What is workflow automation?

Workflow automation describes the tools and techniques used to turn manual, high-touch processes into automated, low-touch workflows.
There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do them, and a great deal of business success depends on an organization's ability to identify and build effective business processes. Optimized business processes create reliable, proven steps for employees to take to avoid common errors, optimize cost-effectiveness, ensure regulatory compliance, and promote customer satisfaction. When these steps grow to include multiple, interconnected processes and participants, it becomes a workflow.

To understand workflows—and by extension, workflow automation—one should first understand the hierarchy of business activities. The most fundamental unit of work is a task. A task is a single assignment or even a single action taken towards achieving a business goal to be completed within a set duration of time. But tasks don’t exist within a vacuum; multiple tasks operating together create processes. And when processes are grouped together to achieve specific business outcomes and include multiple employees, they are called workflows. Workflow examples include:

  • New-employee onboarding
  • Authorization request
  • Document approvals
  • Help-desk tickets
  • Purchase orders
  • Customer-feedback processing
  • Objectives planning

Workflows unite interdependent elements—tasks, processes, tools, people, etc.—and can be extremely complex. Manual workflows often represent a major drain on valuable employee time and effort. After all, crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ (and then double checking them just to be sure) means less time for more-strategic activities. To help streamline workflows while also ensuring accuracy, successful businesses turn to process automation.

Process automation, also called business process automation (BPA), takes interconnected tasks out of the hands of human employees, and instead uses advanced digital technologies to automate entire processes and workflows. Process automation is at the center of workflow automation.

What is workflow automation software?

Workflow automation software is an IT tool that uses rule-based logic to automate manual processes, such as data entry. This software makes complex business operations easier to manage, boosting efficiency, productivity, and the overall customer experience.

Workflow automation software links groups of business processes, automating essential tasks, sequences, approvals, and more. In other words, essential workflows become self-driven, moving forward without having to wait for human action. This delivers several significant benefits for businesses.

It is said that employees are a business's most valuable resources. This is true, but only when those resources are deployed correctly. Employee time is finite, as is their ability to perform repetitive manual tasks accurately. When business workflows are fully dependent on employees, it can lead to bottlenecks, errors, and lost revenue. Workflow automation has the capacity to eliminate many of the risks associated with guiding connected processes to completion.

Some of the most impactful advantages of workflow automation include:

Increased efficiency

As mentioned above, processes are vital to ensuring that the correct steps are followed, and the right actions taken to achieve a business goal. Unfortunately, every additional manual step comes at the cost of time. The right employee must be notified that they are responsible for the next action in the process. That employee must then set aside enough time to complete the task and then reach out to the next employee in the line. And with every handoff and every action, time continues to tick by.

Workflow automation takes employees out of the equation at many of these key junctions. Handoffs are automated, immediately moving tasks forward in the instant that they are completed. At the same time, human input can be removed from many actions, such as entering data into forms, delivering messages, creating reports, etc. This allows for faster workflow completion, and improved efficiency throughout.

Heightened productivity

Efficiency and productivity go hand in hand. Freed from the drudgery of repetitive, time-consuming manual tasks, employees can focus more of their attention on non-automatable activities. Often, these include strategic and innovative initiatives capable of bringing in greater business value. At other times, workflow automation may empower employees to accomplish a larger number of basic tasks. In either case, the employee gains the ability to do more, moving the needle in ways that would not be possible with manual tasks monopolizing most of their time.

Management can likewise benefit from the improved efficiency offered by workflow automation. Many of the tasks and processes that depend on manager intervention can be automated as well—assigning roles, scheduling tasks, granting approvals, and more. Once again, this allows managers to accomplish more with their valuable time.

Improved accountability

Automated workflows not only help move projects forward to where they need to go; they also create a detailed record of where the project currently is and where it has been. With increased visibility into processes and workflows, no one involved should ever be left wondering whether vital tasks are complete, what stage of the process they are on, or which proverbial ball is in which court.

Workflow automation helps promote and enforce accountability across all levels. When everyone knows who is responsible for specific tasks and can see the status of the workflow at every stage, excuses and finger pointing become a non-issue.

Reduced likelihood of errors

Most people accept the fact that no one is perfect. Where this becomes a problem is when that imperfection manifests itself as errors. And whether the error is a misplaced decimal, a forgotten step, or a neglected security precaution, the results can be devastating. Human error in the US results in combined business losses amounting to multiple trillions of dollars, every year.

But where humans may falter, machines are capable of maintaining full attention and providing consistent results, every time. By adhering to pre-specified rules and methodologies, workflow automation programs provide unmatched accuracy. Even those tasks that require complex thought may benefit from workflow automation, thanks to advances in AI-based intelligent automation.

Enhanced customer experience

Accomplishing more in less time and with fewer errors—each of these benefits ties directly back into the primary advantage of workflow automation: A better experience for the customer. It’s not difficult to see why.

Error-prone, slow-moving processes create delays in service and product deliveries. They lead to ineffective service and support. They leave the clientele feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. Workflow automation eliminates many of these issues, optimizing business processes in ways that directly and indirectly benefit buyers.

Although workflow automation incorporates some extremely complex technologies, at its heart, it tends to rely on conditional rules for determining when and how to trigger a new task or process. Using pre-determined if/then statements (such as “if a customer clicks the ‘talk to an agent’ button on a website, then an automated notification is sent to the corresponding salesperson”), the automated system keeps the processes moving forward in the correct direction. These processes can also include branches which shift between different paths depending on the actions taken by employees and other stakeholders within the workflow.

Making the transition between manual and automated workflows relies heavily on understanding the distinction between tasks, processes, and workflows. To begin making the transition to automated workflows, businesses should start by auditing their existing business processes. After the audits are complete, they then need to establish the logic for how those processes can be automated to form digital workflows.

To create an automated workflow, set up a series of automatic processes using defined rules to route tasks, files, or data between systems or individuals. The easiest way to do this is through an IT tool, such as workflow automation and digitization software. Low-code platforms are also essential tools for establishing effective workflow automation, allowing organizations to create custom software and applications for managing their processes.

Wherever workflows are used, workflow automation stands to optimize the work and streamline the processes for greater efficiency, productivity, and accuracy. As such, most teams and departments can benefit from workflow automation. Here are several examples of how various teams employ workflow automation:


Workflow automation handles time-consuming lead management tasks, such as adding or removing leads from the sales pipeline, advancing leads through the pipeline in response to specific actions, sending pre-written sales emails, and triggering other tasks based on customer and team actions. Many sales teams rely on customer relationship management (CRM) systems for their workflow automation needs, while others go beyond CRM, bringing together sales, marketing, and other departments by employing advanced customer service management (CSM).


Many of the tasks associated with effective marketing can be extremely repetitive, making it well suited for workflow automation. Posting updates on social media, creating and sending marketing emails, and automatically adding users to drip campaigns when they access gated resources are all workflow automation use cases in marketing.

Human resources

A primary mandate of human resources departments is to create and support a positive employee experience, which can be difficult when employee processes are overly complex or time consuming. Workflow automation helps employees easily navigate these processes, providing assistance in signing up for and accessing benefits, guiding new hires through onboarding, and automating document submission. Additionally, workflow automation assists HR teams in managing and guiding potential hires.


When a company’s information technology is at stake, there is a lot riding on finding a resolution. IT departments can use workflow automation to manage IT support tickets, automatically assigning agents, tracking statuses, and confirming updates—all without the risk of creating duplicate cases.

Customer service

Workflow automation bridges the gaps between customers and customer service agents. Emails can be automatically created and sent to help onboard new clients, customers can be added to individual campaigns based on their purchases, support tickets can be created and prioritized based on relevant factors, and satisfaction surveys can be shared to help generate valuable customer feedback.

Once processes are optimized and existing workflows defined, the work of transforming processes can begin. Success requires careful collaboration between executives, IT professionals, and the broader workforce. Here are a few key success factors to consider:

Executive support

Although workflow automation is not necessarily a top-down initiative, executive support is crucial to helping prioritize the resources required and to provide broad, organizational support. Without buy-in from key decision makers, deploying workflow automation in any comprehensive way may not be possible.

IT transition

Automation doesn’t mean discarding older platforms or the professionals who oversee them. Instead, it helps clarify their roles and establish their functions within the new workflow. Work with IT staff during the transition to digital workflows, as their expertise with legacy systems will be crucial in getting the most out of workflow automation.

Broad organizational change

Digital transformation impacts basic processes on which companies rely, and this requires buy-in and engagement from the entire workforce. Chatbots, machine learning, natural-language voice commands, and predictive analytics are all poised to influence workflow automation, but people will always be at the center of digital workflows. This means that if you want to see your workflow automation efforts pay off, you will need to change the underlying structure of how your organization operates, starting with the people who drive it.

Processes and workflows ensure that your teams are taking the correct steps to accomplish tasks, completing goals, and meeting requirements. Workflow automation streamlines these essential aspects of modern business, applying advanced automation and management capabilities for faster, more-efficient workflows. But workflow automation does not happen on its own. To get the most out of your automated processes, you need the right workflow automation software and support.

The ServiceNow platform brings robust workflow automation tools together in a single, centralized platform. Eliminate manual tasks with powerful AI and robotic process automation (RPA) technology. Integrate easily with third-party systems. Use out-of-the-box low-code solutions to build custom automations. And through it all, help your employees improve their performance and better meet the needs of your customers. ServiceNow makes it all possible.

Schedule a demo today to learn more about ServiceNow automation and the Now Platform® and see for yourself just how far workflow automation can take you.

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