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Workflow Automation: A Beginner's Guide

A women dressed in white standing in a maze of stairs

There’s a temptation to do routine tasks the way you’ve always done them. You may wonder if a workflow management system is worth the investment. And your staff may be reluctant to take the time to learn a new way of performing familiar work. These are some of the reasons that organizations are still using cumbersome manual processes. Learn more about the ins and outs of successfully creating automated workflows in this handy guide. It summarizes best practices and familiarizes you with key terms. Use this tried-and-true approach, and workflow automation will deliver on its promise of cost-savings and the elimination of inefficient manual processes.

What is workflow automation?

The word STRATEGY written in money

By using software to manage tasks, documents, and data, workflow automation creates a consistent and predictable information flow. You use it to organize the order of tasks that are part of a business process into a logical “if/then” format. For example, if an invoice amount is less than $100 then the system can approve it without review. And if an invoice amount is $101 or more the workflow routes it to a department manager for approval. The software translates these “if/then” statements into workflow steps that are set up to run on their own, with human intervention or a mix of the two methods.   
You can look at any workflow as being made up of both user-initiated and automated tasks. For example, business process automation can prompt a staff member to decide on the status of a particular document. For example, when approving or rejecting an invoice. Then the system performs unattended activities like routing the approved invoice for payment or rejecting the invoice and sending it to a designated employee who takes further action.  

Assessing your current business processes

Red arrows leaping over obstacles to demonstrate how workflow automation helps businesses

Take the time to fully understand paper-dependent processes as they are today. You need to find the source of pain before you can administer a cure. During this discovery initiative, you can focus on automating repetitive manual tasks by identifying key steps, bottlenecks and common frustrations. When you’re designing workflows, you may want to do more than digitize your current manual processes and use your assessment of your current processes as groundwork for optimization.  

When you walk through a business process, ask these questions, and don’t minimize the importance of getting input from end users who often understand more about the day-to-day work than their managers do. 
What questions should I ask before creating an automated workflow? 
1. What initiates the process — an email, a phone call, an electronic form, a paper form, a letter that comes in the mail or a walk-in visit? 
2. How do you capture the information?
3. What’s the first thing you do with it?
4. Where does it end up? Who’s involved in the process? Does the document require approval or review? 
5. Where is the document archived? Is it stored locally or at an offsite facility incurring monthly costs?
6. When is integration with other business software or an ERP necessary?
7. Do you need to access documents and approval processes remotely or from a mobile device?

A workflow that outlines a recruitment process

Workflow diagram  shows an automated recruitment process
The diagram above presents a visual representation of the hiring process. It shows actions, dependencies and decision points. It maps the steps that are taken before a candidate becomes a new employee. By creating and reviewing a diagram like this, it’s easier to see if there are missing steps or tasks that should be reordered.  
If you're researching solutions to digitize and manage your company's documents, join us for an informative webinar, A beginner's look at document management on Thursday, August 24 at 2 p.m. EDT. Register Now!

Leveraging web forms for more dynamic workflows

Our customers use DocuWare Forms to enable processes that are even more powerful. For example, an HR department uses a web form to gather new employee information. In addition to the fields for first and last name and other identifying information, the form also contains a field for the employee’s company email address.

DocuWare Forms makes it easy to create and manage dynamic web forms

Thanks to an intuitive editor new forms are easy to create

When each new employee fills out the online personal data form and submits it, it kicks off an HR workflow. The workflow assigns a task to IT, and they create an email account and the automated workflow adds the email address to the form. This eliminates manual steps and ensures that new employees can send and receive emails on their first day at work.

Information collected through DocuWare Forms can be used to initiate any digital workflow. Here are a few typical scenarios:

  • A major airline captures pilot job applications through a single form, including the attachment and upload of training and certification documents. The information and documents are automatically routed through a review and interview scheduling process.
  • A casino collects additional information about every contract through a web form then associates that contextual information with the contract at every step of the review and approval workflow.
  • A software provider uses one web form to capture all purchase order requests and uses that information to initiate downstream invoice payments. 

Electronic signatures speed process completion

Stylus and tablet signify that e-signatures are becoming standard in companies toda

Electronic signatures are being widely adopted in every business and industry. In-person interactions have declined since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and that trend is continuing. In addition, today’s e-signatures often have the same validity as the traditional “wet signature.”
The common types of e-signatures are simple, advanced and qualified. The level of security you need depends on what you’re using them for.  Signing a digital document with a stylus, as you would at the cash register in most stores today, is an example of a simple signature. An advanced signature is encrypted, with part of an electronic key only accessible to the signer. With a qualified signature, the identity of the signer is also verified with a certificate deposited with a trust service provider (TSP)

 Advanced and qualified signatures provide audit trails, encryption and other backend tools to ensure authenticity.  E-signatures are the key to ensuring faster workflows for everything from contracts to job offer acceptances and non-compete agreements. Your team will no longer waste time waiting for a customer, business partner or employee to return a signed copy of a document. 
Here's a quick look at these processes at work:
  • A document is sent to a stakeholder and requires a signature.
  • The user confirms their identity. This can be done via a TSP such as Validated ID or DocuSign or with biometrics that use finger or face scans or technology that measures how a person signs their name, including the shape and length of pen strokes and the pressure used.
  • The data that verifies the electronic signature is appended to the digital document.
  • The document and verifiable, trackable signature continue through the automated workflow to the next step required by the company for processing.
Business benefits include:
  • Better adherence to security and compliance requirements. 
  • The ability to remove paper — and all its associated costs — from business processes.
  • Improved support for remote workflows.
  • Better recordkeeping.
  • Instant document retrieval to support customer service, sales, HR and other departments.
  • Reduced errors related to data entry, filing and retrieval. 

Gain more value from your existing IT investment through integration 

Logo of Medicenter a company that run outpatient health centers in ChileAutomated workflow presents many opportunities for integration with the other systems in your technology infrastructure. A software integration project can enable one application to use another application’s data, or it may allow two applications to share data. For example, at Medicenter, which provides care to privately and publicly insured patients in seven outpatient health centers in Chile, DocuWare is integrated with its healthcare information system (HIS). The solution indexes and stores the documents and transmits information about the availability of specific records back to the HIS.  
Thanks to this complete integration, instead of switching back and forth between systems, users retrieve patient records directly from the HIS with the touch of a button. Medicenter can transmit documents to patients via e-mail just as easily. With DocuWare, Medicenter also developed a vendor-independent filing and communication system for medical imaging (RIS-PACS/ VNA). 
Document management software can integrate into almost any business application and link to business hardware like multifunction devices. For example, DocuWare offers high performance connector modules for Microsoft Outlook, SharePoint and SAP as well as integration with Sage, QuickBooks, Microsoft Dynamics and other CRMs, and ERPs. 
An Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS) is a newer integration method. It connects cloud or on-premises applications and keeps the data that lives in these systems in sync. Using cloud technology, an iPaaS like Make simplifies the setup of complex, custom processes. It is much easier for your team to build seamless data flows that work across applications dependably in near real-time using an iPaaS.  

Benefits of workflow automation in real-life business settings

Automating a time-consuming manual process  

Netherlands-based ETC Holland's logo. The company went digital with DocuWareNetherlands-based ETC Holland Solutions is a logistics service provider specializing in the transport of bulk materials such as polymers, PVC and animal feed. Today, orders, invoices and shipping documents are managed with DocuWare. Before the introduction of the solution, the company processed documents manually. Orders received by email were printed out, forwarded to the employee who handled the account and filed with the corresponding shipping documents. It was a very labor-intensive process that involved a lot of administrative effort.
Freeing employees to complete core tasks was among ETC’s goals when they implemented Docuware. The company wanted to make sure all orders, incoming invoices and transport documents were processed quickly, stored automatically. Other objectives included enabling drivers and customers to view documents and providing simplified access to information during audits. 
The DocuWare solution is a central digital archive in which all documents are stored, edited and routed for invoice approval and other business activities. For example, orders are scanned in the central office, saved in a watched folder in DocuWare and routed to the appropriate employee. The company’s drivers are equipped with tablets to scan associated bills of lading on the spot. They snap a photo, and the document is captured, indexed and stored in the system without human intervention. 
Staff at the main office can then immediately view and further process the electronic documents. Since the individual orders and freight documents sometimes must be retained for several years, depending on legal requirements, DocuWare also manages long-term archiving. 

A growing nonprofit reduces administrative costs  

Logo of DocuWare customer SmileTrain  nonprofit that has provided services to more than 1.5 million childrenSmile Train is the world’s largest cleft-focused organization, with a sustainable and local model of supporting surgery and other forms of essential care. Over the last 20+ years, they have facilitated safe and quality cleft care for 1.5+ million children. 
Smile Train integrated DocuWare with its accounting software to process invoices and other financial documents like vendor agreements and contracts electronically. To carry out its operations, Smile Train works with multiple vendors to purchase everything from brochures and t-shirts to software and IT infrastructure support for local partners. Before introducing DocuWare in 2013, the company used paper invoicing, which was a slow manual process. DocuWare digitized this workflow improving communication, efficiency, and accuracy. The solution enables Smile Train accounting staff to have an audit trail of approvals as well as insight into where an invoice is in the workflow at any given moment.  

AI technology speeds invoicing processing  

With a focus on automated financial operations, the Smile Train team relies on DocuWare Intelligent Indexing to speed up invoice processing. Intelligent Indexing instantly identifies the most valuable information on a document and converts it into usable data. Machine learning technology remembers each document and your indexing corrections, so every capture increases the speed, accuracy and reliability of the tool. When the invoice is imported into the system, Intelligent Indexing has already filled the index fields.  
Smile Train processes thousands of invoices each year and expects to handle many more as it expands its reach. DocuWare syncs with Smile Train’s accounting software making its processes more streamlined and efficient for 150 users.  

Glossary of workflow terms

Glossary written in brightly colored letters is the headline for guide to workflow automation terms

Business rules: Business rules underlie every workflow process. They describe company policies and procedures and can always be expressed in “either or” questions such as “yes or no” or “true or false.” For example, a business rule might say that if a customer is already in the system (true), they get a 10% discount. If the customer is not in the system (false) they get a 20% discount

Business logic: A software solution uses business logic to determine how data can be created, stored, and changed. It also determines how data is transformed or calculated, and how it is routed to people or software in the workflow. Business rules express company policy, while business logic controls workflow processes.

Proof of concept: A proof of concept is provided by a software vendor or consultant to narrow down what you’re trying to accomplish into three or four basic steps that give you a useful overview. You provide input about what should be added to customize the workflow. If you’re using eforms the structure of a form can be established including required fields and where the form data fits into the process before it is completed and archived in the document management system. It provides a chance to get an additional glimpse of how the process will operate within your organization and to make it as intuitive as possible. 

User tasks: Choices that a process participant makes to kick off the next step in a workflow.

Unattended activities: Inflection points where the software is programmed to route a document and add a task to a user’s work queue or move a document from a watched folder into a workflow.

Watched folder: Provide a way to move electronic files into a document management system without human intervention. System administrators can pre-set the path so that designated documents automatically move from the watched folder to the next workflow step.  
Web services: Web services are modular applications that can be contacted over a network to create processes. Web services are XML-based information exchange systems that use the Internet for direct application-to-application interaction. 

Start Now!

Colorful workflow diagram

Take these suggestions and start designing new automated workflows. You may want to bring in an external office automation professional — either a third-party office automation vendor or consultant — to guide the conversation about what is feasible in the short- and long term.

Jump in and automate your paper-based workflows. All the thought effort you put in on the front end will enable you to create workflows that fit your business needs without much additional tweaking. Your organization will also save time and money.

As Michelle Witman Controller at AquaPhoenix Scientific explains, “Our DocuWare system paid for itself once we were using it for accounts payable and quality control documentation. Our ROI improves every time we add a new process, such as our sales orders and invoicing.”

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