The Past and Future of Workflow Automation

Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a drive to increase the efficiency of manufacturing and business procedures. Over the last three centuries, progressive developments significantly affected both the business world and society, while the digital age transformed the economy through information technology. The digital age also produced new concerns around the word “automation.”

Basic digital automation has been around since the 1970s, and with increasing awareness, the workforce understands that automation was created to help human workers, not overtake them. Let’s take a look at how automation has trickled down to affect daily workflow and is now empowering workers of any expertise.

The history of automation

In the 1970s, German-based SAP developed the first manufacturing resource planning software, standardizing business practices by molding prebuilt processes for better efficiency. Enterprises hired IT experts to code on top of the software to improve compatibility with their procedures, driving up expenses.

Over the 70s and 80s, businesses began using rudimentary automation, delegating monotonous, repetitive tasks and processes to machines, allowing humans more time for creative and high-value jobs. FileNet’s digital workflow management system (later acquired by IBM) was released, created to channel scanned documents through a predefined process.

During the mid-80s, digital workflow evolved into business process management, and IBM’s MQ series connected mainframes to pass messages between systems. However, BPM software was limited in integration capabilities, and personnel had to bridge information gaps manually.

In 1990 Gartner invented the term ERP, Enterprise Resource Planning, and by the mid-90s ERP tools could integrate and process data in accounting, human resources, maintenance, and customer relationship management, digitalizing enterprise data and processes on in-house servers. Time-consuming processes became simple and streamlined through workflow automation tied to ERP systems that were coded by internal IT departments.

The rise of the internet and cloud storage in the 2000s enabled companies to leverage ERP systems and business process automation without on-site servers but still required programming by IT experts. Workflow data from any department became transferrable over the internet to any device, regardless of location. Mobile technology empowered executives to participate in processes out-of-office and also allowed HR to procure talented remote workers.

Citizen development revolution

Instead of paying IT experts to build and maintain company-specific automated workflow software, organizations can now pay a small monthly fee for platform software. Apps come ready-made for processes in finance, human resources, and marketing and can be linked to existing software for seamless data transfer.

Employees from any department can create a custom form to begin a workflow through an intuitive, drag-and-drop interface. Next, tasks are assigned to other stakeholders according to the natural sequence or hierarchy, and viewing permissions are set for sensitive documents. In less than an hour, a workflow is ready for a trial run!

Anyone with minimal technical know-how can create an app, without writing a single line of code. What used to be a drawn-out, expensive process of software development in an IT department is now at the fingertips of any employee with workflow insight.

No-code automation is not only for small businesses. Thousands of enterprises run on legacy systems but are still processing data manually or have a limited number of solutions. No-code process automation software integrates with legacy systems for a smooth transition. 74 percent of IT leaders plan to shift application development to business units soon.

Benefits of citizen development for workflow automation

  • Improves collaboration — Department employees put their heads together to create their own custom apps. The more a team builds and uses these apps, the more they recognize ways to modify workflows for maximum performance.
  • Saves company time and money — Waiting for IT staff to develop solutions can take months and run up expenses. No-code applications bypass these issues, enabling employees to create solutions in less than a day at a cost affordable to any organization.
  • Increases efficiency — Requests and approvals are processed up to 80 percent faster than before. Integrated data keeps balance sheets and other import reports updated in real-time. Workflow performance is monitored, bringing to light any bottlenecks or problem areas that need adjustment.
  • Scales with business — Applications can be added, recast, or removed as needed, and the number of users can also be scaled up or down at any time.

Looking ahead

The mind-blowing rate of automation’s progress over the last half-century begs the question, “What’s next?” The sky seems to be the limit. While dreaming about tomorrow, don’t neglect the powerful solutions available today. Thanks to no-code platforms, automated workflows are within any organization’s grasp. Will your company reap the benefits, or stand by on the sidelines?

Suresh Sambandam is the CEO of Kissflow, the first unified digital workplace for organizations to manage all of their work on a single, unified platform. Kissflow is used by over 10,000 customers across 160 countries, including more than fifty Fortune 500 companies. He is an expert and renowned entrepreneur on a mission to democratize cutting-edge technologies and help enterprises leverage automation. He is also a part of Forbes Tech Council. Suresh is passionate about entrepreneurship, technology startups and spends a significant amount of time in the startup ecosystem mentoring young companies. He co-founded SaaSBoomi, Asia’s No. 1 & largest SaaS Conference.