We love thinking about the future of work. In fact, our whole business is built on that type of thinking:
- First, we took faxes online
- Then, we made electronic signatures easy (try it free!)
- Next, we opened up our tech through an API to let you get creative
- Finally, we extended functionality with automated digital workflows
And that’s what we’re here to talk about today—digital workflows.
You may recall our recent post 4 Pillars Of The Future of Work, where we shared an overview of how the modern office worker has changed and where her work is heading in the future. One of those pillars includes workflows—the sequence of processes by which work gets done.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the ‘pillar’ of digital workflows—we’ll cover the basics, talk about the benefits, show some examples, and close with how you can use them to reshape how you do business.
It’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
What Are Digital Workflows?
Perhaps we should clear things up a little:
- A “workflow” is the series of steps taken to achieve a goal or result.
- A “digital workflow” is that same process, but occurs on a computer or device.
- “Workflow automation” is when those processes are executed automatically based on rules.
We’re going to focus on workflow automation, because that’s where the future is headed. Actually, we’re already there. You’re likely using digital workflow automation every day.
For example, when unsolicited email bypasses your inbox and goes directly to your SPAM folder, that’s workflow automation. You didn’t have to see the email, open it, delete it, and report it to the proper authorities—all those things happened in the background automatically, and thank goodness for that. If all that didn’t happen automatically, can you imagine the added strain on your life? Your email volume would likely triple with a marked decrease in the quality of email you receive.
Automating the banishment of SPAM email to the depths of the Internet underworld is a no brainer, and that’s how automated workflows should be.
Digital workflow automation is not a new idea, and you’re likely using more than you even realize. When applied correctly, they can add business value in dozens of ways, but the true potential is in intelligent automation that allows machines to execute complicated, multi-step processes with very little (if any) input from the end user.
But before we give some examples of that, let’s quickly cover the benefits of digital workflow automation for business.
Benefits of Workflow Automation
In our blost post, Automation—The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, we covered a few ways automation can help, but also several instances where automation didn’t provide a lot of value. When done properly, however, the benefits to workflow automation include:
Save time. This is the most apparent benefit—tasks that used to take a bit of manual labor, no matter how little time, are now done instantly. It’s as if that time is just returned to you, something that is incredibly rare in business and in life.
Save money. See above. In addition to saving money through saving time, you can also save money through spending less on resources, not to mention actually using that time to make money money.
Provide a better experience. This is crucial for customer-facing automated workflows. If a customer signs a contract and has to wait a day for the salesperson to confirm receipt, then wait another day to receive all the onboarding activities, that’s not a great experience. If that all happened in a (carefully orchestrated) single touch, you have an opportunity to exceed expectations with a new customer.
Decrease repetitive processes like paperwork. One of our favorites here at HelloSign. In fact, we wrote a more in-depth post about this very topic: No One Wants to Be a Paper Pusher.
Reduce errors. Manual data entry, especially done at scale, will likely create a lot more errors than a machine. Humans are more susceptible to having factors like time of day, caffeine intake, hangovers, and overall level of skill affect their accuracy, while machines are purpose-built to deliver consistency.
Generate data. One of the unsung benefits of digitizing your workflows is that the data being generated is useful in so many different ways. You can use time of completion data to better allocate your employee resources. Or, if you’re using a system like HelloWorks, you can send the data being entered into your forms to various other software systems—ready to trigger a new workflow!
Digital Workflows In Action
OK, so the theory behind workflow automation sounds great, but what does it actually look like in practice? Here’s an example of how automated workflows helped Openlegal reduce administrative costs by 30-50%.
Openlegal’s value proposition to its customers is a lean law firm that operates at 30-50% less cost. In order to keep their margins, Openlegal had to ensure its administrative process was far more efficient than a traditional law firm.
eSignatures helped get the ball rolling for their clients, but the automated workflows integrated with with Google Docs and Clio meant that they could save time by not having to switch back and forth between applications—everything was right where it’s supposed to be without any manual effort like filing.
The State of Workflow Automation
There are three levels of processes in business that automated workflows can potentially affect:
- Strategic - Industry-specific, game-changing processes that affect the core of the business
- Operational - How each department gets its work done
- Manual - Daily tasks and projects for every employee at every level of the business
Currently, the majority of workflow automation happens in the operational processes section. There are hundreds of software vendors creating products to make tasks at this level easier and more accurate.
A huge opportunity lies in automating tasks in the manual section. If accomplished, this can truly eliminate menial tasks and allow people to focus on more creative ways to conduct their business. If your company has gone through a digital transformation, every task and process will have some sort of digital record, which will allow you to identify bottlenecks and issues at any stage in the process. Or, in a more futuristic setting, you may have artificial intelligence to give you prompts and suggestions about how to resolve those issues—or perhaps the machines might be able to solve them for you without any interaction.
As we mentioned earlier, the future is here—most companies and individuals are already using automated workflows to some extent. The real question is how far can you take it, and how can you use them to transform your business?