What is Workflow Automation? Getting Started in 4 Easy Steps
Workflow automation is a method of expediting and streamlining document-based business processes to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and provide transparency. With automation, you’ll enjoy accelerated document processing times, fewer errors thanks to the elimination of manual data entry, and better accountability due to the visibility that digital tracking provides.
Workflow automation is also known by these three commonly used terms:
- Business process automation (BPA) is the automation of business processes, in whole or in part, where documents, information, or tasks are passed from one person to another for action, according to a set of rules.
- Business process management (BPM) is used by a business to contain costs. It consists of using workflow automation software applications and integrating them throughout the organization while minimizing labor costs.
- Business process outsourcing (BPO) is the contracting of a specific business task to a third-party service provider. Usually, BPO is implemented as a cost-saving measure for tasks that a company requires but does not depend upon to maintain its position in the marketplace.
- Robotic process automation (RPA), also known as RPA services is the use of automatic systems (or robots) capable to process high-volume, repeatable tasks, once solely performed by humans.
No matter how you define workflow automation, the key is that it helps you take control of your business processes and can help set you apart from your competition.
Why Automate Workflow?
Sluggish processing of critical business documents – like invoices, sales orders, human resource onboarding documents, credit applications, etc. – is threatening your relationships with suppliers, damaging your customer service response times, and slowing hiring times, negatively affecting your ability to attract great talent.
Pausing a process to fix a manual data entry error, like a dollar amount that was incorrectly transcribed into your ERP system from an invoice, causes delays, and ties up your cash flow.
Missing documents mean processes get put on hold until someone finally notices and fixes the information gaps.
Even though your business is growing, adding more staff to handle increase processing volume is cost-prohibitive and out of the question. You’d rather use staff for more critical work that drives business, like analytics and projections.
How to Automate Workflow
So, how can you get started with automation? These four easy steps will get you moving in the right direction:
1. Identify your pain points
The first step to finding appropriate automation solutions for your business is to understand the general issues holding you back. Think of yourself as a doctor diagnosing a disease; you need to know the specific ailment before prescribing treatment.
Below is a list of common business problems to use as a starting point as you work to identify the problem areas in your business processes:
- Employee inefficiency
- Data entry errors
- Chronic late payments
- Approval processes that get stuck easily
- Inability to quickly find documents in process
- Poor customer service
- Slow order fulfillment
- Slow invoice processing
- Stressful audits
2. Document your current processes
Once you know which processes are facing problems, it’s time to assess each one to pinpoint where it breaks down and help determine if workflow automation is the answer. To do so, choose one process and map out each step – it’s helpful to do so on paper or on a whiteboard.
As you move through, be honest and map the actual process, not the ideal process. For example, if it typically takes 72 hours for an invoice to be approved by Employee A and be routed to Employee B, you should record 72 hours for that step even if invoice processing was supposed to take 24 hours.
Once you’ve mapped out a process, you should be able to spot where the problems lay and start to decide which ones can best be corrected with workflow automation.
3. Be SMART as you set automation goals
Now that you’ve started to think about the issues you’d like to correct with workflow automation, you need a SMART plan for making that happen. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound – check out our blog post to learn more about setting SMART automation goals.
If you’re having trouble setting SMART automation goals on your own, there’s no shame in turning to a trusted document management provider for help. They’ll be able to help you set attainable goals by choosing the right automation solution to address your processing problems – automation solutions are not one-size-fits-all!
4. Take it one bite at a time
Remember not to try to solve all of your problems at once. Take things one step at a time with automation, making sure each implementation is completed and has documented results before moving onto the next one. We always recommend starting by automating one process (such as AP processing or your mailroom) and ensuring success before rolling out automation to other areas of your business. As with setting SMART goals, working with document processing services will make it much simpler – they’ll help tweak your workflows until they’re exactly right, then lead you through the process of rolling out the automation solution to other areas of your business when you’re ready.
Workflow Automation Examples
Different companies may require different levels of automation. Some may only need to manually kick off an automated workflow a handful of times a month. This is called an ad hoc workflow, which is a simple, manual process by which documents can be moved around a multi-user document management system on an “as-needed” basis.
Other companies will want workflows kicked off immediately once a document or email is received in the mailroom with no human intervention. This is rule-based workflow, which is a programmed series of automated steps that route documents to various users for review and approval. Management can more easily track processes, evaluate the productivity of employees, reroute documents for processing, and project future needs based on dynamic reporting functionality.
Automated workflows can be beneficial for many departments and applications within an organization. Here are just a few:
- Invoice processing
- Order fulfillment
- Expense reporting
- Outsourced mailroom services
- Employee reviews
- Time-off requests
- Benefit documentation
Finding the Right Workflow Automation Solution
Want to learn more about how business support services like workflow automation can revitalize your business? Download our free guide to the 6 Ways Automation Could Change Your Business for the Better