Workflow Automation: The Future of Work in the Era of Intelligent Information Management
Sean Nathaniel is CTO & SVP, Upland Software, Inc.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Workflow.
There’s no question, the year is flying by, and it marks an exciting paradigm shift that has industry experts buzzing. We are currently witnessing the culmination of years of deep discussion regarding the future viability of the ECM industry, which is changing the way businesses define their processes and focus.
Ultimately, what this auspicious new era demands of businesses is the ability to adapt to the next generation of the workforce, one that is increasingly decentralized, technologically demanding, and wary of inflexible processes that don’t intelligently and seamlessly manage a data set that consists of both content and data (not either or). Those millennials are shaping a bright and promising future for the industry.
All current trends in business point to a reality of flux. Per a recent e-book by the Association of Information and Image Management (AIIM), 79 percent of organizations now indicate that BPM (and by default, automation) is significant (45 percent) or imperative (34 percent) for the success of their business — up from a total of 55 percent in 2016. To understand this dramatic increase, we need to take a deeper dive to understand the myriad driving factors within workforce demographics that are coalescing to create the unique pivot point we see today.
What’s more, by understanding these factors, we can ultimately predict how organizations’ adaptations will directly influence future success in an increasingly competitive, data and tech-driven environment. Whoever is most eager to embrace these new standards and evolve is most likely to succeed (survive).
Here’s the reality of the future workforce
Gone are the days of working a lifetime at one company and collecting a pension. Gone too, per Standard & Poor’s analysis, are multi-decade business lifespans. Since 1950, the average life cycle of a company has been reduced from 60 years to 15 (see chart below). Contributing factors to this change are complex, and include:
Cloud & mobility
A 2016 Forbes article states that by 2020, 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers — perhaps not full-time, but one of every two workers will be working on their own terms in some capacity. To keep pace, organizations must take the approach of making their data and core functions “omni-accessible” for their knowledge workers, who are no longer constrained by location, set office hours, and may even be working from another time zone or a completely different continent. Demand for universal, cloud-based access to work assets continues to escalate, as an increasing set of employees no longer adhere to an 8-to-5, cubicle-bound workday.
The rise of the knowledge worker
As the generational shift is occurring, so too is the definition of the employee altogether. Rather than employing workers with a generalized skill set, organizations are seeing an increase in demand for specialized knowledge workers. In fact, the past three decades have resulted in more jobs tailored to knowledge workers than ever before.
As noted by the Wall Street Journal in May 2016, “While routine jobs have gone nowhere over the past three decades, the number of people in knowledge work jobs has more than doubled, and there are no signs of that trend slowing. This strongly suggests that even though technology is eliminating some jobs, it’s creating even more in different fields. In fact, knowledge work occupations have been adding more jobs than any other year since the 1980s —about 1.9 million per year.”
Between 2010 and 2015, the number of millennials in the U.S. workforce increased by 10 percent, making them the largest generation slice in the current workforce for the first time (see chart below). By 2025, millennials will comprise three-quarters of the global workforce.
Unsurprisingly, this shuffle in terms of priorities and procedural/process changes are due in large part to the percentage increase of millennials (and up-and-coming Gen Z workers) in the workforce, alongside the decline of the boomers. The generational shift is imminent; times are changing, and expectations are too.
Redefined organizational structure
So how do we adapt the organizational structure of businesses to accommodate this new workforce? (Are the days of eight managers harassing a bedraggled worker about a mucked up TPS report over, please?)
Businesses have already begun to experiment with different organizational structures, in some cases (such as self-managing tomato processing company Morning Star) eliminating the concept of a hierarchical manager (or eight) altogether. Though still somewhat in its infancy, the concept of self-management is catching on. And why not? “Our daily work continues to expand in complexity, and … [workers] are asked to think more creatively to boost innovation, but our organizations often seem to stifle the very behaviors we’re being asked to perform!” says Josh Allan Dykstra in his Huffington Post article on the trend, “The Future of Management is No Managers.” “We need to find a way to get the organization out of the way of the work, and self-management principles amplify this ability dramatically.”
One of the merits of automated, intuitive solutions is the accrual of massive amounts of data that are being transformed into knowledge, which can then easily be converted into analytics. Many organizations silo this information and don’t make much use of it in terms of the larger picture. But the rise of predictive analytics has far-reaching uses for internal processes, as well as external initiatives.
How useful would predictive analytical data be to help your accounts payable department drastically improve response and turnaround times for payments? What if this data was already at your fingertips, and could free up staff time for larger tasks — like budget renovations? What if your human resources department had simple access to data that would help them reduce the overhead of onboarding new employees, so they could focus on items to improve company culture? An end-to-end automated solution will have these capabilities built into its blueprint, meaning you can harness all the data available to further the mission of your business.
Welcome to a new era. It’s time to evolve
To adapt to this increasingly fluid, transient, decentralized modern ideal, organizations must infuse their inner workings with capabilities that include automation and clarity around workflow. There is a need to balance flexibility with reliability.
Making this procedural change removes the burden of tedious work from employees, which simultaneously increases productivity and efficiency in addition to cutting costs associated with bottlenecks or errors. Automation simplifies processes while infusing a paradigm shift of improved procedures, true data transparency, and an increased capacity to do business well to delight clientele and staff alike with streamlined, intuitive processes.
How do organizations evolve? By implementing solutions that hinge upon an all-in-one, end-to-end process visibility to help to continuously review, optimize, and improve upon the key results. Think of the trends we’ve already discussed: innovating to accommodate the future workplace, the move to a decentralized, transient workforce, and the need to engage with customers worldwide, simultaneously.
To accommodate the changing needs of employees while successfully engaging with customers on a global stage, you need to initiate the process digitally at the closest point of origin possible. How can this happen?
Our culture is already accustomed to the quick turnaround environment made possible by tech and automation — and this includes finding ways to accommodate both internal and external customers. People expect to come to one centralized place, a well-organized hub, to not only seek out information, but to quickly and painlessly submit their information and documentation for their needs — for example: submitting an employment application, presenting a P.O. or check request, or altering a college class schedule by adding/dropping courses. This hub needs to have a flawless user experience and be available on any device, anytime from anywhere (yes, even offline). That means this hub needs to be quick, comprehensive and secure. E-forms are critical to achieving this trifecta.
To adapt to changes in technology, as well as balance increasing workloads, employees need a surefire way to streamline duties, collaborate, automate, and add transparency to everyday tasks. Workflow simplifies the path that documents take, creating transparency while simultaneously automating notifications/escalations and allowing users to segment information by permissions. Smart workflow uses technology to eliminate bottlenecks, foster collaboration, encourage accountability, and improve processes by creating efficiency and accuracy where there was once chaos. Automated, full documentation means happier employees, customers, and auditors/outside collaborators.
Most businesses are awash with data regarding their processes, yet they don’t make real use of this information in a focused, forward-thinking way.
Real-time, predictive analytics and customized reporting capabilities are a feature built into automated solutions. Used well, the data provided by these analytics can improve strategic decision making and help an organization learn from inefficiencies to improve their processes in a lasting, meaningful way. Coupled with workflow automation, the insights from analytics will drive continuous optimization and improvement of processes.
As current and future generations come of age in this data-centric, text-first era, the de facto communication method for the new workforce will be text messaging. Various studies show 90 percent of text messages are read within three minutes and have a 98 percent open rate (versus email, with a 20 percent open rate).6 Clearly, enabling text messaging and text message-based workflow will be a huge driver for the next generation of productivity gains in the enterprise.
Data is a new form of currency in our brave new world. And this means whatever the data is — proprietary, personally identifiable or otherwise — it needs to be unflappably secure. Yet paired with the new standard of a workforce on the go, data simultaneously needs to be available to permissioned users from anywhere.
What does all this mean? Essentially, it means whichever automated solution(s) organizations decide upon, it’s essential that it can be rapidly deployed, provides reliable, intuitive tools for collaboration, and of course, fixes the broken enterprise. Implementing an automated solution is all about saving time, providing transparency, and maintaining — or improving — the accuracy of processes. Doing all of this while engaging the next generation workforce and customers is admittedly a challenge, but it will be the differentiating factor for those companies that succeed in extending their average lifespan — and those that don’t.
The future of work is still being defined.
In this increasingly intricate business environment where technology changes seemingly daily, the ability for employees to collaborate and remain flexible (while retaining accuracy, efficiency, and security) is paramount for success. Though the future of work is still solidifying, the fact that businesses need to brace for the upcoming adaptations is certain.
With this changing dynamic, we are seeing the move from a stable hierarchy to a fluid, self-motivated organizational structure. Again, this entails considering details like:
- Internal & External Teams (decentralized/transient) — processes and systems must accommodate both sets of workers equally
- Subscribed Applications — reliable, secure cloud-based systems & tech is a new standard, not just a perk.
- Solutions built for purpose — rapid implementation and adoption demand those built-for-purpose solutions that provide just enough flexibility.
- Time to Value Focused (time > ROI) — as employees feel more burdened with daily tasks (mountains of email, anyone?), automation empowers them to free up time for more meaningful endeavors.
- Outsource Domain Expertise — ability to capitalize on transient or external expertise for competitive differentiation increases the need for new types of systems and processes with flexible licensing models.
- Reimagined Employee Engagement — per the same global study by Ernst & Young mentioned earlier, the top five reasons people quit their jobs are: minimal wage growth, lack of advancement opportunity, excessive overtime, a work environment that does not encourage teamwork, and a boss that doesn’t allow you to work flexibly.4 Automation can correct several — if not all — of these factors.
In this new era, we must acknowledge the move from a stagnated concept of enterprise content management (ECM) to the new standard of more intelligent information management (IIM). Data is now considered a living, breathing entity that includes both data and content. It follows that implementing standardized automation and transparent workflow processes allow us to seamlessly move this data in a more reliable way while accommodating knowledge workers and their growing list of demands in the workplace.
Making the Move to Automation
However your organization decides to implement an automated solution, there is a laundry list of important items to consider. But let’s start the conversation with ten items:
1. Does this solution require extensive training?
2. Can users quickly create new forms and workflows, and add new users and projects? Is it easy to manage, store, and retrieve multiple versions of documents?
3. Does this solution extend functionality beyond traditional enterprise walls, fostering interaction with clients, prospective employees, contractors, separate divisions, and so forth? Can my knowledge workers work from anywhere, anytime with no issues?
4. Does this solution easily integrate with other existing systems?
5. Can we easily (or automatically) create consolidated files/records with documents of any kind (PDF, e-forms, Word) without changing the format of those documents?
6. Does this solution allow for collaboration, or lockdown — depending on need or user role?
7. Are there predictive analytics capabilities to allow us to strategically analyze and find solutions for any internal issues or capitalize on areas of opportunity?
8. Can we empower business users to modify automated workflows, create e-forms, add users, or perform other tasks on the fly?
9. Is this a licensing model that supports engagement for unlimited users?
10. Is this solution supported by cutting-edge cloud facilities?
By understanding the demands of the future workforce and business climate, then coalescing this with your specific demographic details, you should be able to map out the best way to implement a solution.
Consider your current company size, your projected growth rate and strategic plan, and make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of the amount of data entry reporting requirements your staff is currently undertaking during their average workday. After discussion with others in management and various departments, come up with a comprehensive list of needs in order of priority. This will help your organization make the right decision when implementing workflow automation to innovative and accommodate for the changing workforce and demands of the new era of ECM — or as we now know it — Intelligent Information Management.
The New Enterprise Era
In short, all the negative buzz around the future workforce and millennials is just that — buzz. Clickbait. The naysayers criticizing the new generation of workers (for whatever — entitlement, work ethic, new expectations) are following a time-honored tradition of simply not being ready or capable of change. The writing is on the wall, and if you can’t evolve … well. There’s no denying reality, the next generation of the workforce is eager to work, and their skillsets are broad, yet specially attuned to approach their duties in a different way than generations of workers we’ve seen before.
I see this new enterprise era as full of promise. Organizations should feel optimistic about finding new ways to innovate and automate, and to rethink ways of doing things within the enterprise and for their clientele, whether internal or external. We’re now able to uniquely partner the latest technology to innovations and staff needs in a way that provides opportunities for a better, mightier workforce with the ability to accommodate more meaningful, specialized services to delight clients and end users. Adaptability is key for organizations striving to take their place on the podium. Welcome to the new era; it’s time to embrace the differences and evolve.