The problem with traditional workflows is that they do not support the increasing inter-connectedness of business, with well-recognised results: leaving too many employees and teams working in their own bubbles and stymieing collaboration and information sharing.
It’s unfair - impossible, even - to expect every employee to understand the full impact of their work on the wider organisational workflow, yet the failure to do so can cripple a business.
If this fact highlights the fallibility of humans, it also demonstrates the important role that machines - or, more accurately, automation - have in improving workflows, securing wider business efficiency and achieving that longed-for ‘synergy’ within the organisation.
First, though, we have to recognise the problems that workflow management needs to address. One of the biggest reasons for the failure of traditional methods is that workflow continues to be seen as something that occurs within a single department, discrete from other business functions. Workflow is always important, but it is especially so in larger companies where complex and inefficient processes have a commensurately more costly impact on business operations.
Time for a new way of working
As we all know, business processes do not operate in isolation - any action has ramifications down the entire stream of operations. In the finance department, for example, issues such as payroll and purchase orders extend across multiple areas of the business, yet are only relevant to a certain number of people on any one team.
Workflows must manage these processes by making sure the right individual sees each relevant piece of work or data. Business processes should be standardised, but customisation should be an option where necessary to fit the requirements of specific projects and situations. This is where automation has an important role to play in helping organisations to define and refine processes and make themselves as efficient as possible.
Such technology is not always a standard feature of business systems, particularly those used by smaller players or fast-growing start-ups. The best approach is to use a single suite of systems for all business operations, supported by workflow to streamline and automate every process. However, many firms still rely on multiple systems that require manual processes to bridge the inevitable gaps, which is anathema to today’s push towards more connected working.
A structured approach to workflow
By continuing to use outdated workflows, businesses are risking their efficiency, profitability, agility and much more - all of which should be deeply concerning to management, shareholders and other stakeholders. There are also significant regulatory implications which the finance department will be all too aware of, from delays in submitting accounts to errors in payroll and potential audit issues.
What’s needed is a structured approach to workflow, supported by the right technology and approach. The first step to improving workflow management is figuring out the particular steps and processes associated with each activity. Every company generates, uses and stores a massive amount of information, and for workflows to be effective this information needs to be gathered in a unified, universally-accessible system.
These days, whenever a question involves data, the answer is usually “the cloud”, but cloud technology alone doesn’t make it easier to untangle the complex mix of processes that develop over time as a company grows. Modern workflows also require companies to build a completely new set of processes and identify where automation can be used to speed things up. The cloud provides a platform to do this successfully and work more flexibly.
A unified business system that runs across the whole organisation makes building workflows simpler by providing a single data repository and a single consistent system. But this is only one part of the solution.
Developing an entirely new set of processes is itself a heavily process-based procedure, which is why it is so important to choose the right partner with which to develop new workflows. As an example, here at NetSuite, we are taking an approach that builds best-practice processes into workflows as part of its standard software, so that users get a pre-configured business system that is tailored to deliver business transformation “straight out of the box”.
Regardless of how businesses approach workflow, their goal is a fundamental transformation in operations that will help them achieve the synergies for which management so often strives, but which have traditionally been easier to talk about than actually achieve.