Workflow: A term first recorded a century ago that in many respects is only now getting its due recognition.
This report is an analysis by The Demographics Group, based on workshops, research, and Bernard Salt’s experience and expertise in assessing Australian work-life shifts, in collaboration with ServiceNow. It explores the economic, social, and demographic changes backed by workflows that have paved the way to better work and life and provides commentary on role of workflows shaping Australia’s future prosperity.
The term “workflow” refers to a coordinated sequence of tasks that deliver an efficient outcome. It is the stuff of mines, factories, offices, and indeed of most workplaces. It is a philosophy that has become an organising principle of modern life, accelerated by the pandemic.
The term was first used in 1921 in a railway journal called “The Railway Engineer” to describe a process that delivered efficiencies in the manufacture of locomotive engines.
I was commissioned by the Australian arm of ServiceNow, a global digital workflow company, to outline the biggest economic, social, and demographic changes of Australia’s past 100 years—backed by workflows—that evolved the way people in Australia live and work. And indeed, how it might evolve, post-COVID-19, with key trends influencing the next decade of work and life. Here is what we found:
My personal journey with the changing world of work
When I started work at a Melbourne-based consulting firm in 1985, writing demographic reports for the shopping centre industry, the final product, a report, would be couriered or express posted to a destination interstate overnight (or within a day or two).
One day, the boss said the client wanted his report faxed. I had no idea what the term “faxed” meant.
Back then, faxing involved taking a document to a post office where it was transmitted via the phone line to a post office in, say, Sydney, where it was printed and handed to a recipient. Within a year, it seemed, fax machines were in every workplace.
At the time, my co-workers and I speculated that this new invention, the fax machine, would surely put the courier industry out of business. And yet here we are, 36 years later, and the fax machine has come and gone, and it is the courier business that is stronger than ever thanks to online retailing.
By the end of the 1990s, consulting reports were being emailed and they are still being emailed today.
The efficiencies today are not so much in transmission—although internet capacity continues to improve—they include workflow improvements such as the ability to seamlessly incorporate spreadsheets, illustrations, and templates for animated graphics into a report, as well as the advent of automated billing and account tracking systems.
The point is that new technology, new systems, assist people to find new and better ways of doing business, of changing and streamlining the workflow to improve efficiencies. Sometimes a new workflow, like the revolutionary idea of instantly faxing reports, comes and goes, whereas others remain in situ for decades. The mainstay is the philosophy behind workflows, an organising principle of modern-life, driving a growth mindset to find better ways to get things done.
A brief look back at the workflow evolution
American car maker Henry Ford’s revolutionary idea of a moving assembly line opened in 1913. It encapsulated a bold new workflow concept—even before the term was officially documented—blending specialised labour tasks with a production process to deliver a repeatable outcome of consistent quality.
More than a century later and assembly lines today are still part of the manufacturing process, though they are more likely to contain robots or automated machines than manual labour. Yet the essence of the workflow process remains intact.
Five of Australia’s most radical social and cultural transitions in history relied on simple workflows and paved the way for a better quality of life:
- The 1920s gave rise to multitasking and task segmentation, foreshadowing a century of social change that was triggered by women entering the workforce en masse.
- The movement of people and goods around Australia’s expansive geography in the 1940s led to the application of command-control workplace management in the post-war years to drive work efficiency and outcomes.
- The 1950s marked an era of time-saving change in the home. Kitchens and suburban backyards became the epicentre of household innovation with labour-saving devices taking the strain off household chores. Electric appliances and Victa lawn mowers freed up time and sparked a national outsourcing movement.
- In the 1980s, a new mobile technology generation took off with 1G and 2G networks taking hold. What started as a novelty to take a phone call on the move quickly became essential services to connect people to households, businesses, and government support.
- Fast forward to 2020, where a global pandemic sparked a vast work-from-home and subsequent hybrid work experiment, enabled by the national broadband network, that led to one of the greatest social shifts since WWII.
In some ways the scope for introducing workflow improvements depends on the ability to break down a complex task into a series of smaller, simpler, often repetitive, processes. Indeed, this kind of thinking requires the visual logic of a Gantt chart—plotting task, time, resource, and sequence in a diagram that is still used today by engineers, consultants, and bureaucrats.
Gantt’s contribution was not so much “the chart” as it was the concept of disaggregating complex projects into a series of tasks that could be delivered by specialists (and later automated or digitised).
But there is more to this better way of working than dissecting projects into bits that can be tackled, streamlined, mechanised, outsourced, offshored, or simply improved. To create an ecosystem that enables workflows to take up the heavy lift, something more was needed.
Fast forward to the pandemic and new, digital workflows abound. These modern-day workflows, also known as digital workflows, are AI-powered, connecting departments and complex procedures of any size and scale into streamlined business outcomes.
Indeed, it took a global pandemic to teach workers and employers that workplace value could be delivered from a remote (i.e. work from home) location. With technology such as Zoom and new concepts like online training, many of the functions of human resources management can now be completed remotely and employees can onboard 100%virtually.
The nation’s economy may have been built on resources and energy exports, but Aussie workplaces and homes quite literally run on digital workflows, fast closing the gap between work life and lifestyle.
The use of eTags, for example, on Australian motorways tracks vehicular movement, delivers regular usage reports, and enables frictionless travel. It removes the labour component of toll collectors who can then be redeployed in tasks that require more creative, caring, and intuitively human skills.
During the pandemic, the option of conducting a medical consultation by telehealth revolutionised visits to the doctor.
The payment and prescription process became automated, digitised, and streamlined; time is given back to the patient; a digital connection to a pharmacy delivers security and efficiencies. Patients get a message to advise that their prescription is ready having been fulfilled by the pharmacist in a non-busy period of the day.
It is a better (workflow-enabled) solution all round.
Outlook for workflows
Without that obscure railway journal, the Gantt chart, the conveyor belt, the women’s movement demanding change for the better in the workplace and in the household, maybe the concept of workflow wouldn’t have been as progressed by the time of the coming of COVID-19.
But the fact is that because of the pandemic, the broader community (at a global level) is more accepting of the need to adapt, to grow, and learn new procedures. People are more inclined to place their faith in digital processes when there’s a payoff, benefits that deliver efficiencies, security, and seamlessness.
Acceptance of QR codes is a step toward proving provenance in, say, ethical decisions to buy fashion clothing manufactured offshore, or in the need for assurance when ordering a restaurant meal.
The ability to track and trace payments is one step; the next step is to track and trace goods and services being considered for purchase.
The post pandemic era offers the opportunity to rebuild a better version of the world we left behind.
Part of that brave new world will be the opportunity to deliver new workflows at scale to a community that better understands the benefits of new technology. The opportunities for workflow will vary from business to business from industry to industry.
But there are common drivers to the demand for workflow improvements and especially in Australia.
Workflow opportunities in the post-pandemic 2020s will deliver efficiencies (time and cost savings), provide security and assurance (the restitution of trust), enable a frictionless lifestyle where drudgery is digitally outsourced. These opportunities apply in the public and private sectors and across all industries.
The Australian people are emerging from the greatest social, cultural, and workplace challenge since WWII. This community will want to recreate a better version of the Australia left behind, which is precisely what happened after WWI in the 1920s and after WWII in the 1950s.
The post-COVID 2020s is the right time to be bold and ambitious and creative in seeking to deliver to the Australian people an even better quality of life enabled in part at least by even better workflows.