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Manual tasks burden companies, leading to overwork, burnout, and unnecessary hassle. From constant notifications to updating data entry by hand, they're a real pain. Reports, dashboards, signatures, and other manual tasks contribute to the workload and stress, highlighting the need for digital workflows.

You’ll typically manage digital workflows using workflow management software

What Makes A Digital Workflow?

A digital workflow is a structured way to handle organizational tasks and conduct business process management. It removes repetitive tasks and stores the order of operations in a digital format, avoiding the need to have everyone remember all the steps and manual parts of it. 

It involves automating processes and tasks, using the right digital tools, and having a strategic plan to transform pieces or all business operations digitally. You've created a digital workflow when these steps are digitized and integrated.

Digital workflows are often part of digital transformation, which stimulates and drives business growth and leverages digital technologies to enhance operations, customer service, and revenue generation.

“Going digital” boosts efficiency, productivity, and profits while expanding reach to new customers and markets. 

turn manual into digital workflow
Here's an example of how you might turn a manual workflow (the one on the left) into a digital one (on the right).

Benefits of Digital Workflows

A global Harvard Business Review Analytic Services survey in June 2023 found that 94% of respondents highlighted the significance of digital workflow automation for their organization. A digital workflow automates the company's internal operations and business processes essential to doing business. 

Here are the benefits of a digital workflow:

  • Increased employee productivity: Digital workflows enhance productivity by streamlining processes, eliminating time-consuming paperwork, and enabling remote work, ultimately saving time and resources.
  • Reduction in overhead cost: Digital workflows significantly cut overhead costs and facilitate remote work, leading to tangible financial benefits. No physical office or material expense = cost savings.
  • Added data security: Digital workflows offer robust built-in protection, ensuring secure data and enabling easier detection of suspicious activity, increasing information safety.
  • Improved customer experience: Digital workflows streamline processes and minimize errors, enhancing customer experience.
  • Improved data visibility: Digital workflows enhance data visibility by automating reporting processes, which reduces errors and saves time. Many digital workflow platforms also provide customizable dashboards that allow stakeholders to assess key metrics and identify trends quickly. Integration with data analysis tools enables users to extract meaningful insights, facilitating informed decision-making.

How To Create A Digital Workflow Solution

1. Conduct a Workflow Analysis

The first step in any digital transformation in your organization is to evaluate the existing manual systems and ways to improve them. This evaluation, often called a workflow audit, is the essence of digital transformation. 

Begin by asking targeted questions to identify the workflow systems and business processes to automate:

  • What are the critical tasks within the workflow process, and which ones are supporting functions?
  • How much time is typically needed to finish each task, and are your teams handling them efficiently?
  • Is the workflow process recurring, necessitating consistency across various teams and departments?
  • Are there frequent bottlenecks or human errors within the process that add effort?
  • Do process owners and testers require enhanced transparency and visibility into each other's work to streamline collaboration?

Here are some examples of workflows that can benefit from digital workflow automation:

  • Document approvals
  • New employee onboarding
  • Customer onboarding
  • Product and project life cycles
  • Vacation requests
  • Financial tracking & reporting (sales, revenue, profit)
  • Marketing campaigns
  • Social media content 
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2. Map Current Workflows

In my experience, mapping out a company's workflows is a crucial step in digital transformation. It helps identify gaps and manual workflow areas. 

Work closely with the employee or customer who uses the business process or workflow most frequently. They can provide valuable insights into the steps involved and pinpoint the pain points due to a process's manual workflows or unaligned components.

Tip

Tip

Put in the work! Before involving too many stakeholders, it’s essential to complete the analysis in a way that demonstrates the benefits of digital transformation. Show the return on investment (ROI) due to increased retention, productivity, and potential cost savings.

This will help you gain support because digital transformation will require changes to the culture, and the stakeholders involved need to drive this throughout the company.

3. Prioritize Workflows Changes

My prioritization rule is that a workflow change should happen if the workflow is negatively impacting the company, employees, or customers or causing significant issues or inefficiencies. 

Here’s how to prioritize:

  1. Align with strategic goals: Prioritize workflow changes that align with the organization's strategic objectives and long-term vision.
  2. Consider urgency: Identify changes that need immediate attention to prevent further negative impacts.
  3. Involve stakeholders: Their input is valuable and integral to the process's success. Seek their perspectives and needs to ensure alignment and foster a sense of ownership in the digital transformation journey.
  4. Review regularly: The prioritization process is not set in stone. It's designed to be flexible, allowing you to continuously reassess and adjust based on evolving business needs and stakeholder feedback. 

4. Set Clear KPIs and Metrics

Determine key performance metrics or KPIs to gauge the efficiency of the digital workflow solution. These may include completion time, error rates, cost savings, and productivity levels.

5. Choose a Digital Workflow Tool

Navigating the selection process can be daunting, given the numerous automation software solutions available. Some popular digital workflow automation tools are Miro, MS Visio, and Decisions.

Let's examine how to select the most suitable software to facilitate the creation of digital workflows tailored to your organization's needs. 

  1. Align with the company's needs and objectives
  • Identify your organization's specific workflow requirements and goals.
  • Determine the features and functionalities essential for achieving the objectives.
  • Consider the unique aspects of your workflows, such as approval processes, document handling, and collaboration needs.
  1. Ensure scalability:
  • Evaluate the software's scalability to accommodate your organization's growth and evolving needs. Scaling shouldn’t compromise performance or require significant changes to the system. 
  • Consider factors such as the number of users, transaction volume, and workflow complexity.
  1. Assess the level of customization and flexibility:
  • Determine the degree of customization and flexibility the automation software offers to align with your unique digital workflow process automation needs.
  • Look for customizable templates, workflow automation options, AI workflows, and integration capabilities with other systems.
  1. Assess security, reliability, and vendor support:
  • Prioritize software solutions that offer features such as encryption, permission controls, and compliance certifications.
  • Evaluate the reliability of the software by researching its uptime, performance history, and user reviews.
  • Consider the level of vendor support available, including technical assistance, training resources, and ongoing updates and maintenance. Offloading or sharing the training workload with the vendor will ease the burden on internal staff.
  1. Perform a cost-benefit analysis:
  • Factor in the initial implementation costs, subscription fees, and additional expenses such as customization and training.
  • Present the ROI analysis to stakeholders to justify the budget allocation for the selected software solution.
Tip

Tip

Choose a tool early. If you perform this step earlier, you can map out your current/present workflows within the digital tool to save time when updating existing processes into a digital workflow.

6. Map Your Updated Workflow

You have built the current workflow diagrams, identified areas of improvement, calculated the potential ROI, and chosen a tool to create and update workflows. Now what? 

Start adding the steps to your digital workflow.  Ensure you add the following to your workflow design:

  • Process steps from start to finish
  • Inputs and outputs
  • Decision points
  • Tools, resources, and vendors involved or responsible for each step.
Tip

Tip

Reduce repetitive tasks. Use digital workflows that you’ve already created as templates for other workflows and just update them with new steps, resources, and other relevant information.

7. Update Automation Rules or Integrations 

You only need to add this step if you are implementing new integration or automation tools to move from manual to digital.

  1. Integrate new tools into existing ones.
  2. Create automation rules to remove manual efforts
  3. Update and training SOPs

8. Testing Digital Workflows

Conduct thorough testing of the digital workflow within the tool to ensure that it functions as intended and achieves the desired outcomes.

  • Test your software tools and systems, such as project management software and CRM systems, to ensure they support new workflows. 
  • Time it! Have people complete the workflow and measure it against the initial metrics to ensure the changes or new process automation has a positive impact.

9. Monitor & Iterate

Continuously monitoring and iterating on your new digital workflows is essential for ensuring efficiency and effectiveness.

  • Assess performance based on predefined metrics. Evaluate if improvements are possible and track the trajectory of cost savings and productivity increases.
  • Examine data entry from monitoring and feedback to uncover workflow trends, patterns, and inefficiency.
  • Pinpoint opportunities for optimization, automation, or streamlining to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Introduce iterative changes or updates to the workflow, incorporating stakeholder feedback and insights to drive improvements.

10. Document and Train

Document the new digital workflow design, including process diagrams, automation rules, and user guidelines, for future reference and training purposes.

Mistakes To Avoid When Creating Digital Workflows

Most organizations cling to manual processes because they need a transparent series of steps for digital adoption. The key mistake is assuming digitization requires a complete overhaul from day one. Here are some mistakes to avoid during your digital transformation.

1. Choosing The Wrong Automation Tools

Opting for a platform that lacks change management capabilities can lead to headaches. Processes evolve due to business nature, customer needs, and company growth, requiring a tool that allows for flexible management.

2. Automating Too Much, Too Quickly

Prioritizing workflow changes is crucial and empowering. It allows you to prevent spreading resources too thin, maintain focus, and avoid resource strain.

Understanding and managing your workflows can prevent integration challenges with existing systems, making your digital workflow management more streamlined and effective.

3. Failing To Consider The Humans Involved

Automation should always complement human work rather than replace it entirely. 

By acknowledging the human aspect in digital workflows, you're not just preventing employee burnout and resistance but also demonstrating that their well-being and engagement matter.

Let your team members know that their involvement in the transition process is crucial for the success of managing digital workflows.

4. Neglecting Training

Ensuring proper training for your team is essential to maximize the benefits of new tools and increase adoption and excitement.

Take the time to educate employees on how to use the tools effectively and communicate their benefits. Be patient and supportive during the learning process, as there is typically a learning curve.

The Time is Now!

For companies "stuck in old ways," embarking on a large-scale digitization project might seem daunting. However, with an effective digitization strategy, digital workflow automation can be manageable with lower overhead costs than anticipated. 

Investing in workflow digitization and automation saves money. It enhances agility and readiness to address evolving market conditions and other challenges. In summary, the benefits of this investment far outweigh the initial effort.

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Kelly Ostrowercha
By Kelly Ostrowercha

Kelly Ostrowercha is a freelance project management leader with 15+ years of experience successfully developing people, teams, and processes in digital agencies, small start-ups and larger corporations, with a people-first mentality.