In 1908, Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line changed factory operations forever. By 1921, the term “workflow” was being used in a railway engineering journal. Workflow describes the progression of steps (tasks, events, and interactions) that comprises a work process from initiation to completion, involves two or more persons, and creates or adds value to the organization’s activities.
Workflow is about industrializing any kind of work. They are all around us, and are what modern businesses are built on. Currently, workflows happen inside of business applications. In fact, that’s what business applications are: packaged implementations of repeatable business workflows like marketing automation, customer relationship management, accounting and logistics, etc.
For the workflows that are unique to a business, companies custom-build applications or implement business process management (BPM) systems. BPM allows a company to design customized, specific approval workflows with the flexibility to change them when needed. Historically, such workflows routed paper documents through approval steps — for example, application forms for accounts, insurance, etc.
Fast forward to 2016, and Slack and its bots are at the heart of the next innovation in business workflows. We’re in the age of cloud apps with accessible application programming interfaces (APIs). In enterprises, documents are now stored in cloud-based content platforms like Box or Google Drive. And the most innovative companies are using chat platforms like Slack to communicate and collaborate.
For many employees, Slack is the tool where they spend most of the work day. Slack makes it easy to display notifications from other systems, not just other humans. By using bots, employees can also take action in other systems right from a Slack channel. Slack’s message button functionality has made these interactions very efficient.
Last but not least, there’s a growing breed of DIY integration platforms that can make cloud apps such as Box and Slack talk to one another. Our own app Workato has workflow capabilities, such as human approval tasks called PeopleTask.
What if we could leverage Box and Slack with workflow bots to create a new kind of workflow system? The functionality is well understood: Documents and associated case data need to be routed to workers who perform approval or rejection according to the business process. But what if such approvals now happen in Slack?
Approval tasks could create notifications in Slack, with a bot to take care of interacting with the cloud document store from within Slack. A user can even ask the bot to list all the outstanding approval tasks right in Slack. Moreover, what if approval tasks in Slack could automatically make the relevant changes in the CRM, marketing, ERP, or financial application without ever having to leave Slack?
Clearly, such a scenario is of high value. It brings workflows into the 21st century, and right into Slack, the “new command center” of the enterprise. As Tomasz Tunguz explains, a chat platform is hard to beat as a modern UI for cloud apps. In Slack, we can “chat” with cloud apps just the way we chat with our coworkers. It’s very natural and super convenient — no extra password to remember for a workflow approval app. No other cloud app to context-switch to. Everything needed for the workflow happens right in Slack.
How is this done? Let’s say you start a workflow and specify the document in Box as well as list of reviewers. The bot then takes care of routing the document by the specified approvers, who can review and execute their approval decisions — all within Slack. At any time, you can also inquire about the current workflow status from the bot.
Workflow bots let users truly have an easy-to-use and highly flexible document workflow system that businesses will find extremely convenient. This scenario fits into what Aaron Levie and Stuart Butterfield are thinking as well.
This is the power of Slack bots and bot-building and cloud app automation platforms. Welcome to workflows in the 21st century!