Enterprise technology vendors rev up the workflow buzzword machine

ServiceNow popularized the workflow automation category, and Salesforce wants a piece of the market too. Here's a look at the workflow playing field and where vendors like Zoom fit in.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Workflow is becoming the buzzword of 2021 for a broad range of software and cloud giants as collaboration, hybrid work, automation and task management all collide.

Based on transcripts from earnings calls and analyst events it's clear that workflow is bubbling up as a technological term.

  • ServiceNow, which built a juggernaut on delivering workflow automation and popularized it, mentioned "workflow" 32 times on its most recent earnings call. ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott noted that customers are buying workflow infrastructure for IT, customers, employees and creators. And for what it's worth, ServiceNow essentially started the slow-moving workflow bandwagon. During its 2013 analyst meeting, ServiceNow executives mentioned workflow 35 times as they laid out the case that the company could expand beyond IT service management.
  • Salesforce on its second-quarter earnings call covered the term workflow twice in depth. Bret Taylor, president and chief operating officer at Salesforce, said: "IBM is one of my favorite examples of a Slack-First Customer 360 company. IBM has built their entire Customer 360 on Salesforce. Over 530,000 customers, 380,000 employees and 50,000 partners using our platform. And all of these employees are working in Slack. They've connected their workflows across Sales Cloud, across Service Cloud and enables them to connect and take action from anywhere."
  • Zoom executives during their Zoomtopia analyst day covered workflow tools and strategies four times.
  • Microsoft also talked about its role in enabling workflows twice on its most recent earnings call.
  • Atlassian also talked about automated workflows in relation to Jira. "The best thing we can do is be deeply integrated in all of those places. We believe that's best for the customers. It is then our job to automate workflows, to coordinate data and to do that the best we can across all of those different applications," said Atlassian co-CEO Michael Cannon-Brookes.

If this workflow-meets-messaging and collaboration apps vibe sounds familiar that's because it is the next enterprise software battleground. As work goes hybrid and automates, workflow engines that operate within collaborative apps (essentially the digital office these days) will be critical. That vision is why Salesforce bought Slack and is now integrating ahead of its Dreamforce conference. It's also why ServiceNow's latest Now Platform release has a heavy dose of automated workflows and integrations with Microsoft Teams. And it's why Zoom at Zoomtopia spent a lot of time talking about workflows and how it can integrate with video meetings and collaboration.  

How will this workflow war play out? Here's a crib sheet of the landscape today and how it'll evolve.

ServiceNow-Microsoft vs. Salesforce-Slack.

If this were a professional wrestling match, ServiceNow-Microsoft vs. Salesforce-Slack would be the lead tag team battle. I'll spare you the Photoshop putting ServiceNow Bill McDermott and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in wrestling gear largely because I did it a few years ago.

But I digress. Ultimately, the ServiceNow-Microsoft vs. Salesforce-Slack is about automating work within the collaboration. Think about bringing services into collaboration tools. What remains to be seen is whether ServiceNow and Salesforce collide directly. ServiceNow is focused on more backend processes such as resolving issues, answering questions, fixing broken things and streamlining approvals. Salesforce is more of a front-end workflow play with Customer 360, CRM, customer service and sales and bringing insights into tools like Slack.

Collaboration moves into workflows.

Zoom may be ahead of the workflow meets collaboration game, but at Zoomtopia the company's video-centric approach to workflow is telling. Zoom is building industry-specific templates and bringing in apps to its platforms to meet employees where they are.

Oded Gal, chief product officer at Zoom, said at Zoomtopia:

A little less than 2 months ago, we announced Zoom Apps. Zoom Apps consists of over 50 launch partners with apps that you can use in the Zoom Meeting today. They are already some of the most popular of the 1,500-plus third-party integrations in the Zoom App Marketplace and include integrations with HubSpot, DocuSign, Google Suite, Microsoft Office and more.

Gal cited DocuSign integration as a strong workflow example.

You can see here the workflow really integrates the ability to sign a document while you're in a video meeting.

And Graeme Geddes, head of Zoom Phone, said at Zoomtopia:

We've seen a tremendous level of interest and adoption from Zoom Rooms from our customers as it's been central to their own return-to-office strategies. Over the past year, we've leveraged the power of Zoom Rooms to help our customers build new spaces and workflows to support a new, hybrid way of working. We introduced a number of capabilities, for example, if we go to the next slide, kiosk mode to support virtual receptionists; people counting and voice commands to support corporate safety standards and social distancing practices; and Smart Gallery.

With Zoom talking about workflows and integrations with enterprise app players, rest assured that other video collaboration vendors are going to follow suit. For what it's worth, Cisco's most recent earnings conference call didn't surface workflows in reference to WebEx.

The rest of the field and workflow washing.

Once this workflow theme gains more traction you can rest assured other technology vendors will pile on. We've seen the buzzword bingo before so get ready for "cloud-enabled blockchain quantum AI and machine learning powered workflow automation" headlines any day now.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. A member writes it of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. 


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