Workflow Automation: A Practical Introduction


Businesses around the world are investing in automation. In one 2020 survey, 66% of organizations said they were scaling the strategy across departments, fully automating one or more processes, or piloting the technology in at least one area. Companies that are late to the game may fall behind. The question, then, isn’t whether you should automate; it’s where to start.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is ideal for automating discrete tasks — moving data or managing documents, for instance. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can make RPA more powerful. But many companies gain the most benefit from automating entire processes, not just each step along the way. This requires workflow automation. It’s a key component of an end-to-end hyperautomation system, which automates not just individual tasks but the entire process, tackling complexity with AI. This may be your ultimate goal, but you can’t get there without addressing workflow. Here’s what you need to know about workflow automation — including how to begin.


Workflow Automation: A Definition​

To understand workflow automation, we can break it down into its component parts. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of workflow: “the sequence of steps involved in moving from the beginning to the end of a working process.” The same dictionary says automation is “the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically.”

Add a technology element to these explanations for a clear definition of workflow automation in a business context: Workflow automation is the application of digital technologies to manage — and often complete — steps in a business process from start to finish.

If you’ve read about hyperautomation or intelligent automation, this definition may sound familiar. There is a difference, but it’s a subtle one. Workflow automation emphasizes the business process management (BPM) component of any end-to-end automation system. It directs the process, not the task — and you may or may not incorporate task automation. Unlike intelligent automation, however, workflow automation does not necessarily use artificial intelligence. Rules-based systems can achieve many of the technology’s goals.

In short, workflow automation is about more than automating individual tasks. Processes include multiple steps, by definition. Humans or RPA bots may perform those tasks. Workflow automation software manages those employees and bots to streamline any process, step by step — with some powerful benefits.