What EXACTLY Is a Workflow And Why Does It Matter To My Service Management Implementation?

Consultants, enterprise architects, and many others in the technology space like to talk about workflows, processes, and functions. This is especially true when you’re implementing a service management platform like ServiceNow, which automates and links processes and workflows. But there isn’t a great standard definition of any of these terms, so every time you hear these terms they might mean something a little (or a lot) different than the previous time you heard them used.

Unfortunately, you can’t just ignore the jargon and go on happily with your life. If you’re trying to improve your business with service management, you need to understand these things so you can have a productive collaboration with those consultants, architects, and technologists! And you need to have a clear view of these terms so you can actually validate with your collaborators: “This is my understanding of a workflow, how does that match with yours?” This way you can have an explicit conversation about each side’s expectations so there isn’t disappointment later in the form of project cost overruns, time lags, and even projects that don’t solve the original problem.

These are the definitions we use at Acorio on our ServiceNow projects. We think they’re a good representation of the most common understanding, and more importantly they’re simple and jargon-free so you can tell instantly if they match your thoughts on these terms.iStock_41690336_LARGE.jpg

  • Workflow: A set of work steps that employees of a company (or partners, customer, and other third parties) do to accomplish an outcome. Chart 1 gives an example of a workflow.
  • Process: A process is a workflow (or a series of multiple workflows) plus the business rules, inputs and outputs necessary to accomplish an outcome. A business process is often is described in a “from/to” wording and cuts across functional areas. For example, the order-to-cash process cuts across sales, manufacturing, and finance.
  • Function: A function is usually an organizational group like Finance or HR. It can align with a business process, but when most consultants talk about functions they’re talking about people and company structure, not about work being done.

Now that we have some basic definitions, let’s talk more about how workflows and processes come in to play during service management initiatives.

Workflows in Action

By mapping your workflow, you can see if it’s highly repeatable or if it changes a lot every time you do it. Repeatable workflows are great areas for automation with a tool like ServiceNow, the variable ones aren’t.

Keep in mind that variable isn’t the same thing as branching. In the example below, the process of requesting a service from IT’s service catalog has many possible branching options, but even those branches are repeatable. For example, if the initial request is approved, the workflow moves the next approval, but if the initial request is declined, the workflow moves to a notification step. Mapping like this is so important because it visually shows you how your business works – who does what, and in what order – so you can find roadblocks, places where you can improve, and unnecessary steps that you can remove to improve the speed of the entire process.

CHART 1: Workflow Example


Source: ServiceNow

Why Workflows Matter

Workflows help ensure that you and your team don’t miss critical steps in your business processes or do those steps in a different order. While this seems elementary, even large established companies have fallen victim to failing to establish appropriate workflow mechanics.

One telling example came in the heyday of SAP. They had designed software aimed at automating common processes for businesses. Unfortunately, when customers installed it, they discovered these new computerized “standard” processes didn’t actually mirror the original manual processes at all. A recent article on highlighted an example at Avon, where business processes being automated were in conflict with how workers actually did their jobs. This caused Avon to halt the effort after it had already spent over $100 million on its SAP implementation.[i]

The same is true now for service management (although luckily, the cost of an implementation and later changes aren’t nearly as expensive or difficult or slow.) If you don’t understand your workflows and processes, you can’t automate them effectively. Even if you choose to pick a standard process that’s recommended by the software, you still need to understand what will change when you make the move.

Three Questions to Begin Your Service Management Workflow Journey

As you work with your team on a service management project to automate a key business process or smaller workflow, remember:

  1. Make sure your entire team has the same understanding of workflows and processes and functions to avoid problems in the project.
  2. Have the people doing the process document a few different scenarios to see how variable the process is and if it’s worth automating. (Side note: you can work on standardizing processes, too. You don’t have to accept variable processes as a given.) This will also help you avoid doing change orders in the middle of a project when you want to change the workflow you had previously approved with the consultant.
  3. Evaluate packaged apps for “fit.” If they closely resemble your process, or if you’re interested in migrating to a new approach, a packaged app will be great. Alternatively, if there isn’t a good package fit, you can build an app.


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