In this report, we explore shifts in digital work and the major forces at play. We introduce the emerging category of Workflow Management and how it is uniquely positioned to solve growing challenges organizations face with modern digital work.
Knowledge-intensive businesses today are confronted by three trends that make effective management and operations problematic:
The drive to automate: We see an increase in efforts to automate as much of the activities surrounding knowledge work as possible now that low-cost and easy-to-use work management solutions offer the means to capture and automate business processes.
The desire for best of breed tools: Different groups within a company are involved in different sorts of work – like marketing versus programming – and these groups will naturally choose different tools to coordinate their own work unless directed to do otherwise. (And if directed to use a management-mandated tool, they might “go rogue” and use a preferred tool, anyway).
Siloing of operations: The first two forces mean that business processes that reach across these groups are fragmented among different representations in different tools. What is needed is the integration and synchronization of these fragmented business processes. That integration is necessary to gain visibility into what is happening in the different groups and connect the execution of cross-group processes. At present, many workers struggle with a collection of disparate tools that are mostly unintegrated, and managers lack understanding about what teams are doing what.
Work Management tools like Trello, Asana, and Jira have become a mainstay of knowledge work, allowing coordination of cooperative work in and across groups, but the three trends described above have led to the need for an additional layer of technology. We see the emergence of a new sort of technology intentionally designed to solve the tensions inherent in these three conflicting trends: Workflow Management.
Workflow Management solutions – such as Unito – are technology platforms intended to cross-connect the fragmentary processes within disparate work management tools and enable end-to-end strategic workflows. Workflow management amplifies the benefits of work management tools, supporting the organization’s need to balance the desire for specialized work management tools in different groups and the need for unified enterprise-wide management of workflows.
This integration approach allows work management vendors to focus on what they are best for: the work management solution finely-tooled for marketing can seek to be the best in that niche, while the tool that is best for software developers can concentrate on the needs of that group of users. Workflow management enables work management tools to focus on their strengths.
Figure 1: Workflow Management Enables Work Management
A workflow management solution provides these key capabilities:
Integration: Workflow management provides connectors that bridge information from one work management tool to another, relying on application programming interfaces (APIs), and cross-linking information across the tools in a two-way fashion, so the information remains in sync in both contexts. These connectors automate integration, so they operate in the background, without the need for humans in the loop, necessarily.
Design: Workflow management includes defining workflows across tools. It provides ways to visualize end-to-end business processes that would otherwise be understood only as a collection of fragmentary workflows, siloed in different tools in different parts of the organization.
Identity: Workflow management supports a unified scheme for identity across work management tools so that an individual has a single identity across disparate work tools.
Analytics: Workflow management can provide a higher-level analytics capability than the disparate work management tools can deliver and provide a deeper understanding of end-to-end workflows, more insight into people’s activities, and contextualized data from work management tools.
At the strategic level, workflow management enables cross-organizational understanding and a system of record for the status of work in process.
Workflow management can be contrasted with other approaches to automation, such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Business Process Management (BPM), and Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS).
Figure 2: Workflow Management Landscape
We see workflow management as an evolution of Business Process Management (BPM). Its software solutions allow businesses to define, execute, and analyze business processes across people, applications, and machines. Leading vendors include Pega, Kissflow, and Decisions. Business process management offerings have strong industry orientation and integration with legacy back-office solutions, such as in the insurance, banking, and manufacturing industries. They are focused on automating linear processes, like order processing, unlike the more dynamic and collaborative approach of workflow management. They are less likely to integrate with modern work management tools, which dominate modern workplaces.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) tackles another set of problems, working to capture processes as people perform them, and to create “robots” to perform the tedious and repetitive tasks so that people do not have to. Leading vendors include Blue Prism, UiPath, and Automation Anywhere. For example, robots can log in to an existing application, scrape information from that application’s screen, and paste it in a second app. Such an approach can be employed to copy-and-paste information. Depending on the approach taken by an RPA vendor, workflow management may be a competitor or an enabler.
Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS) is another category of integration and automation and is a term coined by industry analysts seeking to characterize the transition to hybrid integration frameworks consisting of legacy on-premise enterprise solutions with in-the-cloud applications. Leading vendors include Workato, Mulesoft, and Boomi. iPaaS relies on programming to connect the various enterprise applications. Integration Software as a Service (iSaaS) is a closely related approach, based on low code or no-code tools so that non-programmers can define integrations, but at the core, these are very similar. (We consider iSaaS an approach to iPaaS.) It is our view that iPaaS will quickly shift to become cloud-based automation platforms, as companies transition away from legacy and on-premises software. Other automation solutions – like Zapier and Tray.io – are also in the landscape. We feel that workflow management solutions can leverage these automation platforms to cross-connect to the thousands of enterprise applications on the other side of their interfaces with the knowledge work being directed through work management tools.
Workflow management stands in close proximity to locations where more of the work of the modern organization is taking place today. Workflow management counters the silos that have grown in myriad partial systems of record and brings them together in a way that modern work management tools, and legacy approaches, simply cannot. And workflow management can accomplish this without any programming since its service level architecture inherently provides that.
Workflow management is at an early stage, but the need for a way to cut across the confusion of applications that modern businesses rely on has never been greater. When a growing number of workers use a dozen or so applications every week to get their jobs done, and a growing proportion of managers feel that they don’t know what their teams are working on, it is clear that something has to pull the fragments together, shedding light on the company’s inner workings.
In the near future, we anticipate a major shift toward workflow management as the major driver of that needed integration, automation, and understanding for each worker, team lead, and the entire C-suite.
Stowe is a well-known futurist, visionary, researcher, blogger and analyst. His focus is the future of work, and the tectonic forces pushing business into an unclear and accelerating future. He has worked with small, medium and Global 2000 enterprises in numerous industries and with software companies ranging from small ISVs to large enterprises like Microsoft.
Stowe has been tracking the social revolution online since 1999, when he coined the term ‘social tools’, and starting blogging. Stowe worked as an analyst, and later lead analyst, for Gigaom Research from 2011, and as the research lead in social tools, work technology, and the future of work area since fall 2012. He served as head of Research for Gigaom from July 2015 to November 2016.
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