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A Comprehensive Guide on Workflow Automation (What, Why, and How)

Think About It

Do you ever wonder how much time is spent every year carrying out administrative tasks? According to research on productivity and time management, 69 days are spent circulating information and managing files in an office. A report by McKinsey adds that solutions like workflow automation could save businesses $2 trillion that is currently spent paying people to do work that technology can handle.

Analysis of tasks that many people do in your office would probably reveal that removing human involvement would make it move much faster. For example, document automation saves legal firms 80 percent of employee’s time. That is how effective it is.

What is Workflow Automation?

Simply put, it is the use of set guidelines that influence the design, execution, and automation of processes. You may come across several other definitions, but in the end, they all center around the same things, predefined processes guiding the implementation of repetitive tasks.

Workflow automation is like a perfectly choreographed dance routine where each move is perfectly timed and the dancers move from one step to the next in unison. In comparison, a completely human-based work process is like people learning the moves of a dance routine, many are out of step, there are many mistakes, and it takes much longer to get to the end.

How Does Workflow Automation Work?

Someone or an organization thinking of integrating it into their processes would rightly ask how it works. The foundation for the functionality of this solution is built with proper planning and designing processes. For example, if you would like to implement document automation. You need to design a template for the particular document you wish to automate the template will provide guidelines for generation of that document with specified fields indicated and the template can then be approved by stakeholders so that the element of walking from one office to the next to have drafts approved is eliminated. In the end, when anyone within an organization wishes to produce that document, the software will guide the process from beginning to end, cutting out a lot of stages that would simply be time-consuming.

Why Is It a Priority for Organizations?

A Unit 4 study reveals that globally, nearly 70% of office workers would like their organizations to implement automation software because they believe it will make them more competitive. There is a demand for new ways of performing certain tasks within organizations, but demand alone will not justify why it should be adopted. Let us look at a few convincing reasons to ditch paper-based processes among other time-consuming tasks.

Better Productivity: When an organization assigns certain tasks to machines, it frees up time for employees to focus on other tasks that may need their attention more. The myth about multitasking has been disproved; no one can be more productive if they are multitasking. With automation, the machines will handle different repetitive tasks while humans concentrate on productive tasks like coming up with better ways to serve their clients and market well.

Client Satisfaction: Productive employees will serve clients much faster and there will be reduced or even no errors in service. Client satisfaction is achieved easier and we all know that to succeed in this competitive world, we need to work faster and impress more clients with our output. The risk of making more mistakes because you are trying to work faster is always high when human involvement is independent of predefined processes. This can be eliminated by automating workflows.

Maintains Standards: The best way to guarantee standards is to implement processes that ensure things are done the same way all the time. These processes make the outcomes predictable. If you have to adhere to particular standards, then implementing a workflow process will certainly help keep track of what is going on and any errors can be easily traced. Organizations can also hold employees accountable in case guidelines are flaunted. Employees, therefore, work more effectively.

Better Understanding of a Business: As an organization begins to implement it, a lot of coordination and communication takes place between different departments and individuals involved in the processes being automated. At this stage, a lot of information is shared about how different departments operate and a lot of new information is brought to the attention of business managers. Such communication is key in structuring organizations in ways that promote efficiency and collaboration between different departments.

Other reasons for workflow automation pivot around these four that should create incentives for organizations to embrace automation and predefined and approved work processes.

Key Workflow Automation Examples

Various industries implement workflows but how they are applied by different departments will vary. The way the sales department will implement workflow with automation is likely to defer from what the legal department or the IT department would do. Also, the type of industry and how it relates to the client will determine the kind of workflows they have to set in place.

Even though you will find certain procedures are common across the different examples, the particular processes that have to be automated will vary according to how often they engage in those processes. For example, all industries have an approval stage that may be added to the automation, but not all will require a signature for approval.

Let us look at some of the examples of workflows within different enterprises.

Sales Activity

You may picture the main sales activity as going out and talking to people, but there is a lot more to sales that requires automation. The nurturing of leads right from the initial contact to the time when they are closed as a client can be automated to ensure they do not eventually fizzle out.

An organization can set up an automation system within the CRM which will route leads to particular sales representatives and then help in making follow-ups like emails that have been standardized, analyzing progress through reports, and answering questions among other tasks.

Workflow automation CRM does not have to be complicated. A simple form on a website can be used to capture leads by offering monthly information about a subject they are interested in. Eventually, this information is channeled to a salesperson who will follow up on that lead even though most of the processes within the sales cycle will be handled automatically.

Document Automation for Legal Practice

Even though lawyers may try to be very thorough in their handling of business documents, they are still human and a few errors can be found in their work. This could be reduced by introducing automation into the process of creating documents.

Lawyers are tasked with drafting several documents and these take up a lot of time. Documents such as sale agreements, employee non-disclosure agreements, and other contracts can be automated.

Using document automation software, documents that need to be used often but usually have the same structure and fairly same content can be automated so that instead of creating the same document every time it is needed, the standard template of that document can be filled out and generated. The workflow process can be designed so that it is also forwarded directly to the concerned party for signing and thereafter archived.

This process also cuts down on the amount of time spent rummaging through files on a desk or in a cabinet looking for a particular contract. The file access procedure will also be automated and files can be found in seconds just as you do when looking for a document you typed on your PC.

Accounts Automation

According to an article in Forbes Magazine, accountants are the 3rd unhappiest professionals. Whether this is true or not, you cannot envy the number of work accountants has to put in to get their job done successfully. Hours of painstaking perusal of figures, reports, and graphs is not an easy task. But the load can be made much lighter by introducing automation.

Accounts records can be linked to a database that captures different accounts data and when a form or report needs to be filled, it will be done automatically with the help of automation software. Documents that need to be approved like expense reports can easily be routed to concern managers and once they approve the payment, a slip will be automatically generated authorizing payments.

Human Resource Automation

The processes and documents involved in running an HR office are numerous and yet these are repetitive processes. Think of some of the things that HR has to do, recruitment, onboarding, processing leave, retirement, and so on. The process here is usually the same and introducing automation to the process will make processes flow much faster.

Standard templates for documents like leave request forms, welcome letters, medical insurance information, and so on can be designed and stored in the system so that when they are needed, a few clicks would have them available and ready for use.

Automation in IT

The IT department would probably be the happiest adopting automation for various processes within their department. Ticketing systems for resolving complaints and providing support can be processed with every new request assigned a ticket and forwarded to the right person to handle and when it is resolved the ticket is marked accordingly.

Also, simple inquiries like how to execute different commands using new software can be automated either using an FAQ or a chatbot with answers to common “how-to” questions.

Even if a department you are part of may not be mentioned in this list, there are yet many more departments that could benefit from the automation. You just have to think of different tasks within the department that you think are being slowed down by poor execution of tasks and then figure out how automating some of those processes can make them more efficient.

How to Build an Automated Workflow

Planning how to build an automated workflow may seem a bit daunting, the simplest way to go about it is to break the process into smaller executable tasks. First of all, you should choose one process that will not cause disruptions as you get the hang of things. You should be able to wiggle through even if you make some errors.

Here are the steps you can take in automating workflow processes:

Make a Visual Workflow

Just like you would draw a plan for a house, your workflow needs to be drawn to understand it better and have a critical look at what it will be like. By doing this, you can see if a process may have been left out or if you have too many processes that are going to slow down the workflow. A flow chart would be the best way to represent your visual process with different colors and shapes to signify processes. There is workflow automation software that helps to draw the flow chart.

Collect User Input

The people who will be using the software must give their input because they understand the processes best. Having a form that they can fill and provide suggestions would be a good idea. Once again you can use software to collect suggestions from users.

Find a Tool

There are numerous tools you can use for automating different processes. It simply depends on what workflow you would like to automate. It is a good idea to review the options you have so that you can get the best-suited tool. You should also consider your knowledge of coding. If you do not know to code, it is advisable to choose tools that do not require such knowledge. The interface should also be user friendly. Remember automation is supposed to simplify tasks so the tools should be simple to use.

Define Success Using Set Goals

It should be standard procedure to have key performance indicators that will help define what success is. You list down the goals you have and then see if you have met them and to what extent. For example, you might want to see how much time is saved by incorporating automation into your document creation process. This would mean you measure the time it takes to produce a document using the document automation software and compare it to the time it takes without it.

As you define success, remember to keep your expectations realistic. You also should align them with user expectations, for example, the sales team may hope that by integrating workflow automation in Salesforce, they will be able to have sale agreements approved much faster. It will be a good idea to collect expectations from the different departments affected by the new process.

Try Out the Process

It would be a mistake to roll out the new automation process without carrying out tests. The people who will be using the software will need to try it out to see if it lives up to their expectations. If you have automated a marketing process, then have a marketing team try it out for some time and then give feedback. It is not uncommon for the testing period to reveal omissions. It is best to discover what may have been left out at this stage than after you have rolled out.

Launch the Automated Workflow

If the testing is successful, then it is time to introduce the workflow process to the bigger team. Training is likely going to be the first order of business to ensure everyone understands how the processing works and what is expected of them. Employees who already participated in the testing phase may be competent enough to train their peers.

Even after launching, you still have to keep a close eye on the performance of the new technology. The KPIs that you set will play a major part in this phase. You need to see if it is living up to your expectations. You may realize the workflow automation tools you chose are not able to deliver to your expectations and you may need to change.

If everything is working to your expectations, then it is time to expand the automation to other processes within the organization. But even still, you need to keep on evaluating performance.

Automating Document Generation

Documents are a common feature in most businesses and the generation of documents takes up a huge amount of time. This is why document automation is one of the first things most organizations will think of putting on the list of automation. The types of documents that can be automated range from the simplest letters to complex contracts with several clauses and sub-clauses.

The basics of document automation involve designing a template of the document that is to be automated. For example, you can create a standard introduction letter for new clients of a bank. This standard letter will have fields that can be filled to customize the letter. For example the name of the client and contact address.

Although the process of designing templates may seem lengthy, in the end, it saves time because the templates will be used for repeated tasks that usually take up time. Imagine the amount of time saved if you have a template for a 10-page contract and you do not have to pass it through the legal office for approval.

Despite the speed with which you can generate documents, you wouldn’t have to worry about mistakes being made because the software is programmed to get it right and to follow the processes to the dot.

Document automation software will integrate the process with common tools such as Microsoft word or excel so that the user can perform tasks within an environment they are used to. The workflow automation platform is also designed to look familiar or easy to navigate through.

Automation in Salesforce

Although Salesforce was designed to make the selling process easier, it can be made even better when you introduce automation. Less time will be spent on manual processes that could have been performed automatically, for example: setting up email alerts, giving quick responses to client inquiries, capturing information about leads and so much more.

For many organizations that already use Salesforce, they are not experiencing the full potential of automation in Salesforce. Some are not even aware that there is a workflow feature that can be used to set up processes and guidelines for the selling cycle.

Salesforce can also be integrated with document automation so that even more processes are automated within the program. Sales reports, projections, customer feedback and so much more can be generated and sent to stakeholders within a matter of minutes.

Conclusion

If your organization has been struggling with some of the common cons of manual execution of repetitive tasks, you probably have sufficient information now to fix that problem. There is no reason to sentence staff to endless management of paperwork when they would much rather be attending to the more interesting tasks that they were hired to do.

If you run a business that depends on a lot of paperwork, it is high time you looked at document automation as a way to improve efficiency. Most likely a few staff members have already hinted at how much they would be able to accomplish if there was a more organized workflow in place. If they haven’t, then you should surprise them with it and they will begin to love their work even more and your clients will love your organization twice as much as they do now.

So, are you ready to give it a try? Getting started as explained earlier doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start by automating a simple document creation process that is not process-critical and once you have perfected that process, take on another one. Speak to experts who can help in the process if no one within your organization may already know a lot as well. Embrace efficient ways of running your organization.

Tags Start & End

Tags Can Start & End Anywhere

Appendix B

.NET code for multi-page image output

Appendix A

Java code for multi-page image output

Data Bin Search

The Data Bin can now be searched to find a table, column, node or other piece of data without scrolling through it all.

Shrink to Fit

This will shrink the contents of a cell until it fits the defined cell size.

Time Zone Conversion

A new Windward macro has been added to help with converting dates and times from UTC time to the local time zone.

Image Output Format

New image output formats added.

PostScript Output Format

PostScript, commonly used with printers and printing companies, has been added as an additional output format.

New and Improved Datasets (Designer, Java Engine, .NET Engine)

Datasets have been re-written from scratch to be more powerful and easier to use.

Stored Procedure Wizard (Designer)

This works for all tag types that are connected to a SQL-based data source (Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, or DB2).

Boolean Conditional Wizard (Designer)

Before, conditional statements could only be written manually. Now they can also be built using our intuitive Wizard interface.

Reorganized Ribbon

The ribbon menus have been re-organized and consolidated to improve the report design workflow.

XPath 2.0 as Data Source

Adds various capabilities such as inequalities,descending sort, joins, and other functions.

SQL Select Debugger

SQL Select  Debugger

  • The look and feel was improved
  • Stored Procedure Wizard
  • Improved Exceptions pane

Tag Editor/Tag Selector

Added a Query tab as a field for typing or pasting in a select statement

  • Color Coding of Keywords
  • TypeAhead
  • Evaluate is now "Preview"

Rename a Datasource

All tags using that Data source will be automatically updated with that name.

Connecting to a Data Source

New single interface to replace 2 separate dialog boxes

Tag Tree

Displays of all the tags in the template, structured as they are placed in the template. This provides a simple & intuitive way to see the structure of your template. Also provides the capability to go to any tag and/or see the properties of any tag.

Added Javelin into the RESTful Engine

Support for Google Application Engine Integration

The ability to integrate the Windward Engine into Google’s cloud computing platform for developing and hosting web applications dubbed Google Applications Engine (GAE).

Additional Refinement for HTML Output

  • Improved indentation for ordered and unordered lists
  • Better handling of template header and footer images
  • Better handling for background images and colors

Redesigned PDF Output Support

This new  integration will allow for processing of complex scripts and bi-directional  text such as Arabic.  Your PDF output  will be much tighter and more closely match your template, and we’ll be able  to respond rapidly to PDF requests and fixes.

PowerPoint Support

Includes support for new ForEach and slide break handling, table header row repeat across slide breaks, and native Microsoft support for charts and images.

Tags are Color Coded

Tags are color coded in the template by type, making it easy to visually identify them.

Increased Performance

Version 13’s core code has been reworked and optimized to offer a reduced memory footprint, faster PDF generation and full documentation of supported features and limitations in the specifications for DOCX, XLSX and PPTX.

Advanced Image Properties

Documents can include advanced Word image properties such as shadows, borders, and styles.

Improved HTML Output

Windward has updated HTML output to reflect changing HTML standards.

Version 13 New Data Sources

Windward now works with a slew of new datasources: MongoDB, JSON, Cassandra, OData, Salesforce.com

Generate Code

The Generate Code tool in the designer allows you to open an existing template and, with a click of a button, automatically create a window with the code needed to run your current template with all data sources and variables. Simply copy this code and paste into your application's code in the appropriate place. You now have Windward integrated into your application.

You only need to do this once. You do not do this for each template. Instead, where it has explicit files for the template and output, change that to parameters you pass to this code. Same for the parameters passed to Windward. This example uses explicit values to show you what to substitute in where.

Pivot Tables Adjusted in Output

Any pivot tables in an XLSX template are carried over to the XLSX output. The ranges in the pivot ranges are adjusted to match the generated output. So your final XLSX will have pivot tables set as expected in the generated file.

This makes creating an XLSX workbook with pivot tables trivial.

Imported Template Can be Set to Match the Parent Styles

In an imported sub-template, if its properties for a style (ex. Normal) differ from the parent template's properties for the style, the use in the sub-template can be set to either use the properties in the sub-template, or the properties in the parent.

You set to retain when you don't want the child template's styling to change when imported. You set to use the parent when you want the styling of the imported template to match the styling in the parent.

Any explicit styling is always retained. This only impacts styling set by styles.

Tags can be Placed in Text Boxes

Tags can be placed in text boxes. Including linked text boxes. This gives you the ability to set the text in a textbox from your data.

Tags can be Placed in Shapes & Smart Art

Tags can be placed in shapes & smart art. This gives you the ability to set the text in a shape from your data.

HTML Output Supports Embedded Images

When generating HTML output, the engine can either write bitmaps as distinct files the generate HTML references, or it can embed the images in the HTML providing a single file for the output.

Footnotes & Endnotes can Have Tags

You can place tags in pretty much any part of a template, including in footnotes & endnotes.

Document Locking Supported in DOCX & XLSX

Any parts of a DOCX or XLSX (PowerPoint does not support this) file that are locked in the template, will be locked the same in the output.

Specify Font Substitution

If a font used in the template does not exist on the server generating a report, the font to substitute can be specified.
In addition, if a glyph to be rendered does not exist in the font specified, you can specify the replacement font. This can be set distinctly for European, Bi-Directional, and Far East fonts.

Process Multiple Datasources Simultaneously

If you need this - it's essential. And if you don't need it, it's irrelevant.

Windward enables you to build a document by applying multiple datasources to the template simultaneously. When Windward is merging the data into a template, it processes the template by handling each tag in order, and each tag pulls from different datasources. (As opposed to processing all of one datasource, then processing the next.)

This allows the select tag to use data from another datasource in its select. For example, if you are pulling customer information from one data source, you can then pull data from the sales datasource using the customer ID of the customer presently processing to pull the sales information for that customer. If you're interested in patching together your data from multiple datasources, read this post on our blog.

Genesis Abel

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Genesis Abel

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