Automation guide: How to manage educational expenses

This is the first piece in my series of posts about automation and its benefits to your business. Often when launching a company, people do staff manually. It's okay when you have a small team, but internal and external processes become more complicated as your business grows.

When it comes to automation, people think that it's a highly complex matter and try to avoid at all cost. With this series, I'll explain why it's so important to automate as many processes as you can, and that's pretty easy to do. Even more than that – it often requires no coding skills at all.

As a design thinking practitioner, I couldn't help but used the Double Diamond for the process description: DiscoverDefineDevelopDeliver.

1.  Discover (The Problem)

At Merge Development, we have a variety of programs that every employee can take benefit of. One of them is an educational program: a $1000 annual budget that employees can spend to achieve new skills and knowledge. It shouldn't be a specific profession or skill-related education, but anything that makes our employees happy – from buying a $20 book to funding a $2000 college tuition. We are only over 30 employees for now, but with time it will become hard to manage. So how do we keep track of it? With the help of this no-coding tutorial.

2. Define

Defining the problem is half of the solution. So let's start with that.

The Workflow

First, we need a workflow. It might look like a customer journey map, but I decided not to overcomplicate it instead went for a quick flowchart.

A flowchart with the process
A simple workflow is where you start

Participants

Now it's time to define the participants of the process. Let's call them 👩‍🎤 Applicant, 👷🏽‍♀️ Team Lead, and 👩🏼‍💻 Accountant. 👩‍🎤 Applicant requests the funding, 👷🏽‍♀️ Team Lead then approves the expense, and 👩🏼‍💻 Accountant pays the bills and then confirms whether the payment was successful.

A flowchart with the process and participants in it
Then add all participants

Artifacts

Knowing the steps and participants, we can set up a list of the needed tools and artifacts. The 👩‍🎤 Applicant needs to have access to the information about the Merge Education program (Wiki page) and then an easy way to apply for it. 👷🏽‍♀️ Team Lead and 👩🏼‍💻 Accountant should then process the request within some Database with a Kanban view.

Since we already used Notion as an internal knowledge base, I decided to use it for the Wiki and Database stuff.

For applications, I went for Typeform as the most easy-to-fill form software. Then I used Zapier to connect everything and a separate Slack channel for instant notifications on top of that.

I then created wiki pages on Notion to keep track of the annual spending limit and the processing tutorial.

A flowchart with the process, participants and artifacts in it
And artifacts on top of that

3. Develop

Wiki Page

Maybe, the most straightforward part of the equation. Just an information page with the explanation, guide, and a small FAQ.

Form

As of today, the sexiest and most converting forms on the market use Typeform. If you can live with some hassle with exporting the form data, it's a no-brainer. Hopefully, they improved their security after the 2018 data breach, but I'd recommend not to store any sensitive data in there.

The form is pretty basic: name, work email, the request subject, description, price, and a link to the course or program. Quickly built in minutes, no experience needed.

Typeform's interface for form creation
Creating forms in Typeform literally takes minutes

Database

I recommend using Notion, but any other software with similar functions will do. I started with the basic Kanban board with statuses for each request: ⏳ pending👍 approved💰 paid✔ verified and 👎 rejected.

The nice thing about Notion is that you can share each piece of content separately. So after the individual request is shared to the 👩‍🎤 Applicant, they can upload the receipt for validation by the 👩🏼‍💻 Accountant without acquiring access to the whole database (unlike in Airtable).

A Kanban board with the requests for education
A simple Kanban board is perfect to monitor all requests at once

I pull the info about the education price from the form data and automatically calculate how much we can reimburse. The tricky part of this action was to define which amount to reimburse, 50% or 75%. It required adding a few 'technical' fields.

An opened page with all the data for the education request
This is how a request looks in Notion

The last step is to tie the requests to the employee profile (which we all have) on Notion. It will also help to calculate the annual spendings for every employee within a 'YYYY Education' roll-up field:

4. Deliver

Connecting everything and making it work

Setting up everything is easy, but making sure it does work properly is a little bit complicated. Still, it's manageable even you don't know how to write a single line of code.

To make everything work, I used Zapier. It has both the Typeform and Notion integrations. Typeform is a one-click integration; Notion is a bit trickier but still pretty easy to set up.

Zapier's interface
Zapier might confuse new users, but it's pretty easy to use once you get gist of it

There was one problem, though: in the Zapier-Notion connection, you're allowed to write into static fields, not into relations/links or formulas.

And here comes the first trade-off: Zapier sends out the Applicant name and email as "Content" and then sets the relation to the Members database. Other than that, everything works just as expected: you get the data from Typeform, test the connection, map the fields, get your form data written into the Notion database.

Notifications

Slack has its Notion app in the marketplace. Install the app and just turn the slider Connect Slack channel on the Updates on your Notion database's top right. Once it's on, you get the notifications in Slack.

The results

Not everything appeared to work as I wanted to. Any no-code tool has its downsides, and it's okay – accept it and live with it, or build your own software. But for smaller companies like ours, it's an excellent method to automate otherwise tedious tasks.

As for the software I used, it has two downsides:

  • Notion is not Excel. The formulas are fundamental, and most likely, you'll have some trade-offs. Otherwise, you can always switch to Google Sheets, which is not a wrong choice but rather a preference.
  • Typeform+Notion requires manual fields mapping in Zapier. If you have a massive form with many fields and want to play around with them, Google Forms+Sheets would be the better choice. Not so fancy, but updated automatically.

Other than that, it's a great solution that worked very well for us.

As for the price we are already paying for Notion, Zapier, and Slack for other tasks and processes, so basically it's kinda free.

In the next posts, I'll explore no-code implementations more, so feel free to subscribe to our newsletter below to get the latest blog posts into your email.

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Anton Parkhomenko

COO

I help companies design, implement, and execute their operational processes. Occasionally, I write about no-code implementations and automation.

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