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Workflow Automation: A Beginner's Guide

There’s a temptation to do routine tasks the way you’ve always done them. You may wonder if workflow automation is worth the investment. And your staff may be reluctant to take the time to learn a new way of accomplishing familiar tasks. These are some of the reasons that organizations are still using cumbersome paper processes. Learn more about the ins and outs of successfully creating automated workflows in this handy guide. It summarizes best practices, introduces you to the free DocuWare Process Planner 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

Dig into your business processes

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 identify key steps, bottlenecks and frustrations. When you’re designing workflows, you may also be able to do more than digitize your current manual processes by using it as a vehicle for improvement. 

When you walk through the life cycle of a document, 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 Should I Ask Before Creating an Automated Workflow?
1. What initiates the process — an email, a phone call, an electronic form, a paper form or a letter that comes in the mail, a walk-in?
2. How do you capture the information?
3. What’s the first thing you do with that information?
4. Where does it ultimately end up? Who’s involved in the process? Does the document require approval or review?
5. Where is the document archived? Locally or at an offsite facility (incurring monthly cost)?
6. When is integration with a line-of-business system or an ERP necessary?
7. Do you need to access documents and approve processes from a mobile device?

Visualizing processes with the DocuWare Process Planner

Diagramming workflow helps you spot breakdowns in the process and see where steps should be eliminated or added. Using the free DocuWare Process Planner, take the feedback from answers to the questions above and put them into a format that is easy to understand and share.

You don't need to have a technical background to use the Process Planner it's simple and intuitive. You can then collaborate on your workflow design with colleagues regardless of whether they use DocuWare. With the Process Planner, you can factor in ideas from your team and build understanding and consensus.

Invoice processing diagram
The Invoice approval process is clearly defined using the DocuWare Process Planner

Web forms amp up workflows

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

HR forms workflow
Eforms are easy to create with DocuWare Forms' intuitive interface

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 employee information 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 more scenarios:

  • A major airline captures all 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 document along every step of the review and approval workflow.
  • A software provider uses a one web form to capture all purchase order requests and uses that information to initiate downstream invoice payments. 

Definition of commonly used workflow-speak

Edit workflowYou can look at any workflow as being made up of user-initiated and automated tasks. Workflow tasks prompt a staff member to make a decision related to a particular document. For example, approving or rejecting an invoice. The system then performs unattended activities including executing automatic actions and data updates. In addition, a digital workflow may use email notifications and reminders, or employ web services to bring outside data into the digital workflow.

Glossary of workflow terms

Business rules: Business rules underlay every workflow process. They describe company policies and procedures and always can 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.

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.

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 3 or 4 basic steps that give you a basic 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 the form is 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.

Start Now!

Take these suggestions and start designing new automated workflows. You may want to bring in an external office automation professional in — 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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