workflow automation

9 Ways You Can Use Workflow Automation to Combat Human Error

“To err is human,” wrote 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope.

Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the modern enterprise. Despite our capacity for altruism and creativity, we humans also tend to mess things up on a fairly regular basis.

We commit minor foibles like getting distracted by a cat GIF on Slack or forgetting multiple times to respond to a critical email.

We also make bigger mistakes, like inadvertently discriminating against a co-worker’s proposal because of a language barrier or passing up a competent team member for a promotion because of a petty grudge.

Miskeying data. Abusing office politics. Memory loss. Favoring pet projects over better ones. Reheating fish in the break room microwave. Humans can’t stop making mistakes — and that gets costly.

Consider, for instance, the unfortunate bank teller who accidentally transferred $293 million of his employer’s money to a private account or the countless, astronomically expensive accidents that have occurred in the medical, oil and gas, nuclear power, and finance industries thanks to human error. Even the most innocuous errors can cost companies in terms of lost productivity, lost opportunities, high turnover rates, damaged morale, and litigation.

The bad news: you can’t eliminate error. We are all human. But there is good news: workflow automation can go a long way to mitigate the frequency and impact of human errors in enterprise work management.

9 ways automation can combat human error

Automation eliminates many of the most common human errors in the typical enterprise, making work easier. Here are nine scenarios where automation plays a role.

1. Routing requests

For your requesters and stakeholders, the clock starts ticking the minute they submit a request — whether you know it’s there or not. Many team managers have been caught unaware by an anxious requester inquiring about the status of their urgent request the day before it’s due.

In fact, lack of request awareness has reached epidemic proportions. According to our most recent State of Work Report, nearly half of knowledge workers confess that a work assignment falls through the cracks at least once a month. This impacts more than just team credibility. When work is routinely dropped or forgotten, it can take a toll on a company’s ability to hit its goals.

Given the mechanical nature of this process, creating project request forms and assigning requests is an area of work management ripe for automation. As long as timely information is supplied about request type, request priority, deadline, and team member workloads (current and upcoming), automation handily routes requests into the queue of a team member who has the right skills and availability to fulfill the request by a certain deadline. Once you’ve set up routing rules, the process takes care of itself.

2. Gathering project information

As much as one-third of business projects go over deadline. Why? In our State of Work report, respondents point to undefined project scope, poor work prioritization, and lack of time for proper planning as the top three culprits. For experienced work managers, this comes as no surprise. A sloppy start to a project, particularly in the initial scoping and information-gathering phase, creates project woes down the line.

However, once you have a sturdy workflow template, you can use it to ensure that all the right information is gathered upfront and all the right clarification questions are asked for each request type. The requester fills out the form before they submit their request, understanding that their request can’t be considered until they provide a response in each field. Once the information is received by the manager, little if any additional information gathering is required and everything is automatically stored where the conversation around the project is taking place (not in an email thread of a chat app). As a result, the manager gets back time for higher-value work, ensuring smoother execution and fewer surprises.

3. Determining strategic alignment

Speaking of getting projects on the right foot, no project intake process can be considered complete without determining the business case for a project and its alignment with strategic company objectives. Sadly, like other intake tasks, people often skip this step when they’re short on time and the project needs to be started, like, yesterday. When you do this, you can’t effectively prioritize tasks against each other, creating unnecessary conflict and hurting transparency.

Again, this is an area where workflow automation helps to objectively score and prioritize project requests according to their potential to contribute to strategic goals. With color-coded priority markers automatically pulled into a single view, you can see at a glance how a range of ongoing projects fit together and make the best decision about what gets done when. This way you save time and teams trust that their investment of resources will provide the maximum ROI to the company.

4. Estimating delivery dates

Let’s face it — estimating delivery dates invites a lot of human absurdity. If it’s a high-profile project and your boss is the requester, you tend to be overly optimistic, setting expectations of a breakneck pace your team might not actually be able to meet. Even when you aren’t trying to impress anyone, you are often unable to visualize all of the factors in play to provide a reliable estimate. All of which is to say, delivery date estimates are often best left up to automation software.

When you start with a detailed workflow template, automation factors real-time data on the time required for individual team members to execute each step. It also factors the same information on other projects currently in the pipeline, so you can see everything in a single view. This way you can experience the life-changing benefits of effective resource scheduling.

5. Automating notifications

We spend a ridiculous amount of time communicating, whether via email, phone, text, meetings, or Slack. In fact, over one-third of knowledge workers’ time is consumed either in meetings or generating emails, to say nothing of other communication media. We send one email to set up meetings, another to confirm that we set up a meeting, another to remind people to attend the meeting, another to let everyone know that a change has been made, and another to give everyone a recap of the meeting.

Even if you use a non-email tool, communication has a way of getting out of control — and gobbling up heaps of our time in the process. Interestingly, 56% of those same workers cite a lack of communication as a common source of workplace conflict. How can we cut back on the amount of communication you produce while still providing stakeholders with enough communication?

From inside a work management platform, you’re able to set up automated notifications to all relevant parties that a task has been completed or that a critical component is overdue and could jeopardize a project’s delivery date. These communications are still sufficiently rich with information, while saving the embattled manager precious time to perform higher-value activities.

6. Eliminating static

Not all communication is critical. Sifting through a chat conversation or an email inbox to find relevant work information is one more chore that managers don’t need. Unfortunately, older communication tools could not spot the fluff (e.g., Greg’s sales pitch for his daughter’s woodcarving fundraiser) from legitimately important communications.

Fortunately, newer communication tools are catching onto the need to cut out the garbage and get straight to the stuff that matters. Communication tools that integrate directly with work management tools are even better at this, pulling communications into the work management tool where they are viewed in chronological order, in the context of the work being done, free from the distractions of the inbox.

7. Retrieving content

If you’ve ever tried to find just the right image on a stock photo site, you know that the seemingly simple task of finding the right image can stretch out over hours. When you’re overseeing dozens of projects, each with several files to keep track of, locating the right document for a conversation can be surprisingly time-consuming. The same goes for critical pieces of information. And the more tools you use to store content and information, the worse the situation gets.

“We spend too much time and mental capacity trying to remember things or find things,” says Workfront CTO Steve ZoBell. “Knowledge workers are forced to navigate across disparate silos, stringing together data to complete the picture.” To fix the problem, ZoBell recommends centralizing access to content and information. “Bringing together core elements of work — content, collaboration, and tasks — into one place will save your team significant time by shifting administrative burden to the system.” At the same time, algorithms, like those seen in Adobe Photoshop’s newly released Smart Tags feature, can be deployed to make retrieving relevant content even faster, without all the organizational legwork up front.

8. Automating reporting

If you compile reports manually, especially in a high-volume production environment, you know it not only takes over your life but also becomes counterproductive. Several years ago, the marketing team at Canadian bank ATB Financial reported on project progress in a single spreadsheet. Every Friday, each team member submitted updates and their manager then manually added the updates to the spreadsheet over the weekend so it could be viewed by the VP of marketing on Monday. By Tuesday, the report information was out of date. The process was both time-consuming and error-prone, making educated decision-making nearly impossible.

Fortunately, upon discovering Workfront, ATB was able to automate reporting of project statuses, % progress, and estimated delivery dates. (Read their case study to see how Workfront’s automated reports made all the difference at ATB Financial.) In addition, automated reporting is yet another area where you can make reports even smarter to identify at-risk projects or recommend changes to personnel or priorities to achieve better outcomes while projects are still in flight.

9. Enforcing workflows

The challenge to do more with less hangs over the head of most enterprise workers. In the search for solutions, the State of Work Report found that one-third of them point to “instituting better processes” as the best way forward. At the same time, structured processes and workflows seem to elude many enterprise teams, often resulting in chaotic execution of projects and increases in project failure. And it makes sense: if you don’t intimately understand the moving parts of a project, how can you fix or finetune it when people underperform?

Naturally, the first step here is not technological at all. Work managers need to take the time to understand their processes and workflows in detail and then scrutinize them for effectiveness. Only once they fully understand and map out their workflows can they effectively duplicate them in a work management solution and apply automation to reinforce each step. For example, at the review and approval stage of a project, software can ensure that, once reviews are performed, the document is forwarded automatically to the designated approver. If the approver is dragging her feet, the software can remind her that time is short and the delivery date is in danger of being pushed back. This is the power of automated workflows.

Mastering workflow automation

As with any new technology, workflow automation comes with a few caveats.

The algorithms behind workflow automation are only as good as the integrity with which they are created and the quality of the data they use — both of which are vulnerable to human bias. By virtue of the data being gathered by humans, it can be tainted before it’s even analyzed. Also, these algorithms are inevitably limited to the experience, biases, and training of their makers, who typically hail from a small, elite group of usually male and culturally homogeneous PhDs. Finally, when humans get their hands on automation technology, they tend to become more careless, less vigilant against error, and less inquisitive about the output of such technology. This taints the results of automation and can produce sometimes disastrous results. Despite all the promise automation brings to the workplace, you should still treat it less like the new boss in the office and more like an intern in training. In other words, you need to master automation — not the other way around.

Before you invest in workflow automation tools, you can better understand these risks and take action to reduce them by:

  1. Knowing your processes. New technology or tools can’t substitute for broken processes  or a lack of expertise within your team. A new work management tool can’t assist with your work if you don’t even know what your workflows are.

  2. Understanding what’s under the hood. Don’t assume that flashy new tool has everything covered. Before purchasing any software, be relentless in understanding what critical assumptions have been made in the algorithms and then continue to be overly inquisitive as your organization begins using and refining the technology.

  3. Educating team members. Obviously, when it comes to automation, ignorance is not bliss. As Forbes Technology Council member Chad Steelberg puts it succinctly: “Blindness to bias is the fundamental challenge, not bias in itself.” Businesses looking to implement this technology must also invest in upleveling the awareness of their human team members. Those relying most on the output of this technology must know how that output is created, how to question the assumptions made by these tools, and how to recognize bias.

When applied to work management, the biggest win from automation — and soon enough, AI — the ability to magnify the effectiveness of even the most flawed humans in the workplace and enhance their most irreplaceable, uniquely human traits. If we can understand the limitations of this technology and remain proactive in helping to refine, these mechanical assistants will actually enable greater creativity, ingenuity, and empathy in knowledge workers, not less.

Which sounds like a pretty good future — as long as we can still get distracted every now and then by a cat GIF.

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