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Zen and the Art of Workflow Automation

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Credit: ShutterstockCredit: ShutterstockWorkflow automation is the use of technology to automate business tasks across multiple back office systems. The more an IT department can implement workflow automation for common business tasks, it frees up an employee for more mission critical tasks. It can have a profound influence on your IT department but the technology does come with its fair share of challenges.

MORE: Building a Business Case for Automation and Orchestration

Workflow Automation and IT Professionals

Hans de Visser, vice president of product strategy for Mendix, sees that the industry needs to support their customers with a combination of process and data in a manner where less technical developers can create workflows.

The benefit of enabling these citizen developers loose on workflow automation is that it can enable business units to iterate on their own workflows without having to get support from an already overtaxed IT department.

The digital transformation of businesses and the Internet of Things (IoT) also bring new data and workflow requirements to the enterprise. According to de Visser, these technologies are driving such a demand for new applications that IT organizations need new ways to put applications development and process automation in the hands of less gifted developers. To make do that, workflow tools are evolving to a state where less technical people get the proper building blocks and guard rails in a unified platform where they can developer their own workflow applications.

de Visser sees the beauty in this new form of workflow automation because it can all still be done under IT department governance. Mind you, IT architects are still setting the code of conduct for anything being built and the appropriate web services are made available to these developers because these developers won't be coding from scratch but using reusable services in the form of building blocks. You can make these corporate approved building blocks in an enterprise app store that your IT department curates.

Workflow Automation Challenges

Yaacov Cohen, co-founder and CEO of, advises that you really can't automate the decision about what's business critical or not business critical. Planning and human contact is still a necessity. There's a degree of planning in workflow automation that you don't want to dismiss especially if you have partners or other third-parties involved in the workflow.

Cohen points out that IT departments need to become more multidisciplinary because the workflow is expanding across multiple systems and as people are adding more and more cloud services making for challenge for the IT department.  He gives the example of a workflow encompassing Salesforce, Office 365 and Slack.

"I think that a challenge today is how do you deal with multiple systems and train your workforce to be more agile," Cohen offers. "You can't afford just to say, okay, I'm an expert in one thing. I'm a Salesforce expert, or I'm an Office 365 expert. As soon as you start dealing with workflow information you're going to need to have a more agile workforce which can test and adapt to all these different systems."

He also says, "The idea of automation is to lessen the burden on the human being. Then you need to keep the balance because you need to augment the human beings. You need to put the human at the center and make sure that as you're doing this automation, you're not taking the decision out of the hands of the business users. That's the danger of over-automation."

When asked about artificial intelligence (AI) and workflow automation, Cohen thinks some people are crossing the line, and they are diminishing the human intelligence and the decision-making which should be still made by a human person.

"For example, we have customers who are uploading 7,000 emails a day," Cohen says. "That's not a fun job to do. If you can automate, that's wonderful because this person can do something more meaningful. If you're trying to decide with artificial intelligence is this email business critical or not, you are what I call technologizing humanity rather than humanizing technology, and that's a really big issue today."

de Visser also notes that not thinking about data and how you are going to store it when designing a workflow is going to lead to challenges. You won't be able to get workflow automation above the level of forms routing. Another data challenge he cites is not nailing down the application functionality and persistent data model when creating your workflow. There are tools available that give you guidance and help with consistency checks while working through these workflow automation elements.

Workflow Automation Breaks Silos

Workflow automation is a foundational technology for digital transformation in the enterprise because, on the one hand, it's an opening for citizen developers to augment the work of the IT department. Implementing workflow automation also means evolving IT departments into more agile workforces managing diverse applications, a range of data, APIs and related requests pushing IT out of technological and cultural silos to get the job done.