What is a workflow management system?
Workflow management systems (WMS) — also known as workflow systems (WFMS) — are software platforms that structure, manage, and monitor workflows. Workflow management systems offer a range of features and functions to control and automate tasks, workflows, and processes. Workflow management systems play a key role in process management and low-code BPM strategies.
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How does a workflow management system work?
The purpose of a workflow management system is to simplify the work of creating, modifying, and monitoring workflows and processes. Here’s a summary of how it works:
The WMS integrates with the components of the existing tech stack. This allows it to connect with data from other apps and systems, in order to provide a seamless user experience. Administrators control and assign access and permission levels to all collaborators in a particular workflow.
The WMS includes a visual interface from which permissioned users can model, modify, and monitor their workflows. Using a drag-and-drop menu, users define the start (trigger) and endpoint (outcome) of a workflow. Each step (task or activity) in the workflow is also defined. The workflows are typically viewed as a Kanban board or flowchart.
Once the basic structure of the workflow is built, users can customize the workflow to their specific needs. For example, a request management workflow may require a standardized form. Users add fields, rules, and conditionals to ensure that the form doesn’t enter the workflow with missing information. The conditional can also be used to automatically route the incoming request to the right person in the workflow.
As the request or work item progresses through the phases of the workflow, users add information or take actions that move the item to the next phase. Collaborators are able to communicate directly on the form so that a record of all interactions stays with the item.
Automations can be configured with a drag-and-drop menu to reduce process friction and the need for time-consuming, repetitive tasks. For example, if status updates are required, they can be automatically sent any time an item changes phases. Information in other systems can also be automatically updated. Document generation, item routing, and approvals are further examples of tasks that can be automated with a WMS.
Finally, teams need visibility into their workflows, both in terms of individual items and for everything in the workflow as a whole. The workflow management system gives users customizable dashboards and reports they can use to transform information into insights and drive decisions with data.
Why is a workflow system important?
Workflows are complex. They depend on a wide range of stakeholders, information, tools, and handoffs to produce a specific outcome. Many workflows require input and collaboration from multiple team members in different departments. Organizing and visualizing work at this level can be time-consuming, frustrating, and prone to errors.
As businesses evolve, workflows change and scale. New people, tools, and information are added to existing workflows, and entirely new workflows must be built to support new products or processes. Many workflows are interdependent, and this brings another dimension of complexity to workflow management.
Finally, effective workflow management depends on the ability to monitor workflows, mine them for data, and then use that data to create actionable insights. Workflow management systems provide the visibility needed to optimize workflows and drive overall business strategy.
How to choose a workflow system
Companies today have access to a wide range of workflow management options. Some companies may build their own platform internally. Others may rely on an assortment of apps and software. Increasingly, companies are choosing WMS platforms that bring a balance of structure and flexibility to workflow management.
One of the primary drivers of the move toward workflow management systems is the need to integrate and harmonize workflows across departments. Workflow management systems support these efforts by consolidating data, improving collaboration, and democratizing workflow management by making it easy for users to modify or build workflows as they are needed.
If you’re considering adding a WMS to your existing stack, consider the following guide:
1. Seek out low-code functionality
One of the most important features to look for in a workflow management system is low-code capability. Low-code gives business users (employees) a secure, IT-approved toolbox they can use to build, modify, and automate the workflows they understand best.
The benefit of low-code automation, in particular, is important: it allows teams to make changes to existing workflows or create new ones in real-time, in response to customer feedback, internal requirements, or competitor activity. And as the name implies, it lets users build their own automations as they need them, instead of sending each change request to the IT team.
2. Consider compatibility with current and future tech stack components
Tech stacks are becoming increasingly complex as new apps and systems are added and business needs evolve. Any workflow management system needs the capacity to integrate not only with existing components but also with the future tech stack. Look for software that can move data between systems and apps, and that accommodate all types of business processes. This is especially important for long-tail processes and emerging workflows that are needed to fill gaps between apps, systems, or departments.
3. Look for scalability
One way a workflow management system can accelerate digital transformation is by creating workflows and processes that scale easily. In order to do this, a WMS should be able to adapt to any type of workflow, in any department. By standardizing workflows, a WMS can make it easier for business teams to increase their capacity, speed, and accuracy. More consistency in workflows also makes it easier for IT teams to enforce security requirements.
4. Anticipate the need for strategic insights
Visibility into workflow performance is a must. Business leaders expect decisions and actions to be informed by data and based on results. Your WMS should make it easy to access (and control) your data so that permissioned users in any department can access information, such as time-to-completion and status reports. Reporting features should also provide a record of any changes and allow for easy communication among collaborators.
Look for a WMS that allows users to easily build customized dashboards and reports that track KPIs, SLAs, and other key metrics.
10 essential workflow system features
Below are 10 workflow system features that every company should consider as they explore their WMS options. These features give teams the control and visibility they need to optimize their workflows and drive business strategy.
1. Visual interface
The brilliance of low-code/no-code software comes from two of its defining qualities: it’s easy to set up, and changes to workflows or processes — as well as revisions to automations, rules, and reports — can be made quickly, without always having to send a ticket to IT.
No-code, sometimes referred to as “zero code,” gives users, managers, and citizen developers more opportunities to structure workflows and processes in a way that works for them. Using a visual interface simplifies building and modifying workflows. As a result, IT teams and developers can focus on other priorities, rather than a backlog of requests to make changes to the WMS.
Estimates of how much of our work can be automated depend on the type of activity. By one estimate, up to 12 hours of work each week could be automated for about 60% of U.S. employees. That figure represents a massive trove of time and money that companies could redirect to more important activities. Automating tasks with a workflow management system delivers four key benefits to the enterprise:
- Increases the amount of time available to focus on value-creating activities
- Significantly reduces opportunities for errors
- Improves customer/employee experiences by reducing delays and/or unnecessary steps
- Enhances collaboration by bringing consistency to communications and moving tasks through the workflow without additional steps
Look for a workflow management system that allows your team to automate tasks, keeps items moving through the flow, and lets you focus on more meaningful activities.
|A day and a half worth of activities can be automated for more than half of U.S. jobs|
Most teams rely on an ever-growing number of apps and software to manage sales, marketing, and business operations. Between communication tools, databases, CRMs, and other tools, a typical stack is a complex machine.
Workflow management tools should complement, not complicate, your existing stack. That means using a WMS that provides a seamless experience for users by minimizing disruptions and enhancing collaboration through integrations. For example, a robust WMS should be able to integrate with:
- Collaboration tools such as Slack, Zoom, SMS, Google Drive, or Outlook
- Sales and marketing tools including Mailchimp, Marketo, Shopify, and Salesforce
- HR tools like ADP, Docusign, Zenefits, and Workday
- Finance tools such as SAP, Oracle E-Business, Quickbooks, or Sage Intacct
- Social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn
4. Forms and portals
One of the easiest ways to bring order and consistency to any process is by controlling the data and information that go into the workflow. For example, in a sales process, it might make sense to require certain inputs (such as company size or contact information) before items progress through the workflow.
Forms can bring structure to the workflow by defining what information is included (or excluded) from the process. They also provide access points for external users, such as applicants for a job (from whom HR needs information before they can become candidates) or prospects (who can provide information that helps the marketing team decide if they are a qualified lead).
Forms can also serve as the starting point for new work items. Customers or employees can add requests or initiate new work by using a standardized form. External parties or non-users can add information to work items or initiate requests without having to go through someone on your team.
To make forms easy to find, they can be organized into portals so that internal or external users can find all relevant forms in a single, centralized location.
5. Workflow templates
Mapping and planning workflows take time. In some cases, it makes more sense to start with a template than to build the workflow from scratch. Templates can be especially useful for helping integrate workflows and processes to drive overall business goals.
A workflow management system that includes templates can be a game changer for growing companies. Businesses that are scaling, or that plan to scale in the near future, are likely to implement new processes and workflows to meet their growth targets. Templates can take much of the guesswork out of building these flows and add some guardrails to keep things on track as teams figure out how to modify the flows to make them more efficient.
6. Collaboration tools: notifications, shared inbox, and email templates
One of the challenges faced by every team is finding ways to keep work moving through the flow and avoiding backups caused by a lack of visibility. Automated notifications can raise busy team members’ awareness of items that require their attention. Notifications can be sent via email, SMS, or integration with other collaboration tools.
Another important collaboration feature is a shared inbox. For teams that deal with a high volume of emails, the shared inbox can make it easier to assign and track incoming messages across the team.
A related time-saving feature that a WMS can provide is the use of email templates. Instead of composing every email from scratch, a predefined template makes it easy to communicate with timeliness and consistency, either internally or externally.
7. Multiple workflow views
Spreadsheets and email are two of the most common tools used to manage workflows. One limitation of these methods is that they don’t always make it easy to visualize the way work gets done.
Business processes depend on a series of workflows, and each workflow is made up of individual tasks, so it can be difficult to get just the right level of detail in a visualization. A common goal of workflow management is to generate visualizations that provide direction and insight without overload.
Workflow management systems that deliver multiple views, such as Kanban or calendar, have a clear advantage in this area. They are able to present data for specific audiences so that users can see the overall workflow structure, handoffs between people or departments, statuses of each item in the workflow, as well as zoom into the individual tasks that contribute to a completed workflow.
8. Dashboards and reports
Visibility is a cornerstone of workflow management, and a WMS should provide easy-to-configure, no-code options for creating and modifying reports and dashboards.
Examples of useful reports include tracking time spent on requests, status reports, reviewing the types of requests received, and measuring productivity or other KPIs. Filters and labels can help you zero in on relevant information or combine data across multiple processes.
Dashboards provide a consolidated and customizable view of priority information regarding the workflow. They are especially useful for visualizing and organizing information so that it can be quickly processed and put into action. Integrations with other apps can create highly sophisticated dashboards that deliver keen, up-to-the-minute insights from multiple data sources.
9. Conditional logic and rules
To bring even more control to workflows, the WMS should allow managers to enable no-code rules and conditionals. This feature builds a structure within the flow that predicts scenarios, reduces errors, and creates consistent outcomes.
Conditionals guide the next step in the workflow depending on inputs. For example, if an employee is requesting time off, different approvals may be required depending on the nature of the request. A conditional will determine which types of information are required for the approval and then route the request to the appropriate party.
As businesses grow, processes and workflows become more complex. Workflow management in a dynamic environment requires tools that can evolve along with the business.
Whether that means building new workflows, modifying existing workflows, or orchestrating workflows to enable more efficient processes, a workflow management system should have the elasticity and capacity needed to help you scale your workflows and processes.
Learn more about workflows
- What Is a Workflow?
- How to Use Low-Code Automation Software
- Basic Components of Any Workflow
- Managing Workflows In a Hybrid Work Model
- Workflow Models: 8 Best Practices for Accuracy & Visibility
- Workflow Glossary
- Brief History of Workflows
- What Is Workflow Automation?
- What Is Workflow Management?
- How to Automate Any Process (or Workflow)
- How to Make Any Process More Efficient