What is a Workflow? - Definition, Types, Examples - Overview
Workflow Definition & Meaning
A Workflow is defined as a sequence of tasks that processes a set of data through a specific path from initiation to completion. Workflows are the paths that describe how something goes from being undone to done, or raw to processed.
They can be used to structure any kind of business function regardless of industry. Essentially, anytime data is passed between humans and/or systems, a workflow is created.
Types of Workflow
Below are three types of workflows that you can use in your business:
- Process Workflow
- Case Workflow
- Project Workflow
Workflows happen throughout the workspace. Some are very structured, and others are unstructured, but workflows exist anytime data moves from one task to another.
Let’s see each workflow in detail.
1. Process Workflow
A process workflow happens when the set of tasks is predictable and repetitive. This means that before an item begins the workflow, you know exactly what path it should take.
Business process workflows are set up to handle an unlimited number of items going through them. An example is a purchase requisition approval workflow. As soon as it starts, the workflow is set with few variations, and you can process any number of items in a single workflow.
2. Case Workflow
In a case workflow, you don’t know the path required to complete the item at the start. The path reveals itself as more data is gathered. Support tickets and insurance claims are good examples of cases. It’s not clear right from the start how these items will be processed; only after some investigation will the path reveal itself.
Similar to process workflows, case workflows can handle any number of items, although they are dependent on a human or an intelligent bot to discern the right path.
3. Project Workflow
Projects have a structured path similar to processes, but there may be more flexibility along the way. Think about releasing a new version of your website. You can predict with good accuracy the sequence of tasks required to complete the project.
However, project workflow is only good for one item. Another website release may not be done for a long time and will not likely follow exactly the same path.
Most resources you’ll find online will only refer to workflows in the sense of process workflow, but the other two are just as important to consider as much of the work around the office falls into those two categories.
Workflows are divided into 2 categories:
1. Sequential Workflows
The type of workflow where the subsequent tasks depend on the previous task's completion. For example, when you have applied for leave, you have to wait until it's approved by your manager, and then the finance department. It wouldn't reach the finance until your manager has approved it. This kind of workflow usually follows the same flow chart style, which ensures that there are no backlogs, and everyone in the sequence is moving forward.
2. Parallel Workflows
The type of workflow where multiple tasks can be performed in co-incidence. For example, when the HR department is onboarding a new employee, they can simultaneously request software and hardware assets from the IT team and request other paperwork, signatures, and contract-related documents from the finance and legal team. Sometimes these workflows can also depend on each other.
Parallel workflows work best for simple projects where you can divide the main task into independent sub-tasks. Also, in case of delay from any sub-tasks, wouldn’t disturb the other tasks.
3. State machine workflows
In this type of workflow, you progress from one state to another. State machine workflows are a bit complex as they go back and forth sometimes. This type of workflow is usually used in a project that required multiple evaluations and reviews from clients or management.
4. Rules-driven workflow
Rules-driven workflows are based on sequential workflows that use rules while making progress. They come in handy while working on multiple projects with a clear objective and different specifications
What are the workflow problems I could encounter?
A workflow consists of a series of steps that need to follow a defined progression. While systemically, this can seem straightforward, there are a number of workflow obstacles one could come across.
Some of the common workflow problems are as follows:
- Lack of accountability
- Inadequate collaboration
- Inability to delegate
- Overshooting deadlines
- Redundancies and bottlenecks
- Not accounting for ad-hoc requests Manual errors
How Can I Spot Workflows Around Me?
Workflows hide in many places. If you have a lot of emails you mindlessly pass down an invisible chain, that’s a workflow. If you print the same form over and over again, that’s a workflow.
If you find yourself turning to a spreadsheet to organize dynamic data, that’s a workflow. If you find your work is getting held up because someone else isn’t doing their job well, that’s a workflow.
Popular workflow examples are:
- Employee offboarding
- IT service requests
- Customer helpdesk
- Purchase order requests
- Reimbursement requests
A detailed look at the employee onboarding workflow
Are Workflows and Processes the Same Thing?
No. Workflows only describe the sequence of tasks. A process is a broader term that also encompasses the data, forms, reports, and notifications required to get an item from start to finish in a structured environment.
For example, the workflow for purchase orders might be Initiator => Manager Approval => Procurement Processing. But the process also involves a data set of approved vendors to choose from, the individual sequential number assigned to the purchase order, how procurement is notified, the budget available, and many more factors.
Are Workflows and Checklists the Same Thing?
No. A checklist is an elementary version of a workflow. Checklists only work for processes and projects but often lack the ability to share across team members. Checklists also make it difficult to track items that need to go back to an earlier stage in a workflow.
Checklists do a poor job processing workflows that are conditional on certain data. For example, if you are making marketing campaigns, but you want to follow a different workflow based on what platform will be used to distribute the campaign, you would need to have as many checklists as you have platforms. Whereas with more sophisticated workflow, you can handle all the items in a single workflow.
1. Human-Centric Vs System-Centric Workflows
In human-centric workflows, most of the tasks are assigned to humans. These might require approving data, creating something new, or double-checking information.
In system-centric workflows, most of the tasks are done by a machine and require little to no human involvement. For example, to create a financial report, a workflow might be triggered at the same time every month to grab certain data from different systems, parse it into a report, and email the report to all the stakeholders. A system can perform all of these tasks.
2. Document Centric Workflow
There are also document-centric workflows where the entire workflow is built around a document. A good example is a contract for leasing some office space.
Everything that happens as a part of the workflow needs to be added or modified on the document and the end result should be a contract that correctly captures all the data in the workflow including digital signatures.
3. Automated Vs Manual Workflow
A manual workflow requires human intervention—this often involves pushing each item from one task to another. An automated workflow, by contrast, leverages technology to automatically route predictable requests through a predefined path.
In a manual workflow, a human is responsible for pushing each item from one task to another. For example, when an employee fills out a reimbursement claim, she must email it to her manager for approval. After approval, she must email it to the finance department.
The finance department must go into the software and schedule a payment and then email the employee to say it is complete.
In an automated workflow, when a human completes a task, she is not responsible for passing the data on to the next task. The workflow is programmed to handle this. The system manages the flow of tasks including notifications, deadlines, and reminders.
In the same reimbursement example, the employee might fill out a form and hit a submit button. It would automatically trigger a notification for the manager to review it and click Approve.
This would automatically take it to the finance team for processing, or if the amount is small enough, it would trigger a task to release the payments and send an automated email to the employee.
Tracking items are much easier in automated workflows. To track items in a manual workflow, you must either manually update a spreadsheet, or send lots of messages and emails to know the status. Automated workflows will show you instantly where the item is in the workflow.
Benefits of Workflows
How Can I Create and Manage Automated Workflows?
There are many tools out there that will digitize your workflows, but you really want to find one that can be automated as much as possible to help you manage your workflow better.
To automate your workflows, you’ll need to use workflow management software. The workflow management software will allow you to create a visual representation of the workflow including all conditional tasks and exceptions. The best workflow tools will let you create a robust form which acts as a carrier for all the data required to process the item correctly.
Then, the software will take care of running the workflows automatically on its own. A user should be able to fill out an initial form and the software takes care of moving the item from one task to another until it is completed.
Most workflow management software is only geared toward process workflows (those that are predictable and repetitive). However, you should try to find a solution that can also let you handle case workflows and project workflows from the same platform rather than using different tools for all of these situations.
Organizations that are serious about workflow management usually have a central workflow management software that each department can use to create their own workflows.
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More About Workflows
What is Not a Workflow?
If data isn’t moving, you don’t have a workflow. For example, if you are managing a list of unconnected tasks (walk the dog, go to the grocery store, pick up the dry cleaning), this isn’t a workflow, but task management. For it to be a workflow, the tasks have to be connected in a way to be a part of something bigger.
What is Workflow Planning?
What is Development Workflow?
What are workflow steps?
- Gathering information
- Review and approval
- Task assignment
- Data entry
- Quality control