What is workflow automation? Everything you need to know

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Businesses that have automated important functions are often the ones that experience the most growth and the most success - as well as having the happiest customers.

This may have been true for some time, but as we enter an age of digital transformation in 2020 and beyond, it gets even more valuable. As your business automates more, then business runs smoother and is hopefully able reach more customers, as technology becomes an enabler of automation instead of a constant inhibitor or roadblock to success. 

Workflow automation can adjust and adapt to technology trends as opposed to resisting the changes and improvements -  so here's our guide to the technology.


Before explaining how workflow automation is changing and evolving, and how it is impacting every aspect of a company, here’s a short review of how it works.

You could define workflow automation as the automation of any process that helps a company with human tasks, all file management, documentation and printing, and all data. The concept is intended to make these “transactions” between humans, tasks, documents, and data as fluid and functional as possible, while at the same time not meant to cause slowdowns in how a business runs. Workflow automation is always about speed and efficiency.

That said, workflow automation is a complex, yet critically important activity for any business, no matter which size. It requires a concerted effort to make sure automation fits the scale and function of a business, and the best place to start in understanding how that works is to pick an industry such as retailing, banking, or manufacturing as an example.

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Those three are all wildly different, so they can help explain how workflow automation impacts each area. In retail, for example, workflow automation might address the needs for compliance when it comes to handling customer data. A company might need to analyze its platforms and services to make sure they are in compliance with privacy laws, This might govern the workflow automation rules for printing out a customer receipt and which data is contained on it. It might govern how the company can use that customer data at the point of sale with loyalty programs, and whether that data can be shared with retail partners.

In banking, there are obvious questions with workflow automation that must be addressed, such as financial accountability and security. In many cases, workflow automation in the banking field is all about reducing the propensity for errors. When a task is automated so that it is efficient, secure, and predictable in a banking environment, it means there are fewer opportunities for data breaches and there is a higher likelihood that customer data won’t be compromised.

As a third example, think about the manufacturing industry. There are countless areas to analyze and track in this industry where workflow automation can improve efficiencies, such as the R&D process, engineering functions, and how technical documentation is stored and retrieved. There’s no question workflow automation can improve business functions.

Documentation may be the best example here. In any manufacturing business, there is a great need to store user manuals, document the engineering process, create help systems for software, and improve the assembly line. Workflow automation helps take the traditional and manual processes in manufacturing, such as printed manuals and digitizes and automates them in ways that make the business run faster and more reliably.

Of course, workflow automation impacts more business segments that retail, banking, and manufacturing. The medical field, insurance, government, automotive, and every other category imaginable will benefit from work workflow automation.

As mentioned at the outset, workflow automation should be nearly impervious to emerging trends. The best workflow automation is tied to company procedures and specific needs. As new trends emerge and evolve, the workflows do not need to dramatically or suddenly change but are designed to stay relevant even as global trends evolve. 

That said, there are obvious ways that workflow automation itself is evolving, and one important area to consider is artificial intelligence. As mentioned, workflow automation deals with human tasks, file management, documentation and printing, and data. In each of those areas, AI is playing a significant role because it can augment the activity of humans.

Take printing and documentation as an example. An AI can scan documents as part of a workflow for human resources, scanning for a signature. If the AI determines that a document has not been signed, it can alert managers -- which improves the workflow. With printed documents, an AI can track paper and ink usage at a company and automatically determine that the company is relying too much on one particular printer or copier.

An AI can even help automate resource management -- say, determining well in advance that it is time to order supplies from a vendor. In many cases, AI can improve the workflow and free human workers to focus on other less mundane tasks.

Another innovation that will impact workflows has to do with 5G service. In 2020 and beyond, 5G will become much more viable and prevalent in business. More and more devices, both used in the business process and the personal devices of employees, will benefit from 5G, which is more reliable and faster but also more widely available. 5G technology is also improving inside buildings and in offices, and more devices will connect to 5G.

The end result here is that, as workflow automation adapts to these innovations, the business itself is more equipped to deal with efficiencies and meeting customer needs.

The important point to make here is that AI and technology evolution go hand in hand with improving workflows. Another example of how this works is with innovations in printer technology. Modern printers and copiers use far less ink and tend to require less maintenance, so workflow automation might need to account for these improvements. 

That’s the main benefit of improving workflow automation -- as the tech landscape changes, workflows can then evolve and improve and, in the end, the ultimate “win” is that the business operates smoother and customers are happier.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.