9 Must-Have Features of Workflow Management Software That Most Software Vendors Won’t Tell You
Prior to starting Orgzit, I used to orchestrate infrastructure ecosystem behind large and complex water and renewable energy projects. During that time, I had this preconceived notion that consumers of software had many options and choosing a software would be a cakewalk. Of course, that was novice thinking as nicely summarized in the article Why does having too many options make it harder to choose?. The article talks about difficulties in making the decision even on mundane tasks such as purchasing a toothpaste, imagine purchasing a workflow management software for your business – sounds nightmarish – doesn’t it?
As the non-tech co-founder of Orgzit, I had the privilege of testing and experiencing a large variety of awesome workflow management tools that seemingly were doing the same things. However, only after many discussions with users of workflow management software and painful hours of playing the ‘spot-the-difference’ game, I realized the two most important things:
- Not every workflow management software is the same, and
- Every company and team has some unique characteristics which make a particular type of workflow management software most suitable for them.
Google Trends reports for the term “workflow automation” clearly shows that in the last 10 years the popularity of workflow management and automation has increased steadily.
With more people searching for workflow management software and with more products in the market, I can only imagine the amount of time and effort that could be saved by sharing with you all my analysis and experiences.
In this article, I will try to share my findings and views in an as unbiased (after all now I do run a workflow management software company) way as possible with the hope that people who are looking for a suitable workflow management software for their business find it a little less daunting to evaluate and select the right software and do not end up spending timeless hours in evaluating multiple software or worse choosing a wrong software.
Let’s get started.
What Is a Workflow Management System?
Zach Messler from Appian aptly pictures this: You’re on a road trip, here’s what a Workflow would do – Guide you about the route you should be taking, things you should carry along for your trip, nice places to stop by on your trip, where you could gas up your vehicle, who should you call in case of an emergency, and when will you reach your destination.
You might reach your destination, without any of these planned details, but then you expose yourself to some risks that could affect you and co-riders (read colleagues).
Workflow management software is a digital system that ensures that a particular process in your organization is followed and executed efficiently. For example, nearly all businesses have standard workflows for repetitive tasks such as:
- New employee onboarding
- Recruitment and interview tracking
- Employee Expense reporting
- Leave and vacation requests
- Budget requests and approvals
- And many more.
Because these are generally standard processes, time consuming, and quite mundane that they become error prone and a drain on critical company resources. Imagine your top management multi-tasking every single day just to review and approve reimbursement or leave requests.
Talking to my friends and fellow entrepreneurs I realized that most of them were spending just an inordinate amount of time every day on repetitive tasks that obviously added zero to productivity. To get more productive and make the most of everyday, I realized that we all have to do things differently. This is one of the key reasons why it makes a lot of sense in simplifying and automating these process to save crucial employee mind and timeshare.
So in very simple terms a workflow management software essentially helps you establish and enforce your process workflows in a systematic, error-free and automated manner so that you achieve higher productivity and ultimately happier employees. At a meta level, every workflow management tool would help you do 3 key things:
- It will help individuals and teams automate repetitive processes and tasks.
- Reminds people if and when they have forgotten about their tasks so that things do not start falling through the cracks.
- The system should provide a comprehensive picture of the various workflows along with key decision-making metrics.
With that let’s straight away dive into what I think are the key features that you should keep in mind when thinking about streamlining your workflows.
Top Features Every Workflow Management System Should Have
1. Ability to run multiple workflows for your business
Every business has multiple workflows but it would not be fair to expect every business to have multiple workflow software! Hence, it is important that the workflow software is expandable and scalable for multiple process so that you are not left in the lurch looking for a new software for every process workflow in your company. This is one of the major reasons why many of the un-important long-tail workflows never get digitized in an organization and people continue to function with either manual or spreadsheet based processes.
The other important element of this aspect is the ability to make quick changes and adjustments to the configuration of the workflows. Teams and processes change as a company grows or introduces new elements into their business. For example, an online first company might be already using an e-commerce management order processing workflow software and might one day decide to open physical stores through franchises. For such a company if their existing workflow management software is not scalable to meet their franchise brick and mortar stores related workflows, the management would feel stranded and have little option but to run the new workflow in a separate software and thus increase the complexity and cost overheads.
2. Easy to use and configure
Workflow management solutions should be easy to use and configure, period.
In the age of software graveyards it is of utmost importance that the software that you choose is actually something that people in your team would love to use. We all tend to naturally lean towards software that has multiple features and are super powerful but really what is the true worth of features if people never want to use them. For example, I have seen many workflow building software that has excellent graphical workflow building interfaces, however, these are fairly complicated to use and maintain. On the other hand software products such as Trello have become extremely popular because of their simplicity and ease of use.
The ease of use factor also ties in well with the 1st point on the scalability and expandability of the workflow management software. Using many awesome standalone applications for every workflow could work, but the general rule of thumb is that using multiple applications directly increases the complexity and difficulty in collaboration.
3. Cloud and Mobile First Technology
Gone are the days where CIOs had to debate whether to opt for cloud or on-premise software systems. Now the discussions are more about primary interface points the consumers have with the technology – i.e. whether users interface with the product more on the laptops or their mobiles while they are on the move.
No matter which workflow management software you chose today, there is a strong likelihood that it would be available in both cloud and on-premise options. Most companies that I have interacted with are going for cloud hosting options due to numerous well-documented reasons, including:
- Increased security of cloud-hosted solutions compared to 10 years back
- Ease of getting continuous updates and maintenance support
- The overall cost of a cloud-hosted solution is typically much lower compared to on-premise systems
If you are a small or mid-market business, cloud hosted solution is probably the best technical and economical option. For large enterprises, the decision is typically dependent on a lot factors such as data security, internal process controls, integrations with existing systems etc, and the decision is typically dependent on the division/department of the business you are from and the sensitivity of the data/workflow. However, clear trends even in enterprise markets have emerged which clearly show that cloud hosting is quickly eating into the markets that were once ruled by on-premise solutions.
4. Integration with other software
Very few businesses today use only one software and it is not because that one software, such as large complex ERP systems, cannot provide the functionalities. Business users typically use multiple software and want their software to seamlessly interact with each other. For example, if you are using a popular messaging tool such as Slack and also an expense/reimbursement workflow management software, you would surely want your two systems to talk to each other. This is primarily because of the fact that most workflows don’t operate independently from other processes. Files, order processing reports, cash-flows, calendars, and contact details need to be easily interconnected so that you can smoothly run workflows without maintaining duplicate records of your data.
Software integrations used to be a nice-to-have feature for workflow management, but now they are increasingly becoming industry standard. The popularity and success of integration tools such as Zapier and IFTTT clearly suggest that having the capabilities of cross-party integrations is now a mandatory feature for every workflow management product.
If you are evaluating a workflow management software and find that it is not compatible or easy to integrate with other tools out there, it’s would be clear signal that you need to give your options a serious thought.
5. Access Controls are still important, perhaps for different reasons
While the world is getting flatter and a growing number of organizations adopt very high transparency levels, the importance of data security and access controls is still very much valid. Users typically need to control the privacy and security of the data in the workflows based on regulations and internal data controls.
Since some of your workflows may contain sensitive information that is not intended to be shared with everyone in the process, it is critical that your workflow management system allows you to customize what each user can see, edit or download etc.
Another reason that is frequently cropping up in our discussions with clients is the need to hide information that is not pertinent to a user with the objective of reducing clutter and information overload which tends to reduce employee productivity. Even small teams of 10 to 15 people are seen actively using access control features to reduce the information load on their screens and brains but successfully creating access permission based filters.
No matter what reason you might need the access control features for, it is clearly a very important feature that you should take into consideration.
6. Smart Reports
We all are well aware of the usefulness of the old adage – You can’t improve what you can’t measure! This holds true for your workflows too.
The workflow management software should be able to give you reports to draw insights into both your workflow processing data as well as the data gathered as part of the workflow. For example, let’s take the example of a Reimbursement Expense Management workflow. For this workflow, one should be able to see visual and informative reports for not just the expenses (such as expenses by time, type, employee etc), but you should also be able to get useful insights into the effectiveness of the workflow process itself – such as average time taken to approve a request, number of revisions required per request, workflow processes by every user and more.
A strong reporting engine in your workflow software will help you better design your information architecture, workflow sequence and eventually enable you to make good and well-informed business decisions.
7. Notifications When and Where You Need Them
As software automates your business, people become the weakest, but the most important, link the entire workflow. For example, think about the time when ATM machines were first introduced, it was a common belief that banks would soon get fully automated and no tellers or people would be needed in banks. However, contrary to this belief, banks have continued to hire more people than ever before. You can expect a similar phenomenon is shaping your business as well.
We all need a constant nudge to get work done! Gone are the days of reliance on post-it notes and even digital organizers.
With so many parallel activities and workflows, it becomes critical that the workflow management system stays on top of things. It should be able to track and notify what is important and urgent so that you can attend to work efficiently. Further, the notifications should be configurable and include features such as mobile push notifications, email reminders, daily to-do digests, pop-ups and more.
8. Multilingual capabilities
In an increasingly flattening and globalized world, teams are getting broader and more dispersed. Managing workflow processes for teams that are based in one office versus managing workflows for teams based in multiple countries can be very different. Despite English becoming the de facto global business language, software adoption is clearly higher when it is available in the native languages.
In this globalized world, it hence becomes important that your workflow management system has capabilities to work across time zones and languages.
9. Reduced Cost of Ownership
The total cost of software ownership is often underestimated!
When you are evaluating the various shortlisted workflow management software, the last thing you want to really do before making the final procurement decision is to estimate the total cost of ownership – you’ll be surprised how often the scales changes based on this factor alone.
Many factors go into computing the total cost of ownership of a software. The article on Calculating the total cost of software ownership by Chris Doig provides an excellent summary of the various factors that you should consider when doing your own estimations. There are many good web-based tools for estimating total costs of ownership, one such tool that I like is
Pick a tool that is upfront and won’t give you sticker shock when the first invoice comes through or when you start spending expensive human resources in training staff or managing the workflow software.
There are many workflow management systems that are changing the way the way people work. As you evaluate your options, keep the above factors in mind but always remember not to fall into the ‘features-rich’ trap, choose the workflow management software that you believe that would work best for your team.
Thanks for reading, I hope this is helpful. And if you have any other ideas or suggestions, please leave a comment.