What is a Workflow Engine and its uses?

Every business has processes that follow certain work that needs to be done in a particular order, has conditional logic that can branch out work, and may involve data transformation or processing of data based on certain business rules. To facilitate the automation of such complex processing rules and logic, workflow engines and business rule engines were developed.

We will learn about workflow engines, different types of workflows, the components of a workflow, their benefits, and how they can be used to solve business process automation.

What is a workflow engine?

A workflow engine is a piece of software or service that allows a user to define the processes, steps, conditional logic, and data transformation needs, in a structured manner. This allows capturing the workflow rules in a standard and programmatic form, which other software applications can use to automate processing business rules.

The basic components of a workflow or business rules engine are input, conditional logic (optional), transformation, and output.

Workflow and business rules engines use conditionals, transitions, and tasks, to allow smaller blocks of workflows to be included as part of a bigger workflow. The tasks can do basic computations, data transformation, and implement integration with existing business processes.

What are the uses and benefits of a workflow engine?

Workflows and business rules automation can streamline and automate mundane, repeatable tasks, thereby reducing human errors and increasing efficiency, standardization, and reliability. It also helps in documenting the business processes in a way that can be easily versioned and kept updated to the changing business needs.

Workflows and business rules engines can manage complex transitions, data life cycles, and flows to meet a predefined business objective.

With visual, low-code, or no-code workflow and business rule automation tools, it further enhances the capabilities of a business user to define and manage workflows & business rules without the need for developers to program the business processes.

What are the types of workflows?

Based on the complexity of the business needs, workflows can be categorized into sequential, transitional with state, and rules-driven. Let’s describe each type in detail and see some examples.


A sequential workflow is the simplest type of workflow, where a series of steps are executed in a sequential manner in a forward direction. It has a distinct start and end state and can have conditional logic interspersed in between.

Example: The process of requesting vacation or leave. The requestor starts the workflow by specifying the dates, reason, etc. for the leave, and submits the request. The request is sent to an approver. The conditional logic being the approver can either approve the request or reject it. Based on the action of the approver, the workflow ends with either an approved request or a rejected request.

Sequential workflow of a leave requisition process

Transitional with State

Another type of workflow is that has a series of steps that can transition from one state to another and can go back and forth between the steps. It has an idle state where the workflow starts and where the workflow ultimately ends. It can have conditional logic interspersed in between that determines the state at any point in the workflow.

Example: A travel booking tool with the customer transitioning from state to state as they make decisions. The example assumes a simple workflow without rules, to determine the state and uses simple user-driven actions to manage the workflow.

In the following state diagram, the user starts in the Idle state. They can then select a flight by moving to the FlightSelection state. From here, they can either cancel and return to the Idle state, or select a hotel and move to the HotelSelection state. They can continue to select or cancel options until they reach the PaymentProcessing state, where they can confirm their booking or cancel and return to the RentalCarSelection state. Once the booking is confirmed, they move to the BookingConfirmed state, where they can finish the process or cancel and move to the CustomerCanceled state.

Transitional workflow of a travel booking process


A more complex type of workflow is which has a series of steps and the transition between those is determined by a set of predetermined rules. It can use a combination of states between the steps, conditionals, and specific rules.

Example: A bank loan application process using certain rules that determine whether an application is approved or rejected based on the applicant’s credit score, income, and other factors.

Here’s how the workflow might look:

  1. Receive loan application from the applicant
  2. Check credit score: If the credit score is above 700, proceed to step 3. If the credit score is below 700, reject the application and notify the applicant.
  3. Check income: If income is above $50,000, proceed to step 4. If income is below $50,000, reject the application and notify the applicant.
  4. Check debt-to-income ratio: If the debt-to-income ratio is below 50%, approve the application and notify the applicant. If the debt-to-income ratio is above 50%, reject the application and notify the applicant.

It is an example of a rules-based workflow, where each step in the process is determined by a set of predetermined rules.

Rules-driven workflow of a bank loan application process

What are some examples of workflow engines?

What are some examples of workflows?

In our day-to-day life, we come across and use several different types of workflows, and here are some examples of simple to very complex workflows, using a mix of all the types of workflows described earlier:

  • Leave/vacation request
  • Expense reimbursement
  • Bank loan
  • Credit card issue request
  • Travel request authorization
  • New employee onboarding
  • Sales order
  • Recruitment
  • Travel booking
  • Tax Preparation
  • Customer journey

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