What is Workflow Automation, Really? First in a Series of “What Do They Mean?” Tech Term Breakdowns

You know you’re a tech geek when you see technology in the most unlikely of places.

I was flipping through the cable channels the other day and caught a few minutes of “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” the Pee Wee Herman movie Tim Burton made right before he did Batman. I watched the scene right when he wakes up and clicks the switch on this giant Rube Goldberg machine with pulleys and rolling marbles that ultimately wound up making his breakfast while he brushed his teeth.

As I watched this thing work, with the toy chicken bobbing its beak to crack the eggs and the lit candle burning the string to trigger the toaster, I thought to myself, “now that’s what I call workflow automation!”

Yeah, I’m a nerd, but chicks think that’s hot these days.

Anyway, my point is that sometimes we in the tech world will use seemingly esoteric terms to describe simple jobs — like making breakfast — that technology can do for us. Workflow automation is one of those terms. So, as part of an ongoing series here, I thought I might take a few paragraphs to demystify what workflow automation actually does, and how it can help businesses save time, save money and save frustration from dropped ball that happen every day in the normal flow of the workday.

By dictionary definition, a workflow management system is a computer system that manages and defines a series of tasks within an organization to produce a final outcome or outcomes.

Yeah, okay. Let’s put some examples on the line. When you go to the ER, they start you off by checking you in. They fill out a computer form with all your information, take copies of your driver’s license and insurance card and then click “enter.” What happens next? Well, first, a copy is forwarded to the ER administrator and another one is typically sent off to the insurance company and maybe one more is tucked inside a computer file with your name on it within that hospital’s data network. So, how does the document know where to go? Workflow automation software is the engine that sends that document to the appropriate places.

In some organizations, the software may send an email notification to a manager if something regarding the patient’s admission needs their attention. In that way, the paperwork — theoretically — doesn’t get lost in transit between offices.

One really good example of why we need more workflow automation and in more places is the way the federal Home Affordability Modification Program (HAMP) handles its applications. This is the government program designed to help homeowners reduce their mortgage payments to 31 percent of their income. Unfortunately, the program’s workflow automation doesn’t work so well. According to Consumer Education, a company that makes software to help HAMP applicants, many applications never get past the first step. For instance, the main HAMP office only has one dedicated fax line, and all the faxes are automatically scanned when they come in. Seems efficient, right? Not so much, because many applicants are not aware they need to place their account number for the application of EVERY PAGE of the document, so they all are sorted into the correct file. As a result, many applicants get the “we lost the paperwork” or “we never received your full application” response when they check on the status of their application.

A better solution would be to use a system that groups the faxes by using the fax number from which it was sent and the timestamp of the fax as the identification field. In that way, everything that is sent by that individual in that transmission is uniquely coded in one set.

See? Workflow automation sounds like a really good idea when you’re on the other end of the equation, right? So, put yourself in your customer’s position and your staff’s position when you think about how you manage workflow. Sometimes a simple piece of software that helps your people connect the dots can make all the difference.

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