What is workflow management?

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By Peter Hilton

A practical introduction in normal language

This article supplies yet another explanation of what workflow management is, because reading academic or technical explanations, or looking for some kind of official definition, isn’t going to help understand how to get started in practice. Once you have a practical idea of what workflow management is, you’ll be ready to understand how (Effektif) Signavio Workflow can help you realise its benefits.

Before getting too abstract, let’s start with an example of what workflow management is. For example, consider what’s involved in hiring new employees to join a company.

Workflow management by example

Hiring a new employee is an example of work done in an organisation that has a clear business goal: a new employee that has passed appropriate selection becomes a member of staff. To achieve this goal hiring managers, recruiters and HR staff work together on a number of tasks.

Hiring a job candidate requires a number of pieces of information, such as the candidate’s name and CV, and details of the job vacancy. Some tasks will gather additional information during the hiring process: who performed interviews and when, their individual evaluations, practicalities such as the candidate’s availability date, and the final decision to hire the candidate or not. This information must be captured, made available to the right people in time, and archived.

When an HR team or recruitment department is hiring a number of new employees, management will coordinate this work to achieve a number of goals. Management want to select high quality employees, at reasonable cost without avoidable delays, and to present a professional company image to all candidates.

When a candidate is eventually hired, at the end of the process, other IT systems may need to be updated. The vacancy on the company web site can be removed, and the new employee must be added to the staff database, possibly with records of the hiring process added to their personnel file.

This hiring process example includes most of the elements we need, in order to explain what workflow management is, in general.

What workflow management is

Workflow management is the coordination of tasks that make up the work an organisation does. By ‘workflow’ we mean a sequence of tasks that are part of some larger task, and is sometimes synonymous with ‘business process’. The purpose of a workflow is to achieve some result, and the purpose of workflow management is to achieve better results according to some set of goals.

Workflow management is principally a management discipline, focused on the structure of work within some organisation and how teams collaborate to complete this work. In principle, workflow management doesn’t require software, but in practice software tools are used to keep track of the work and to automate parts of it.

Workflow management is concerned with the work that people do, but tasks may also be automated and performed by IT systems – computer software. Workflow management can therefore include IT systems integration, in order to share data between workflows and other IT systems within an organisation.

The visibility of the work that comes with workflow management tends to lead to awareness of how to improve these workflows. Business process improvement is a natural part of workflow management. This is also one reason why workflow management is a management discipline and not just software: process improvement is about changing how people do their jobs, which is harder than reconfiguring software.

Workflow management systems

A workflow management system (WfMS) is software that supports workflow management by automating the parts of management coordination that are common to different workflows. In the example of hiring employees, a WfMS would manage the information about each hiring process and documents such as the candidate’s CV, and coordinate task assignments for recruiters, interviewers and other staff according to a  predefined hiring workflow.

A WfMS is intended to be a general-purpose tool that can potentially support any workflow. WfMS typically provide the following functionality.

  1. Graphical process designer for specifying a workflow, possibly using the Business Process Model & Notation (BPMN) standard.
  2. Forms builder for creating a user interface for entering structured workflow data.
  3. Document integration for uploading unstructured data in files.
  4. An ‘inbox’ that people can use to discover tasks to work on.
  5. Notifications that inform participants about changes in workflows, such as when a task is assigned.
  6. Access permissions that can be set-up to control who can do what.
  7. Reporting that provides overviews of the work in progress and completed work.
  8. Integration points to make systems integration possible.

This broad functionality means that a WfMS is a relatively complex software product. However, there is still a big range of complexity between the simplest and most heavyweight products.

Related disciplines

Workflow management is related to the disciplines of business process management (BPM), case management and decision management.

Business process management (BPM) is sometimes used interchangeably with workflow management, but it usually refers to process management by people who are principally concerned with business processes. For a purposes we can say that BPM is workflow management plus one or more of:

  • process mining – analysing historical data (event logs) for frequently performed patterns of tasks in order to discover unidentified workflows
  • process analytics – statistical analysis of workflow performance data
  • business activity monitoring – real-time monitoring of process execution
  • process optimisation – using numeric data about workflow performance to discover which changes improve this performance
  • business process reengineering – an organisational strategic approach to improving business processes.

Case management applies workflow management to unstructured work, such as knowledge work, to get some of the same benefits, with t constraining how people do the work.

Decision management involves capturing and automating the business rules that are used to make decisions as part of a workflow.

Why you should consider workflow management

Now that you’ve learned about what workflow management is, read on to discover why you should consider workflow management for your organisation.

This blog post is part of the Workflow management for beginners white paper.

Photo: Flazingo / CC BY-SA 2.0