A workflow consists of a sequence of connected steps. It is a depiction of a sequence of operations, declared as work of a person, a group of persons, an organization of staff, or one or more simple or complex mechanisms. Workflow may be seen as any abstraction of real work, segregated in workshare, work split or other types of ordering. For control purposes, workflow may be a view on real work under a chosen aspect, thus serving as a virtual representation of actual work. The flow being described often refers to a document that is being transferred from one step to another.
A workflow is a model to represent real work for further assessment, e.g., for describing a reliably repeatable sequence of operations. More abstractly, a workflow is a pattern of activity enabled by a systematic organization of resources, defined roles and mass, energy and information flows, into a work process that can be documented and learned. Workflows are designed to achieve processing intents of some sort, such as physical transformation, service provision, or information processing.
Workflow concepts are closely related to other concepts used to describe organizational structure, such as silos, functions, teams, projects, policies and hierarchies. Workflows may be viewed as one primitive building block of organizations. The relationships among these concepts are described later in this entry.
The term workflow is used in computer programming to capture and develop human-to-machine interaction. Workflow (management) software aims to provide end users with an easier way to orchestrate or describe complex processing of data in a visual form, much like flow charts but without the need to understand computers or programming.
The following examples illustrate the variety of workflows seen in various contexts:
- In military planning, a “concept of operations” is a workflow that defines particular mission types
- In machine shops, particularly job shops and flow shops, the flow of a part through the various processing stations is a work flow
- Insurance claims processing is an example of an information-intensive, document-driven workflow