Today’s workflow software market is filled with confusing myths. In reality, automation has become affordable, easy and fast. Let’s clear up some of the worst misconceptions.
A workflow is an activity that someone in your organization performs on a routine basis to achieve a well-defined goal. Workflows are characterized by (i) a series of repetitive tasks and (ii) flow of data.
Common workflow examples used everyday across every business include purchase order processing, time off request approvals, travel reimbursements, and new hire onboarding.
Today, almost every business understands the benefits of automating these everyday processes. They know that talent is their most valuable resource and they don’t want employees to waste time on paper- or email-based processes.
Today, when we talk about workflow automation, we mean using software. But, which software and for exactly what purpose? Analyst firms and vendors have created a lot of confusion with terms [and associated acronyms] like Business Process Management (BPM), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Digital Transformation (DX), and others.
Customers have a wide range of options to choose from but it’s confusing. Here are some common misconceptions about workflow automation. Let’s try and clear them up.
Myth 1: Workflow Automation Is About Taking People out of the Process
We’ve been automating work for centuries. From farming to spinning cotton to word processing to electronic workflows, humans have been reaching for productivity improvements in every aspect of our lives.
The fact is, we’re still here and we’re busier than ever. To be sure, what we do has changed over time and will continue to change. We expect this change to accelerate in the future.
But, how many of us want to go back to manually ploughing fields or, to use a more recent example, squinting at maps on the side of a country road trying to figure out where we are? Today, machines do the ploughing and spinning for us, and machines figure out how we can best get to where we want to go.
It Creates Challenges and Opportunities
Undoubtedly, there are big challenges on the horizon. As employers seek out employees with the mental pliability for continuous learning, employees themselves must accept the “continuous retooling” of skillsets.
Employers and employees alike will need to adjust to work that gets done remotely by a mix of full-time and freelance workers. Throw automation into the mix for routine tasks and work gets increasingly sophisticated marrying talent and technology to achieve unheard of productivity.
The benefits to people are astounding. It means we get to spend our time doing more of the interesting, valuable and uniquely “human” things. We get to learn new things all the time and abandon tedious, repetitive tasks to the machines.
Teachers get to focus on students rather than paperwork. Doctors can spend more time with patients rather than forms.
In a typical business, it means that the procurement department can worry about better relationships with sustainable suppliers rather than chasing down a PO. The HR department can focus on attracting and retaining talent instead of ensuring that every single onboarding form is filled out.
Workflow automation, in short, empowers people to do more of the work that matters.
Myth 2: Workflow Automation Is the Same as Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
RPA hype is at an all-time high. Who doesn’t want robots? But, RPA is not the same as workflow automation.
RPA uses software bots to literally imitate mouse clicks and data entry that humans perform to interact with systems. It’s like an Excel macro for mainframe screens or web browsers. RPA automates individual tasks.
Workflow automation, in contrast, is about the overall process and not just individual tasks. It’s about better decision making, an improved customer experience, and collaboration rather than faster data entry.
To be sure, RPA has many benefits particularly for insurance companies, utilities and other entities with large back office / data entry operations. Yet, it has many limitations. It’s very reliant on the UI – a slight change to the UI breaks RPA. Ironically, RPA is also a long-term deterrent to modernizing the underlying legacy system. That diverts attention from strategic transformation with far greater potential benefits.
Workflow automation is certainly not an elixir. If the underlying process is fundamentally unsound, you’ll just end up with a bad process that runs faster. But, workflow automation is a strategic initiative – it frees up talent to focus on the important stuff, it digitizes data so you can deploy ML and AI technologies, and helps you bring your back office closer to the customer so you can deliver a world-class customer experience.
Automated processes may include an RPA component but the two are different.
Myth 3: Workflow Automation Is the Same as AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay. That’s because implementing AI solutions has the potential to boost profitability by up to 38%. While the terms automation and AI are often used interchangeably, the fact is that there are differences.
Automated systems follow preset rules; AI attempts to mimic human behavior.
Automation has many forms – the cotton gin separated the seeds from cotton without human intervention. It saved millions of hours of back-breaking labor. Modern assembly lines are a marvel of automation – machines are used to operate other machines resulting in unprecedented productivity gains.
Software-based automation isn’t even visible. Yet, it frees the humans from tedious, manual tasks. They may not involve physical labor (picking cotton) but they’re boring and repetitive. With automation in place, people can do the more interesting, engaging and valuable tasks.
Yet, workflow automation software essentially take a set of predefined and repetitive tasks that humans perform and does the same set faster, and with fewer errors.
In contrast, AI tries to achieve tasks by learning from experience rather than following a pre-set path. It relies on analysis of large data sets with machine learning (ML). That proprietary data is, in fact, largely generated by everyday processes.
Obviously, digital data is far easier to analyze and workflow automation is the driver. So, while automation is different from AI, they are linked by data. Everyday processes in your organization generate your proprietary data. Machine Learning software analyzes this data. Artificial Intelligence relies on this analysis to learn.
No wonder organizations are rushing to adopt a data-first approach.
Myth 4: Workflow Automation Is Expensive and Takes Months
Historically, BPM software from vendors like Oracle and Appian has been expensive and complex. These are often million dollar projects that take 6-12 months before anything is actually automated.
But, that’s no longer the case. Modern software like frevvo is amazingly affordable. Cloud-based systems often have no long-term contracts, start at a low monthly price and offer free trials.
It’s easy to start small and, in fact, I recommend doing so. Pick a process that involves multiple stakeholders and that employees perform reasonably frequently. Digitize this process and deploy it to a small group of individuals. In many cases, you can get at least a prototype working in just a few days.
After people have used it for a while, solicit their feedback. Users will tell you what’s working and what’s not. Once you have feedback, it’s important to actually go back and implement it. When your users are invested in improving the process, they’re more likely to adopt it.
Iterate in this manner and you might be surprised to find out that workflow automation is really not that expensive and doesn’t take months. In most cases, the ROI is amazing.
Myth 5: Workflow Automation Requires Skilled I.T. Resources
As we’ve seen, replacing manual processes with electronic versions is a critical business initiative. The good news is that it no longer requires scarce and expensive programmers.
Modern, visual platforms like frevvo offer solutions that anyone can use to automate everyday processes.
It includes capabilities such as:
- Visual form design.
- Visual business rules.
- Digital signatures.
- Visual workflow routing.
- PDF generation.
- Powerful integration e.g. SQL.
- Watertight security.
- Cloud and On-Premise deployment options.
- and more …
That’s a lot of stuff. How will you really benefit?
Citizen developers, who are not coders-by-trade, can use a low-code automation platform like frevvo to easily automate everyday purchase orders and vacation requests. That helps you bridge the I.T. skills gap even as a small company with limited access to skilled programmers.
Using frevvo, Central Wyoming College digitized their purchase order approval process in less than 10 days of work. It looks great, works on mobile devices, meets business requirements, and they didn’t need to hire pricey coders.
It’s hard to imagine anyone coding an app as sophisticated as this in 10 days.
Today’s workflow software market is rife with confusion. Should you worry about digital signatures or artificial intelligence? Robotic process automation or machine learning? There’s a lot to consider.
The facts are clear. In spite of all the hype, automation is primarily about people and what they do every day. Automation technology has been improving for centuries and will continue to do so. That’s a good thing – it means we humans have to deal with fewer tedious tasks and can spend more of our time on the interesting stuff.
Workflow automation is not the same as RPA or AI. They’re all connected technologies and each has its place in the business. RPA is a tactical solution for individual tasks. AI has vast potential but is still in its infancy. It also relies on digital data that workflows generate. In contrast, workflow automation is a strategic today-initiative that’ll help you perform better today and compete better tomorrow.
Finally, there’s no reason to delay. You can and should start small – pick a reasonably frequent process that involves multiple stakeholders, digitize it quickly, roll it out to users and iterate.
Modern workflow software is available in the cloud. It’s affordable, doesn’t require significant infrastructure, or big budgets.
It also includes visual tools that are very easy to use. In fact, anyone can drag-and-drop, point-and-click to design forms and route them around for everyday tasks.