I first read about workflow software in The Economist magazine in 1993 where it was presented as a stunning breakthrough in how organizations could get work done.
It’s instructive to reflect on this pre-Internet world where managing the flow of paper documents around the organization was a massive endeavor. What a different world that was!
The Economist was right that workflow mattered, and it is now embedded in many HR software solutions.
I was a bit surprised when I got a call from Jen Stroud from ServiceNow saying they specialized in workflow software. All I could think of was the CEO who had just bought an expensive new HRIS asking “Isn’t the workflow we need already built it?”
The need for a truly automated workflow
Stroud talked about a client suffering as they tried to manage 38 different HR in-boxes (e.g. one for dental benefits issues; one for vision, etc. … frankly, I can barely imagine what the other 36 were for, but there you have it). Rather than having an automated workflow, HR was relying on the proliferation of in-boxes to bring some order to their work.
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A lot of HR is like that, finding ways to get by with the tools at hand (email, spreadsheets, and word processing documents) rather than having truly automated workflow.
I suppose we shouldn’t really be surprised. The flow of work across an enterprise is complex, massive and ever changing. Enough workflows fall outside what existing HRIS applications do that there is a healthy niche for specialist workflow vendors. In particular where workflows, such as onboarding, extend beyond the boundaries of HR, a stand-alone tool may be needed.
And this is true not just in HR; workflow software may be needed in other parts of the organization. It’s worth considering if a workflow tool is something HR needs.
What is interesting?
- Any time a task is repetitive, it is a candidate for automation. Yet, HR departments are still steeped in repetitive or semi-repetitive tasks. Why is that? Can we fix it?
- A lot of workflow configuration can be done by HR without the need for IT involvement. That removes an otherwise crippling barrier to making widespread use of workflow tools.
What’s really important?
- HR handles a huge volume of documents, so it can really benefit from the right set of tools. And it will be a set of tools, not just one massive HRIS or ERP. A standalone workflow solution may be part of that tool set.