No matter which corner of your company (or your couch) you occupy, you know that work is getting done. Plans are being made, invoices paid.
But how that work gets done is another matter.
The tasks and handoffs that make up every process inside your company are known as workflows. Take a closer look at those workflows, and you’ll likely see more inefficiencies than you think. An IDC report found that companies lose 20-30 percent of their revenue due to inefficient processes.
When workflows are poorly designed, there’s more than money at stake. Business processes turn into a mash-up of inefficient actions and crossed signals, and everyone involved ends up frustrated and confused. Managing workflows is even more important when “work from anywhere” is the new norm.
How can workers stay happy, organized and productive while working remotely on a variety of devices? They need a fool-proof way to manage workflows—also known as a workflow management system—built on the right platforms and implemented intelligently.
Fundamentals of a workflow
Core to any organization’s everyday functioning is the workflow. A workflow is a repeatable set of tasks that make up a work process, including the steps it takes to complete the tasks, stakeholders involved, and the conditions that determine how the workflow unfolds. The simplest workflow is linear; each step follows the one before it in a specific order, every time. But workflows can also have dependencies, meaning the workflow branches into different shapes, with the outcome of one step determining the next.
Here's a quick breakdown of the three components in a workflow.
- Externally driven → A customer uses a digital form to apply for a loan.
- Automated → The digital platform determines which loan officer to alert that there’s a new application to review, and sends the application into that loan officer’s email inbox.
- Internally controlled → The loan officer reviews the application, approves it, and sends it to the next step.
Not every workflow has all three types of steps. The simplest workflows typically focus on the internal, manual steps. But as processes—particularly digital workflows—become more complex, the three types, plus other parts of a workflow, must all work together smoothly.
Learn more: Read about workflows.
Most workflows involve human beings. These team members are sometimes called stakeholders or task owners. Part of workflow management is determining which team member is responsible for which step, and how they will pass along a task once they’ve completed it.
Example: In our loan process above, the financial institution's workflow might involve a customer, the lending officer, an underwriter, and perhaps a teller or manager.
When you have steps and team members, you also need rules. Conditions are the rules that determine when a step is completed. They can tell others when the workflow is ready to progress.
Example: A loan cannot be submitted for approval unless the customer uploads a driver’s license, W-2, bank statements, and the completed application.
Steps, team members, and conditions are all part of the formula of the workflow.
What is workflow management?
Most workers and managers have a general approach to organizing their work. Maybe they track project goals in a spreadsheet and then tick off milestones in a meeting each week. Even though this helps keep things organized, it isn't workflow management.
Workflow management maps out business processes into their component tasks, sequences, owners, and contingencies, coordinating all these inputs to best achieve a particular goal. That goal might be to publish a book, bring a new product to market, complete a sales cycle, or manufacture gizmos. In order to make the workflow more efficient, seamless, and successful, it must be well designed.
What is a workflow management system?
A workflow management system is the software or technology a team uses to manage all these mapped processes. A sophisticated workflow management system will use technology to automate certain tasks while relying on human input for others. The system ties all the tasks and actions together in the right sequence.
Example: Before leather jackets can go on sale, they have to be manufactured and shipped to the right place.
It also accounts for dependencies.
Example: If marketers can’t finalize campaign materials in two weeks, the sale deadline will need to move back.
The system also holds all relevant data involved in any process and sends notifications when something needs attention.
A workflow can be mapped out on a whiteboard or sketched on paper to explain how it might, theoretically, work. But a technology platform brings the process to life. It contains the data essential to putting the workflow in motion, like task descriptions, links to relevant files, task owners, timelines, dependencies, and conditions the explicit information stakeholders will use to execute their particular piece of the process.
The best workflow systems are robust, flexible, reliable, and easy to use. They enable various ways of viewing content—a calendar versus a running list of tasks, for instance. They can be easily shared by various stakeholders, ideally remotely and on any device. They’ve got built-in features such as commenting and notifications.
What to look for in a workflow management system
With the right system, you can reap many benefits that ultimately make your business more successful.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the entire workflow or process
It’s the nature of workflows that they expand and change over time. What started as a simple process of accumulated steps, tasks, and stakeholders can sprawl into an inscrutable, bloated mess. With efficiency long gone from the equation, everyone involved is just glad if they can get through it each time.
A workflow management platform lets you step back and see the entire process from a macro view, pinpointing roadblocks and inefficient steps in the process so you can redesign it. With a platform like Airtable, you can also embed files and content into a workflow itself so you don’t have siloed information located in different places. For instance, within a marketing workflow, you can include direct links to marketing assets so no stakeholder ever has to hunt for a file on deadline.
Tip: Use the Flowchart app in Airtable to turn your workflow process into a flowchart. It gives you a concise visual overview of the steps required to complete the process.
Establish more efficient processes
Inefficient workflows cost organizations time, money, and resources. When people are duplicating efforts, or repeating tasks because they weren’t in the right order, the workflow needs retooling.
By exposing these pain points, a workflow management platform lets you establish more efficient processes. The system makes processes smoother because it contains all of the information, in one place, that every stakeholder needs to do their part of the job.
Provide better transparency
In many workflows—particularly those with multiple stakeholders—information gets siloed quickly. In a marketing workflow, a copywriter may hold the keys to the Google Doc where the copy sits, but the designer has corresponding images in a folder on a personal drive. The project manager’s entire job is then checking in with each one to make sure progress matches on both fronts.
With more transparency into each working process, a workflow management tool would let the project manager and all other stakeholders see progress and access files with current information. In the end, both the designer and the writer can produce a higher caliber of work when they have insight into what the other is doing.
Make audits easier to perform
In any organization subject to audits—financial audits, invoice audits, content audits, or any other type—having all the information in one place is essential. Think of the IRS auditing a small business owner who spends days hunting down paper receipts and invoices from shoeboxes in the closet, versus one who tracks spending and revenue consistently and accurately in Quickbooks.
So it goes with any kind of workflow. If your process is subject to audits, a workflow management tool ensures you have easy access to information and reporting so you can easily share details with outside entities. It also allows you to retrace your steps and conduct forensic research into a process after the fact.
Save time and money
With more efficient processes, insight into all parts of the workflow, and easier audits, workflow management systems can save organizations a lot of time and money. Choosing the right platform and putting foundational elements in place makes success far more likely.
Features of a workflow management system
Here are some features to look for when evaluating a platform.
1. Easy-to-use design capabilities. The design of your workflow management system is critical to how effective it will be, so choosing a platform that’s easy to customize is key.
In Airtable, you can organize information for each of your workflows in a base. Within that base are tables for housing different types of information—say, projects, assets, and clients.
The content that populates tables and bases is stored in records, which contain every bit of information about a particular thing—say, a big project for a client.
Other platforms have different functionality, but the point is to land on a platform that will let you customize your workflow.
For a detailed instructional tutorial on how to design a workflow in Airtable, read the support article Workflow design: Design your base from scratch
2. The ability to collect details. Collecting information from internal and external stakeholders (or customers) is critical to workflows. For instance, when attempting to schedule a regular weekly meeting with a project crew or assign tasks for the month, you may need to poll individual stakeholders on their availability.
In Airtable, you can create customized forms and import that information directly into the system, which streamlines information-gathering. For example, your team regularly gets requests from other teams in the organization. Normally, putting those tasks on the calendar is managed by email. But by creating a form, the process can be automated. Requestors within your organization fill out a simple form, and their task request is automatically put on the shared calendar in the workflow management system.
Learn more about Airtable’s Forms with function
3. Cloud-based. For a platform to be usable and efficient, it must be cloud-based so that stakeholders can access it from anywhere, on any device, in real time. Cloud-based systems provide easier access while protecting content, preventing file versioning issues, and reducing duplicate content. They also eliminate the need for inefficient, insecure emailing of important information and files. Cloud-based platforms let every relevant stakeholder receive notifications when there are status changes.
4. Integrates with other productivity software. If your platform integrates with the tools you’re already using, it’s often possible to automate repetitive tasks through automation. Here are a few examples:
- Connect your platform to Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive in order to easily point to or access documents stored securely in the cloud.
- If social media posting is an integral part of your marketing workflow, you can connect your platform to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
- For customer support workflows, connect directly to Zendesk from your Airtable base.
Airtable also has integrations with Asana, Basecamp, Trello, Google Calendar, Gmail, and plenty of other apps to streamline your workflow—more than 1,000 in all.
5. Displays workflows in a variety of views. When multiple people are working together, they may have very different needs for viewing information. A project manager may need an overview of the entire workflow in both list form and calendar form, while people responsible for certain elements want to filter down to their specific tasks. Some people work best with kanban views. Others prefer a highly visual gallery view.
The flexibility in Airtable lets all stakeholders access the view and create filters that make their experience most efficient and rewarding.
6. Generates at-a-glance dashboards. The last critical feature in a workflow management platform is the ability to make reporting easy. Dashboards should be customizable and able to display all sorts of metrics. Consider the remote team (and by the way, we have a template for that). With a project dashboard, you can keep all remote stakeholders oriented within a workflow and give them a look at planned, in-progress, and completed projects.
These are a few of the features that make a system more advantageous for most teams. But to know exactly which features your team needs, take inventory of what you hope to get out of a platform.
How to determine what you need from a workflow management platform
Here are four questions to ask yourself before you invest in new workflow technology.
- Which features do you need?
We mentioned some prime features above, including the ability to integrate with tools you already use. But which features will be most useful for your particular industry or projects?
- How quickly do you need to implement the system?
Do you need to deploy a new system immediately, or do you have time to do some research into various platforms and how they might be used?
- How many users will need access?
Knowing how many people will be accessing your system—and whether that will scale up in the future—will help you determine which platform to use, for instance, a free platform versus one with paid “seats” for each user.
- Are there different pricing options?
Don’t forget to investigate whether there are tiered pricing options to make the platform more affordable and scalable.
Choosing the right workflow management platform for your business
It takes time to design systems that work for your business and teams.
Airtable is a single platform to orchestrate all of your workflows, regardless of how many teams, tasks, projects, and goals you have. A relational database in the cloud, Airtable uses individual records to populate bases and tables so that you can use the same information in multiple ways and view it in many ways, too.
With Airtable, you can design a base from scratch or take advantage of templates to build on best practices others have already established. You can also introduce workflow automation with Airtable’s many app integrations. Within any Airtable base you create, you can share and view tables with other stakeholders, or design a specific interface that gives them insight into their part in the process as well as transparency into the entire workflow.
Check out this four-part support guide to better understand how to design workflows with Airtable.
For a free trial version of Airtable, sign up today.