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Tax & AccountingNovember 01, 2022

Workflow 101: what is workflow, exactly?

Workflow is an essential part of making sure that an organization functions at peak productivity while maintaining clear lines of communication. Without workflow, business processes can easily become complicated. Without the correct tools and technology solutions to uphold optimized business process, those complications multiply, breeding inefficiencies.

We’ll talk about how inefficient tools are productivity killers another day. Today, I’m going to break down the basics of workflow and automation.

What is workflow, exactly?

Ask the people around you what workflow is and you’ll hear words like “optimization,” “automation,” and “process improvement.” And yes, those are ways to make your existing workflow better, but none of those things define what a workflow is.

Essentially, workflow is a fancy name for the path a project takes as it moves from start through to completion.

The series of steps that comprise a workflow can be paper or digital, manual or automated – it’s still a workflow.

How do paper and digital workflows differ?

In a traditional paper environment, the workflow includes folders or papers that are handed from person to person. Each time someone makes a decision, adds or removes a document, or signs off, that step is part of the paper workflow, with the completed project ending up archived on a shelf in the filing room.

Because the project is hard copy, there is little opportunity for automation. The paper has to be manually handed from one person to another, and project updates have to be relayed manually.

Workflow can still be manual in a digital environment, or it can include some degree of automation.

Many organizations have digital workflows following the same steps as their physical one, manually moving the project from contributor to decision-maker and back. Documents are then filed in a digital version of the dusty file room. Though the process kills fewer trees, it is still highly reliant on manual actions to move the project along, and experiences many of the same inefficiencies as a paper process.

Moving to a digital workflow with some degree of automation usually includes the development of a standardized, optimized set of business processes that are then upheld by a workflow solution that enables productivity and clear lines of communication.

This is where workflow and productivity enablement solutions are beneficial – they allow organizations to create and maintain optimized, standardized workflows and route work through an automated system through to completion.

So what exactly is automation?

In a digital environment, automation typically refers to a business process that can take place with minimal, if any, human intervention. Automation often occurs through establishing and implementing a workflow and productivity enablement solution.

Working in an environment without automation can create multiple risks for the organization around information and communication, because:

  • Lack of clarity creates confusion. When project files are carried through the office or information is retained in multiple sources, information loses clarity and becomes disjointed. Data points such as review notes and client communications can be spread across emails, Post-it® notes, and voicemails, creating confusion and becoming difficult to follow.
  • Duplication and redundancies occur. When multiple people handling a project lack transparency into which items were previously addressed, redundancies and duplicate work can occur as they ask the same question in an attempt to clarify.
  • Outdated information reduces visibility. When status updates are requested, they often require data from multiple sources. The hours spent collecting and reporting on data points will often mean that the consolidated information is stale and outdated by the time it is distributed.
  • Continuity suffers. Especially in years when turnover occurs, year over year continuity suffers as the disjointed information impacts carryover, affecting the quality of work and customer service.

When workflow is automated, the need to manually move files throughout the office is virtually eliminated. This reduces duplicate work and creates clarity, making information available in real-time rather than on request. This means that more time can be spent on data analysis and strategic thinking, giving decision-makers in the organization time to plan for future-state needs.

In short, workflow is there—might as well optimize it! Moving from a manual, paper-based workflow to a paperless, automated workflow gives you the tools to regain valuable productivity time and create a path for information to freely flow between each person involved in the project and to decision-makers.

With that information at your fingertips, you are now fully equipped to make the decisions needed to position the organization in a future-facing position, giving your team the bandwidth to support those decisions – your new automated workflow has replaced their manual, labor-intensive processes.

Keep your eye out for the next post in our Workflow 101 series: Documenting your workflow.

Ready to learn more about workflow and productivity enablement? Attend an upcoming webinar to learn how workflow technology can transform your Business.

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Hillarie Diaz, Author for Tax & Accounting

As a content creator for Wolters Kluwer’s Professional Market, Hillarie focuses on a wide range of accounting and finance technology space topics. As an accountant who enjoys writing, she brings over a decade of accounting experience to her writing.

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