The Origins of Workflow Software

Once upon a time, a workflow was simply a feature of software products. In many cases, it didn’t even have a name. Often, “workflow” was simply a process map or flowchart without any additional functionality, added to another enterprise suite as an afterthought. Over time, customers demanded more workflow functionality out of their enterprise software. This gave rise to an entire software industry dedicated to workflow and business process management (BPM).

The Beginning

In the 80s and 90s, companies began to see the benefits of defining and refining their internal workflows. This gave rise to a whole plethora of enterprise software and acronyms, like ERPs and CRMs. These software programs were (and are still) veritable Goliaths, allowing users to perform a variety of actions from a single interface. However, this also meant that individual features, such as workflow management, lagged behind as enterprise software developed to include as many features as possible rather than improve existing features.  

The Challenges

This situation could not last forever. As more companies digitized daily business activities, suddenly the need to orchestrate multiple applications in one place became apparent. Enterprise software was unequipped to connect with other applications. Sheer size made it difficult to add customizations and integrations with other applications. To complete one workflow from end to end, users needed to log into multiple applications and physically coordinate with other stakeholders in the process. Therefore, workflows were doomed to remain inefficient.
Data was another problem. As companies began to digitize more tasks, the number of applications that employees used began to rise, meaning more data. Since each department had different needs and used different applications, data silos ended up appearing across companies. For companies that wanted to apply BPM techniques to improve workflows, having a way to effectively manage data in a central location to calculate workflow efficiency was a must.
The final layer was the need for business rules and logic to direct automated workflows from beginning to end. While enterprise software could adeptly automate individual tasks, both users and the tasks they completed were isolated from one another. This resulted in two main challenges. First of all, data and information could not flow freely, slowing down the time it took to complete tasks and creating data silos. Secondly, companies had to apply business rules and conditions manually because there was no way to digitally apply conditions to automate decisions. These two challenges meant that could not flow smoothly, resulting in bottlenecks and inefficiency.  

The Solution

The solution was a separate, more lightweight software that could easily connect to multiple external applications, store collected data in one database and automate workflows end to end. Thus began the existence of specialized workflow software. Finally, companies had the means to apply BPM principles to their automated processes to continuously improve workflows.
With workflow software, users could log in to one location to access functionalities from multiple applications. This was made possible with connections to both legacy software and newer digital tools. Therefore, a centralized location held all process data. Now, companies could easily calculate process and employee efficiency to find areas for improvement. Finally, the application of business rules and logic to process data combined with integrations to external applications meant that companies could automate workflows end to end.

The Takeaway

Although workflow software has developed to effectively automate workflows, the same problems that existed 20 years ago still exist today. Technology has proliferated to the point where users are logging into more applications than ever to complete their daily tasks. As a result, the need for workflow software to connect applications and gather data has never been greater. In the next few years, workflow software will continue to adapt to automate an even wider scope of business processes. Keep an eye on the workflow software industry as it evolves to provide solutions to a greater range of workflow problems.

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