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What is a Workflow?

Rob Vanderzyppe, Appian
April 7, 2022

When we talk about technology, we should try to do it in the simplest possible terms. But while we hear many CEOs and other tech executives preach this advice, it’s rarely followed—and the workflow software space is no exception.

Popular workflow lingo like hyperautomation, digital process automation, and intelligent automation all mean essentially the same thing: to digitize processes for efficiency, consistency, and compliance.

What’s the difference between workflows and processes?

You’d be right to think workflow and process are similar terms. Both describe a set of predefined activities that lead to an outcome, though some would say there’s a nuanced difference between the two: process is more holistic and workflow, more focused on individual activities. The terms have generally been used interchangeably, though—with the popularity of each rising and falling over time.

What is workflow?

Let’s break down what workflow is simply, a little bit at a time.

Think of workflow as a set of activities that lead you to a certain outcome. Take baking cookies, for example: To achieve your desired outcome, edible cookies, you have to find a recipe, go to the grocery store and buy ingredients, preheat the oven, make the batter, etc. That list of activities is a workflow and can be easily drawn out in something that looks like a flowchart:

You’ll notice the two swimlanes here delineating the roles of a human and an AI-enabled smart assistant device. One of the great benefits of mapping out workflows like this is that it lets you visually see where you can use automation to optimize.. One of the great benefits of AI is that it takes on some of the more monotonous tasks in our workflows (like ordering cookie ingredients or setting the timer, in this example) for us. 

Now, let’s transfer that cookie-making workflow idea into a business context. You might imagine a human resources team following a consistently ordered set of activities each time a new employee is hired: get the employment agreement signed, add the new employee to internal systems, ship them their equipment, etc. 

Organizational workflows can range from simple to complex. However, when you look at them holistically, even simple workflows tend to be more complicated than they appear on the surface. While you may assume that a process simply flows, “A then B then C creates D,” often, this isn’t reality.

Consider our human resources onboarding workflow example above. It’s quite an understatement to say that onboarding a new employee is as simple as getting an agreement signed, adding them to a system, and sending them a welcome package. There are specific protocols the finance team will need to take to ensure tax compliance, there are several corporate training courses that the new hire will have to enroll in, and there are entirely new workflows or subprocesses that person will need to take on for their job-specific training needs. And this is still just scratching the surface of all of the complexity that goes into what we may seem on the surface to be a simple workflow. And further, imagine all the additional workflows that come into play for onboarding new customers, partners, and vendors into your company. Ignoring any of these additional activities and not accounting for the full workflow would strain any organization with process inefficiencies and bottlenecks, ultimately leaving a negative impact on their total experience.

Hopefully, this is all starting to make more sense. To recap: A workflow is any set of activities that leads you to a certain outcome. This can be a business outcome, like order fulfillment or onboarding a new hire, or any other non-business outcome, like ordering food for lunch or cleaning the house.

How does BPMN fit into workflow?

BPMN (business process management notation) is a standard set of diagramming notations for describing business processes, and it’s how Appian visually represents workflows. BPMN is the common language used to draw out the flow of activities in a workflow. This standard nomenclature is easy to understand and helps all audiences, tech savvy or not, communicate and work together.

Here’s some of the basic BPMN notations:

To learn more, check out our BPM basics site.


Why are workflows important?

Workflows make up the backbone of your business. They are the operating rhythm that your company marches to and can even be your competitive advantage. Without clear workflows, achieving consistent, sustainable results is virtually impossible. And they are especially important in highly regulated industries, where workflows ensure consistent compliance with rules and policies.

design develop automate workflow management

Workflows also play a key role in the total experience of your organization (which describes the combined customer experience, employee experience, user experience, and multiexperience). Whether for interacting with clients, handling internal procedures, or following a click path in an application, we all use workflows to some extent. And your workflows significantly affect how your clients, employees, and other key stakeholders experience your organization.

It’s essential that you understand your workflows so you can harness and augment them. Even when you think there is no structure to the way you work, you’d be surprised to find out you’re probably taking repeating paths to get things done—and process mining can help you discover what those paths are. More on that below.

How do I understand my own workflows?

Whether you have mapped them or not, everyone uses workflows. Some are more organized than others, but everyone has patterns and tendencies for how they reach their business outcomes.

You might think you know how your work gets done, but studies have found there’s actually a lot of bias and inaccuracy in how you view your internal processes. This is where process mining capabilities come into play. Process mining tools use your systems’ data to automatically create a visualization of your current processes as they are actually being carried out. Process mining empowers you to use data-driven insights to find bottlenecks and areas where your workflows may not be being followed effectively, giving you the opportunity to optimize.

To learn more about process mining capabilities, check out our Process Mining Guide.

What is workflow automation?

Workflow automation is the pinnacle of process optimization. With workflow automation, you take repetitive activities or activities that follow a certain pattern, and automate them with technologies like AI, robotic process automation (RPA), business rules, and more. The key is to have a toolbox full of automation tools to use where they best fit—just like you need a drill to make a hole and a hammer to put a nail in a wall, for resilient and efficient automation, you need a complete set of capabilities. If you only have one—if you have RPA but not AI or business rules, for example—your ROI will be limited.

The idea is not to replace humans with workflow automation but to reassign them to higher value work that can’t be done by a bot.

Filing documents and copying and pasting data across systems is time-consuming and monotonous for humans, not to mention error prone. Software “digital workers” are both faster and more efficient than us with these types of tasks. Humans are better suited for knowledge work where decisions require higher levels of thinking.

How does low-code improve your workflows?

Low-code workflow software is the ideal orchestrator. Digitized workflows ensure consistency and reduce risk of error and most importantly—they’re faster. Low-code platforms accelerate workflow execution and creation. Low-code lets you easily design and manage human and digital activities in unified workflows with the flexibility to customize them to meet your specific needs.

For more on low-code workflows, including how to get started, check out our BPM guide.