A workflow process is a sequence of steps used to process a document, work order, or piece of information through an organization. In order to be defined as a workflow process, the steps must be repeatable with little variation. They must serve a defined purpose using standardized input and output material. The term is also used in the programming world to denote the code that runs to perform a given series of tasks in a specific order.
The assembly line was the earliest example of a workflow process. Take a company that builds bicycles. One factory worker may be in charge of welding the frames, the next might paint them, the one after that installs the seat, and so on. The bicycle is built using a series of steps.
Each member of the team knows his or her job and does it in the same sequence each time. The bicycle seat will never be installed before the bicycle is painted. The workers follow the workflow process, and so the same kind of bicycle is produced time and again without major variation in quality or speed of production.
Each step of a workflow process can be broken down into three distinct parts. The first is the input. This includes not just the physical material — the bicycle — that passes from step to step, but also the information, energy, and other supplies necessary to perform the task. For the painting step in the bicycle process, the input might be paint, an airbrush gun, and the design template.
The second part is the algorithm, which is the directions for how a particular step is completed. For example, the bicycle painter might be instructed to paint a red base coat and then add black trim. The algorithm may be performed either by humans or computers.
Finally, the output is the material and information that results from performing the algorithm using the input. The output is passed on to the next step in the workflow process.
A computerized workflow process works like a manual workflow, except that the outputs are automatically passed on to the next step by the computer. Computerized workflow processes are almost always used to move documents through an organization. For example, a company could set up a computerized workflow process to ensure that each work order is processed the same way. Steps in the workflow can be rearranged or optimized by moving blocks of code rather than writing a whole new program.