other business applications, ensuring a seamless flow of information across different platforms and software.

Workflows can be automated for a variety of processes, such as:

  • HR onboarding

  • Customer service requests

  • Order fulfillment

  • Marketing campaigns

  • Financial reporting

And more – potentially any process within an organization.

By understanding what workflow automation is capable of achieving – both now and in the future – companies will be able to equip themselves for success better as they look towards optimizing their operations using automated solutions.

How Does Workflow Automation Work?

To get started with workflow automation, it’s important to map out the processes that need to be automated to get an overview of how different steps interact.

A sample workflow automation might include some or all of the following steps:

  • Triggers: The first action in a chain of automated events. This could be a user completing an online form or signing up for a specific service. It could also be something internal, like the hiring of a new employee.
  • Rules: Depending on the initial (and subsequent) actions, the workflow will process actions based on a set of rules. These are often conditional (if→then→else), but they can function as linear steps, like those in an email nurture campaign.
  • Roles: Depending on the role of a user, the presentation of data can change.
  • Actions: When a rule is triggered, then the automation system acts. Depending on the platform and context, this action can be anything from sending an email to creating a new user or changing data permissions.
  • Integrations: Useful workflows often combine different platforms and software. Tools like Zapier automation can offer integrations with nearly every major service provider (for example, Google, Slack, or Mailchimp).

What Are the Different Types of Workflow Automation?

Workflow automation is a powerful tool for streamlining processes and boosting productivity. Various types of workflow automation address specific needs within different contexts.

In a broad sense, we can split automation into two major categories:

  • Business Process Automation: This focuses on automating complex business processes to streamline operations, improve workflow, and reduce costs.

  • Robotic Process Automation: RPA utilizes “bots” to automate repetitive, rule-based tasks previously performed by humans. This is often used in business process automation.

Following this, we can further define different types of automation based on how they work:

  • Rules-Based Automation: This approach relies on predetermined instructions to complete tasks quickly and accurately, such as filing paperwork or sending notifications when specific criteria are met.

  • Data-Driven Automation: This approach utilizes real-time data from sources like databases or sensors to decide how tasks should be handled.

  • Hybrid Automation: These approaches combine rules-based and data-driven workflows into one system, providing the benefits of both while avoiding their drawbacks.

  • AI-Driven Automation: This relatively new form of automation employs artificial intelligence technologies such as machine learning and natural language processing to identify patterns in large amounts of data.

There are also different ways in which tasks are executed:

  • Parallel Approval: Two or more people can submit an approval simultaneously in the workflow.

  • Basic Approval: One approval depends on moving the workflow to the next step.

  • Parallel Tasks: More than one task is occurring at a time.

  • Serial Tasks: Tasks move along one after the other, and each one depends on the action of the prior task.

  • Negotiations: This workflow moves step-by-step and moves back and forth across employees, clients, and customers.

If we get even more granular, we can divide types of automation based on different industries:

  • Industrial Automation: Automation workflows for manufacturing or other industrial processes.

  • Marketing Automation: Streamlining workflows around customer engagement based on trigger behaviors like signing up for services, converting at a form-fill landing page, or making a purchase.

  • IT Workflows: Involves automating various IT tasks such as system configurations, administration, and the management of data centers.

  • Office Automation: Office automation encompasses using digital technology to automate routine office tasks such as data management, scheduling, and email communications.

  • Financial Automation: This involves using technology to automate financial processes such as invoicing, budgeting, and fraud detection.

  • Non-Profit Workflow Automation: Non-profits can streamline manual tasks during or after a digital migration – a great approach to cutting overhead when needed.

Interested in how automation can improve your IT workflow? Check out our article on simplifying your IT workflow.
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Advantages of Using a Workflow Automation Tool

Workflow automation tools offer a range of advantages to businesses that implement them. Automation can streamline tedious and repetitive manual tasks, reduce errors and improve consistency, automate complex processes, increase collaboration between teams and departments, and enhance visibility into who is responsible for which tasks.

  • Reducing Manual Efforts: By automating repetitive tasks, workflow automation minimizes the need for manual intervention. This can significantly save time and resources, allowing employees to focus on more strategic, creative, or complex tasks.

  • Enhancing Efficiency: Automated workflows are generally faster and more accurate than manual processes. They ensure that tasks are completed as per schedule, thereby improving productivity and efficiency.

  • Reducing Errors: Workflow automation helps minimize mistakes by following a predefined set of rules and checks, reducing or eliminating inherent errors in manual processes.

  • Improving Accountability: Workflow automation provides a clear trail of who did what and when, fostering accountability and transparency within processes.

  • Embedding Analytics into Processes: Workflow automation tools often come with monitoring and analytics features, enabling real-time tracking of processes and performance analysis for continuous improvement.

  • Reducing Costs: Cutting out manual processes isn’t just an efficient move. It’s a cost-effective one, cutting out waste in terms of money, time, and resources.

  • Promoting Scalability: As an organization grows, workflow automation can help scale operations smoothly without a proportional increase in operational headaches or overheads.

  • Creating Collaboration: Automated notifications and updates ensure that all stakeholders are informed about the progress of tasks and processes. This means better real-time collaboration across diverse stakeholders.

Challenges of Using Workflow Automation

Implementing workflow automation can be a significant undertaking with many challenges that must be addressed. It can be complex and overly prescriptive, and (in many cases) a departure from existing behaviors and expectations.

These include:

  • Complexity: Setting up automated workflows can be complex, especially for intricate or legacy processes. This calls for an extensive knowledge of these processes, how they work with each other, and how to adapt them to new infrastructure.

  • Company Culture Shock: Employees may resist changes to well-known processes, and management may balk at demands on limited budgets. Moving to automation may need advocates and a long-term commitment to making the case.

  • Expertise: Although many tools are designed for ease of use, some technical expertise might be required to set up, manage, and optimize automated workflows.

  • Integration Issues: Integration is a nice-sounding word, but if your apps don’t play well with a platform, it could throw a wrench in your plans. Likewise, even if an integration is supported, it may not work at 100% effectiveness without extensive support.

  • Security Issues: Handling sensitive data within automated workflows necessitates robust security measures to prevent data breaches and ensure compliance with privacy laws.

  • Rigidity: Depending on the type and solution, a workflow automation tool needs to be more flexible in the face of dynamic business.

  • Vendor Lock-In: Most prominent solutions will provide their support, resources, and way of doing things. If you get embedded with such a provider, it may be difficult to switch – especially if they offer one or two features that you need help finding elsewhere.

How to Get Started with Workflow Automation

Kickstarting a journey into workflow automation begins with a blend of research and introspection. Businesses ought to dive into the different workflow automation tools available, weighing their features against the organization’s goals and needs to pinpoint the most fitting option. Once you’ve zeroed in on the perfect tool, it’s time to involve all key stakeholders in the discourse and designate decision-makers who’ll steer the automation ship.

With the right minds at the table, sketch a comprehensive plan detailing how the automation will unfold and mesh with the existing systems. This blueprint will serve as the roadmap, ensuring every gear in the automation machinery moves harmoniously.

As you settle into automation, don’t let complacency set in. Stay abreast of the evolving best practices in workflow automation to fine-tune your processes continually. This way, not only do you keep the automation engine humming smoothly, but you also position your business to deliver stellar customer experiences, one automated process at a time.

How Do I Implement Workflow Automation?

Implementing workflow automation requires a well-structured approach to ensure success and to gain the maximum benefits from the automation. Here are steps to guide you through the process of implementing workflow automation in your organization:

  • Identify Automation Opportunities: Start by identifying processes that are repetitive, rule-based, and time-consuming. Look for processes that can be standardized and are prone to human error.
  • Analyze and Document Processes: Analyze the selected processes in detail. Document the current process flow, identify the stakeholders involved, and understand the inputs and outputs at each step. Also, understand how these processes interact with one another.
  • Define Goals and Objectives: Establish clear goals and objectives for your workflow automation initiative. Determine the expected outcomes, such as time savings, error reduction, or compliance improvements.
  • Select the Right Tool: Choose a workflow automation tool that aligns with your organization’s needs and technical capabilities. Look for a tool that supports integration with your existing systems. Common tools for office, marketing, or data workflow automation include Cognito Forms, Zapier, Qntrl, and others.
  • Design the Workflow: Define the steps, rules, conditions, and actions that constitute the automated process. Map these processes out so that the logical relationships between triggers, rules, actions, and conditional branches are clear and easy to implement in the rule lexicon of your solution.
  • Define Roles: In cases where roles and access are important to accessing user data, role-based workflows can ensure that the right people have access to information and other capabilities.
  • Develop and Test: Develop the automated workflow and thoroughly test it in a controlled environment to ensure it operates as intended and to identify any issues before deployment.
  • Train Users: Train the users interacting with the automated workflow. Ensure they understand how to use the system and whom to contact for support.
  • Monitor and Maintain: Continuously monitor the performance of your automated workflows, ensure they remain up-to-date with any changes in processes or compliance requirements, and perform regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly.
  • Review and Iterate: Periodically review the effectiveness of your workflow automation initiatives. Look for new opportunities to improve and expand your automation efforts.

What Are Common Use Cases for Workflow Automation?

Workflow automation is increasingly becoming a valuable tool for businesses of all sizes. Automation helps reduce manual labor, increase accuracy and consistency, and streamline complex processes. It can also improve customer experience by automating tedious tasks and reducing errors. There are many use cases for workflow automation, from large-scale process optimization to smaller tasks such as data entry.

  • Human Resources: HR departments may have multiple forms that need to be filled out for an employee to be on-boarded or transferred departments. Automating this process through HR workflow automation eliminates manual data entry and ensures accuracy and consistency across each employee record.
  • Marketing: Once a user interacts with a brand, typically through a form on a landing page or website, workflow automation can kick in to start several engagement processes. These can include adding these customers to specific lists, starting email nurture campaigns, or creating profiles that sales representatives can use for outreach.
  • Customer Service: Another use case for workflow automation is managing and tracking internal activities such as project management or customer service requests. Companies can automate task assignments based on customer actions or other rules.
Learn more about the benefits of automating your HR workflows.
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What Are the Differences Between Workflow Automation and Business Process Automation?

Workflow automation and business process automation are two distinct approaches for streamlining corporate operations. Their end goal is the same: to maximize efficiency and productivity. However, there are some key differences between them that must be considered when deciding which to implement.

  • Workflow automation focuses on connecting simpler tasks with one another to reduce human error and improve efficiency by automating processes via rules.

  • Business process automation is designed to automate entire business systems, such as supply chain management or customer onboarding. Its emphasis is on improving effectiveness through a complex interplay of software components that all interact with each other in a specific way.

What Are the Differences Between Workflow Automation and Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

Although these two terms seem similar on the surface, they represent very different approaches that offer different levels of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and scalability.

Workflow automation is an effective solution for complex tasks or processes with multiple steps that require decisions based on contextual data. This type of automation allows businesses to create automated processes triggered by specific events or rules.

Robotic Processes Automation is designed for tedious and repetitive tasks such as data entry or document processing. It can be implemented quickly compared to workflow automation but cannot make complex decisions required for more sophisticated process automation. Additionally, each step must be programmed manually with custom code written by developers, leading to a higher amount of manual intervention than workflow automation systems require.

Measuring the Success of Your Workflow Automation Solution

There are several categories across which workflow automation can be measured. These include:

  • Time and Cost Savings: These speak for themselves, but everything (from efficiency to productivity) is tied up in savings. If you find that your costs go down, that your employees are focusing on more complex tasks, and your organization is producing more value at a faster rate, then you are doing well.
  • Error Reduction: In processes where errors are an issue, the simple KPI to follow is the reduction of those errors across processes in time.
  • Productivity Improvement: Productivity can be a hard thing to assess in certain situations where employees don’t produce specific goods or services. However, if you find your team is increasingly focused on more important, higher-priority tasks, this could be due to the automation of rote tasks.
  • Compliance and Security: Compliance is a critical part of many companies’ mission. Often, these compliance tasks are tied to simple tasks or automated processes (like onboarding/offboarding employees, checking permissions, etc.). A lower incidence of compliance failures or security issues can reflect effective automation.
  • Utilization Rate: This is a soft metric but an important one. If your team can quickly and effectively adopt your solution, it effectively bridges the gaps between legacy processes and new, scalable, efficient workflows.
  • Customer Conversions: In marketing workflows, the most crucial metric is conversions. If customers are converting (through whatever CTA you are promoting), you can assess the effectiveness of workflow automation from start to finish.

Examples of Workflow Automation Tools

This section of the article will provide an overview of the different types of workflow automation tools available and what to consider when selecting the right one for your organization. There are a variety of tools that offer drag-and-drop design capabilities, libraries of integrations, and visual workflow mapping. These tools can help businesses save time and money while ensuring they get the most out of their automation efforts.

  • Cognito Forms: Cognito Forms is a powerful and versatile tool that combines an online form builder, business process automation, workflow automation, data collection, and analytics into a single platform.
  • Zapier: Zapier provides an easy-to-use interface for automating tasks across multiple applications with a few clicks. It allows users to set up triggers, such as new emails or changes in customer data, and then automate actions based on those triggers.
  • If This Then That (IFTTT): IFTTT allows users to create powerful connections between apps with just a few simple lines of code. It enables users to do things such as automatically post tweets when they publish a blog post.
  • Power Automate: This is another great option for businesses looking for an easy-to-use workflow automation platform that integrates with existing Microsoft products like Office 365 and SharePoint.
  • Kissflow: Kissflow is a cloud-based workflow and process automation platform designed to help businesses manage their processes and workflows efficiently. Its capabilities include workflow automation, reporting and analytics, and customizable processes.

Workflow automation has exploded over the last few years due to growing cloud infrastructure, remote labor, complex distributed business processes, and increased demands on performance.

These factors all play a role in future trends, where the expectation for performance leads to several critical trends:

  • Sustainability: With more businesses looking to promote sustainability initiatives, they must demonstrate to their shareholders, stakeholders, and customers that such plans are as prioritized as any other.
  • Artificial Intelligence: AI technologies such as natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) are being used to create smarter automated systems that can make decisions based on contextual data or provide personalized services to customers. These systems are invaluable in predictive analytics, process optimization, customer segmentation, and fraud detection applications.
  • Hybrid Workforces: With remote work the norm, businesses must meet employee demand without sacrificing security or productivity. Business automation can streamline critical tasks like onboarding new workers, securing remote device endpoints and workstations, and maintaining policies across different localities.
  • Sales: With eCommerce and mobile shopping the primary share of online business, businesses are looking to workflow automation to support analytics and customer intelligence… According to the Salesforce State of Sales report, 77% of sales reps find data gathering challenging when left to manual. Automations allow sales reps and marketers to track the customer journey across different funnels and touchpoints easily and with an understanding of customer behavior and context.

Trust Cognito Forms for Business Process and Workflow Automation

In today’s fast-paced business environment, staying competitive necessitates the seamless orchestration of complex processes. Workflows are at the core of these processes. From data gathering to customer engagement to employee onboarding, Cognito Forms end-to-end workflow automation can fit nearly any business process.

Ready to get started with workflow automation? Try it out today with a free 14-day trial!
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Jamie T.

Jamie T.

Jamie is co-founder of Cognito Forms, an online form builder for organizations seeking to quickly and easily connect with their customers. In his free time, Jamie loves spending time with his wonderful wife and kids, training for triathlons, camping with boy scouts, singing in the choir, and trying out the latest gadgets.