Some approval processes are straightforward and require basic approval software that allows you to build a form, assign an approver, and send a simple notification. However, depending on the scale and complexity of your approval process, there may be a significant number of steps, people, and resources involved. Your approval system needs to be able to scale to your most complex request, yet keep things simple enough for business users to build a straightforward approval workflow when needed.
Below we explain the main components of a truly scalable approval management platform to help you better understand what to look for when selecting a system.
The approval process always starts with a form and, in some cases, attachments. What web form(s) need to be filled out for your approval requests and what do they look like today? When a platform can mimic existing interfaces (be they paper, Excel or data entry screens) in use today, then the transition to a new technology goes much more smoothly. Are the Data Entry screens/forms dynamic? (i.e., If Bob says this purchase will cost more than $100,000 then display these four additional questions or include this justification/attachment section.)
Dynamic forms simplify initial data entry, conforming to what the user needs to see, based on the request specifics. This improves the user experience and helps ensure only the necessary information is required.
Are the data entry screens/forms dynamic? (i.e., If Bob says this purchase will cost more than $100,000 then display these four additional questions or include this justification/attachment section.) Dynamic forms simplify initial data entry, conforming to what the user needs to see, based on the request specifics. This improves the user experience and helps ensure only the necessary information is required.
In the real world, an approval process could be parallel instead of sequential, meaning several different approval workflows are kicked off at the same time.
Not all approval rules are simply a user submitting a request and a manager saying yes or no. In the real world, an approval process could be parallel instead of sequential, meaning several different approval workflows are kicked off at the same time.
In some cases, rather than an individual approver, there may be a group of approvers. In this case, does everyone have to approve it or can just one person in a group approve it? The system needs to accommodate both scenarios.
Also consider that in some approval processes, additional forms may need to be filled out by first the level approver(s) that will then need to route based on answers in those forms. For instance, Bob in Sales requests a new marketing campaign be developed and his manager Stacy, who approves it and then provides further information for the Marketing team in a separate form.
High-value workflow such as project approvals may have complex approvals. Perhaps several levels of approval are needed. Perhaps the approver changes dynamically based on variables that can differ with each request. Variables like project type, region, department/division, amount, or nearly any designated field within your form(s) can be used to direct the following sequence of events/tasks.
The path of an approval can be different based on a variety of factors. These factors can be fed into an approval matrix which simplifies change management if internal personnel move into different roles, leave the company, or have their responsibilities changed.
Simply change the personnel in one place (in the approval matrix) and all future requests will route to the new approver(s). Approval matrices can become exponentially complex if an organization is large and spread out across multiple worldwide locations but without a centralized approval matrix, managing change becomes extremely difficult.
As the approval moves from step to step within the workflow, according to your internal policies and procedures, the information that needs to be passed to approvers and other personnel can vary. For instance, does the first level approver need different information than the final approver in order to make a decision? In addition, are their tangential stakeholders that need a simple “FYI” notification with no action being needed?
For instance, in an order process, the warehouse manager needs to know a part has been requested and then confirm the part has been ordered, but you might want to notify Sales that the part has been ordered as well.
Your workflow system needs the flexibility to accommodate when everything is not perfect.
Despite a user’s best efforts, there are times when an approval request is missing information or contains invalid information. So, what happens when something within the request is wrong, or if it needs to be sent back for more information or additional approvals? Your workflow system needs the flexibility to accommodate when everything is not perfect.
When a project request is submitted incorrectly does it automatically cycle back to the project manager or can the first level approver be given the ability to make simple edits (notifying the requester automatically) so the request can continue on? This kind of flexibility in the process can drastically improve cycle times.
In critical, time sensitive approval processes, for instance requesting equipment following a breakdown, how would you handle an approval if the main approver is unavailable? Delays in fulfilling certain approval requests can cost an organization time, money and customers. In addition, you may need different approvers based on time zone?
In addition, you may need different approvers based on time zone? What if someone is on PTO? In these situations, delegating backup approvers is a necessity.
For a variety of reasons, an approver may neglect to review and make a decision on a particular approval request in the expected amount of time. So what happens if an approval has been sitting too long? Should it escalate? Does the approver just need another reminder? How are key participants made aware of these delays? The software should be able to set and manage how delays are handled by setting “timeouts” for specific parts of a process. These timeouts set the maximum threshold for an action to be taken and ensure critical approvals are handled efficiently.
Your approval software should be able to set and manage how delays are handled by setting “timeouts” for specific parts of a process. These timeouts set the maximum threshold for an action to be taken and ensure critical approvals are handled efficiently. For instance, perhaps the first level approver is given three days to make a decision, at which point an alert is sent to their manager that there is a delay. After another 24 hours, their manager is designated as the new approver.
Some approval processes require stringent record keeping and audit trails.
Some approval processes require stringent record keeping and audit trails. This could be to comply with regulatory oversight or to simply adhere to organizational protocol. Having a complete history also makes for quick work in future investigations.
By default, each action within an approval workflow is time and date stamped with who did what and when. This self-generating audit information is also available for more advanced reporting.
User experience is key to adoption when a new process is introduced. Is the platform easy to understand for end-users? Even the most feature-rich solution will fail if your users do not embrace it. Keeping forms focused by using dynamic behavior (pre-populated fields, hiding irrelevant questions, etc.) and question-level help can go a long way to making users feel comfortable.
In addition, including references to documentation and videos for each task can ensure they understand the process. Also, consider how are users will be interacting with your platform. Are they reviewing from a tablet or phone?
Also, consider how are users will be interacting with your platform. Are they reviewing from a tablet or phone? Is the platform interface still user-friendly if an executive wants to review a request from their Android or iPhone? Even better, allow them to click an email link to approve or reject a request.
Depending on the nature of the approval process, there may be integration required with existing systems including CRM, ERP, Finance, HRIS, etc. For instance, once an expense request is approved you may want to update your finance system with the amount. The approval system should allow for integration with these kinds of systems via an open API.
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