Workflow Lab
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Workflow Lab

15 Features only the Best Workflow Management Systems Have

Workflow and business process management apps market is booming. It seems every business — small and large alike — wants to use smart workflow management tools to boost work efficiency.

It’s no wonder, given a great benefit everyone can get when implementing processes in their team, department or in a whole company. Efficiency goes up, employees’ stress levels goes down.

And customers are always a winning party — it is a long proven fact that well defined business processes results in more predictable, higher quality service.

In a recent 3–5 years number of available Workflow Management tools grown to hundreds. And to make all this even worse — hundreds more apps ranging from simple TODO apps to Kanban boards and spreadsheets — started to claim they are also a “workflow app”.

Some essential features are clearly missing…

So how would you not get lost and make a right decision?

Read on to learn which essential features any business Workflow (process) Management app should have. These features should define a baseline in your selection process.

  1. Agile process management.
  2. Basic workflow patterns.
  3. Approval workflows.
  4. Automatic tasks assignments.
  5. Automatic SLAs (due dates).
  6. Forms and tables.
  7. Team communications.
  8. Security and access control.
  9. Reports.
  10. Integrations.
  11. Customizable.
  12. Modern, fast, real-time user interface.
  13. Mobile-friendly.
  14. Have great support.
  15. Pricing.

1. Agile process management

You know, there are still some monstrous enterprise BPM tools somewhere around.

These apps which looks like Windows 3.1 is back.

These apps where you need to cancel and re-submit a request with 30 form fields just because you typed one word with mistake.

These apps where completed task is forever and cannot be, you know… un-completed.

Fortunately, modern workflow tools are nothing like that.

Agile workflow app gives you a greater flexibility:

  • Change running processes on the go — rename, change tasks, reassign work, delete steps.
  • Change tasks on the go — rename, reopen, reassign, even delete if you have to.
  • Change your decisions on the go — switch approved to rejected, reopen skipped optional tasks and branches.
  • Change process data on the go — fix data entry mistakes, edit form fields.

The more flexibility is provided the better, since you cannot expect your team to not make any mistakes. Agile tools will save you a lot of time and also prevent a great deal of frustration from need to re-do work.

2. Basic workflow patterns

Some very basic workflow elements are absolutely essential to properly manage common business processes:

Sequential tasks

Sequential tasks is a must-have feature

Working on tasks in specified order is the most essential feature of any workflow management app. Without support for sequential tasks it is just a checklist or a TODO app.

Why is it so important? Unlike project management tools and TODO apps, Workflow app will create tasks as needed and assign to proper employees.

Instead of having all three tasks (from a picture above) clogging your tasks list, you have only the first task. After the first task is completed — workflow app will create the second task.

This makes a lot of sense, since you cannot sign contract before it is ready anyway — so why add to your already long list of tasks?

Having only the right tasks, you can actually work on, in your inbox makes you way more productive. It also significantly lowers the stress levels for entire team from seemingly overwhelming amount of work on everyone's plate!

Parallel tasks

Pick any common business workflow, like planning a conference, and you will see that it is more efficient to do some tasks in parallel.

It is more efficient to work on some tasks in parallel

And since these tasks may be performed by different people, from multiple departments — it is important your Workflow app can manage this correctly.

Optional tasks

Some tasks are optional and should not be always performed. If you ever tried to automate approval workflow — you will know instantly what I’m talking about.

We don’t want CFO to approve all requests

Your Workflow app should support optional branches and tasks.

Loops

Loops are commonly used to create iterative approvals, when approver may request multiple corrections or changes to submitted work results.

Working on a marketing copy may require multiple reviews

Proofreading documents, reviewing illustrations or marketing copy, working on a contract drafts are good examples of when you need to create a loop.

3. Approval workflows

Approvals are so essential, it is best that your workflow app has great built-in support for them. From simple one-step to complex multi-stage and conditional approvals — it should support all these cases.

Approve or Reject — that is the question (Metatask)

4. Automatic assignment of tasks

A goal of any Workflow management system is to help you managing your work more efficiently. Creating and assigning tasks are two most frequent operations performed by a workflow management app.

Your workflow app should be able to support flexible tasks assignment:

  • Automatic assigning to a user
  • Automatic assigning to a department or group (using a work queue)
  • Automatic assignment to multiple users (using a work queue)
  • Dynamic assignment of tasks based on rules or a form data

Any workflow app should be able to manage business processes that involve multiple people and departments.

Work queues help you balance work load among people working in a same group. The idea is that new tasks are put in a queue for a department or a group and employees can claim tasks from the queue (and also put them back if needed).

5. Due dates and SLAs

Since workflow apps are used to manage repeatable processes, it’s not possible to set due dates for tasks directly. Every time you initiate a new process, e.g. submitting a vacation request — for all process tasks due dates will be different.

Workflow systems manage around this by supporting relative, dynamic due dates. For example a task may have a due date as “3 days after a previous task is done” or a “1 week after request is submitted”.

When task is done, system can set a due date for a next task

When you initiate a new process, a workflow app is able to calculate the actual date and set due dates for tasks.

6. Forms and tables

Forms are used in Workflow management systems to work with data. Data is a very important part of any business process. Information is provided, processed and used on most steps of a process.

Any workflow app should support a way to create a “value chain” — a flow of information between people in a process.

“Personal info” is used on a first step to prepare document. Document is used on a second step to collect signature.

In example above on a first step “Prepare contract” employee is using some data like “Personal information”. In apps this looks like a read-only form field with the needed info.

All information required to work on task is right at hands using form (Metatask).

As a result of working on task employee needs to upload a PDF with the contract. In apps it usually looks like a required field where document must be uploaded.

Employee must provide info using a required field (Pipefy).

Process forms may support many different types of fields, to capture and show different types of data.

At a very least following fields must be supported:

  • Text for entering short text, e.g. “First “Name”.
  • Long Text for longer text, e.g. “Newsletter text”.
  • Numeric for numbers with and without fractions, e.g. “Quantity”, “Interest”.
  • Money and currency, e.g. “Item’s Price”, “Total amount”, “Annual salary”.
  • Single Selection for picking one option from many, e.g. “Payment method”, “Type of leave”.
  • Multiple Selection for checking multiple options, e.g. “Allowed services”, “Skills”.
  • Date and time for picking date or time, e.g. “Start date”, “Departure”.
  • Files Upload for uploading files and documents, e.g. “Job Offer”, “Price Quote”, “Project specification”.

In addition to simple set of fields, process form should allow adding tables. Tables are used for many common processes in HR, Finances, Procurement, IT.

Think about even simple documents like Invoice or Travel reimbursement form — tables are used as part of form to capture various lists.

Table section in a form to capture expenses (Metatask).

A good workflow tool should support all basic field types and support adding custom tables into forms. Most essential is that you should be able to arrange a flow of information between all process participants.

7. Built-in team communications

Using workflow management tool will not help if you still need to rely on emails to discuss any issues around processes and tasks.

A good workflow app must support communications around tasks right where work is happening.

Employees should be able to comment on tasks and processes, ask questions, mention their co-workers, attach files, documents and images, etc.

8. Security and access control

Core business processes are usually tend to involve multiple departments. For example an “Employee onboarding” process may involve people from HR, IT, Accounting, Legal, and the department employee is joining.

Your workflow app should support controlling permissions and configuring access to form fields on a process level:

  • Define users who can edit, view, and use process templates.
  • Define which form fields are accessible by process participants. For example: “Annual compensation” field should be only available to HR and Accounting departments.
  • Define allowed actions with tasks, processes. For example you may want members of “Project Managers” to have full access to some processes.

9. Reports

It is very important that you have full access to all data stored inside your workflow tool:

  • Data about active and completed processes (when started, by who, when completed, how long each task took etc.)
  • Forms data (values of all form fields and tables).
  • Performance data (tasks or processes completed in a given time frame, process bottlenecks, individual users and departments performance, etc.)

Based on this data you may create any number of performance and KPI reports using convenient tools like Google Sheets. You can also keep a copy of data for audit and backup reasons, or export to other apps.

10. Integrations with other apps

Workflows are meant to glue together and direct work done by people, departments and other apps. It is important that you can leverage your other apps to participate in workflows:

  • Use e-signature app to collect signatures on contracts.
  • Save new customers to CRM.
  • Backup documents to Dropbox or Google Drive.
  • Create invoices using template in Google Docs.
  • Send emails using Gmail.

Good workflow app should support one or more means to integrate workflows with other apps:

  • Support Zapier.
  • Provide API.
  • Have built-in support for popular apps.

Ideally, you should be able to fully automate some steps of a workflow.

11. Customizable

Workflow app should be the place where all employees go to do work. Good workflow app should be customizable to make this everyday experience nice.

  • Support personal tasks, so that people don’t need to jump between 5 apps just to log a small one-off task for self.
  • Use your company branding — logo, website address, team name.
  • Respect your locale — support custom holidays, week start day, currency, interface language.

12. Modern, fast, real-time user interface

A good workflow app should have modern looking, easy to navigate and use, responsive user interface. And given it’s year 2020 soon — it should be a real-time too. Don’t settle for clunky UI experience!

Now last point may be not familiar to you — what does it mean “real-time”?

Simply put, user interface should update itself automatically without a need for you to hit “refresh” button to get latest updates. In other words — it should just work.

In modern cloud apps used by many employees concurrently, at a same time, it is critical you not miss important comment or a task just because you forgot to click on “Refresh” button 🤷🏼‍♂️.

13. Mobile-friendly

Yes, 50% of the work is done on the go these days. You should be able to check off tasks and check on processes status easily from your smartphone or a tablet.

A good workflow app should be mobile browsers friendly or have a native app for iOS and Android.

14. Have great support

You should be able to ask a question and get a meaningful response within 24 hours the most. Preferable within 1–2 hours. Faster is better!

Important part is that it should be meaningful, not some “please write email to our other team” or of a similar kind.

15. Right pricing

You should be able to add all your employees, contractors, temp workers and maybe even customers easily. A good workflow app should have reasonable pricing so that you not think twice when adding your whole team.

It’s easy to think you only need app today for 5 users, but what if few months later your team grows 10x or you want to add employees from other departments?

Conclusion

Modern workflow management tools are complex apps with many powerful features. Listed above are the most essential features that any capable workflow and business process management app should have.

Check out my other reviews to see how well essential features are supported in most popular workflow apps:

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Testing and reviewing modern BPM and workflow apps

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Justin Ng

Justin Ng

Workflows and BPM expert. Developer. CTO.

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