It’s not uncommon for people to confuse ‘workflow’ with ‘process’, even within sectors which are intimately involved with both. This isn’t so hard to believe, when you know that workflow management is closely related to and part of business process management (BPM), and vice versa. Depending on whom you ask, they can be seen as completely interchangeable or diametrically opposed.
What is the difference between workflow and business process management?
- Workflow and business process management are closely related
- Workflow forms a small part of most business process management methods/systems
- Both terms are used informally as imperfect descriptions of the same thing
- Workflow relates to task management and how processes are physically enacted
- BPM focuses more on ‘big picture’ elements – how people, systems and results are aligned
- Workflow emphasises making sure that process steps are followed correctly and in order
- BPM focuses primarily on holistically improving an entire organisation’s efficiency
Carry on reading as we examine each argument in more detail.
Similarities between workflow management and business processes management
The very earliest business process management methodologies concerned themselves primarily with issues of workflow or, in other words, how processes work. It’s easy to understand why people confuse them, as workflow management continues to be an aspect of contemporary BPM systems.
Workflow management has sometimes been referred to as ‘Business Process Management Lite’ due to its offering an excellent starting point for analysing and understanding the way your company operates – which is the ultimate goal of BPM, after all.
There is no doubt that amongst certain individuals the two terms are used interchangeably, with various subtle shades of difference between multiple definitions. Usually there are differences between ‘workflow management’ and ‘business process management’ but the contrasting elements can vary depending on culture, region and workplace experience. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a definitive answer, but it’s worth noting that not all practitioners of these systems will find themselves on the same page.
Contrasting workflow management and BPM
While the analysis and optimisation of workflows undoubtedly forms a part of business process management, that is not to say they are indistinguishable. In fact, there are several factors which separate them despite their close links.
Workflow concerns itself primarily with managing repeatable tasks, ensuring individual processes are accomplished to standard, or the organisation of people and documents. In particular it focuses on ensuring the right steps are taken, in the right way, in the right order to deliver business objectives.
BPM, on the other hand, is a much broader management discipline. It covers not only process modelling and improvement, but business initiatives such as transformation or change management, as well as ultimately dealing with the goal of improving overall business efficiency.
Sometimes a BPM scheme, therefore, can begin with a workflow analysis to understand what the business actually does on a day-to-day basis. Once the department or organisation’s processes are mapped and understood – revealing issues such as bottlenecks or inefficiencies – BPM picks up with a much more goal-oriented approach. It looks at everything from processes to staff and systems in order to deliver continuous optimisation, reducing costs and delivering increased efficiencies.
In simple terms: Imagine you’re going on a journey. There’s a fair list of things to accomplish – filling up with petrol, planning the route, ensuring you arrive in the right place at the right time. This describes workflow: the minimum number of steps to be taken in order to accomplish your goal.
In this analogy, business process management is more like the traffic controller ensuring proper movement of all individual journeys occurring on its watch. In order to deliver the smoothest journey for everybody, a traffic controller monitors traffic, analyses past data, designs improved solutions and implements them. It co-ordinates all aspects of your objective – data, people, processes and systems.
Choosing between workflow management and BPM
Which management method is right for your business? That depends largely on the type of organisation you have and the intended result of the system once implemented.
Workflow improvement systems and tools provide a great deal of value in customer service or sales departments, where improvement of staff performance is the primary goal. The right software solution can provide relevant information, materials and access to individuals who need it, ensuring timely delivery of tasks with automated alarms or triggers. However, if your improvement objective’s scope reaches beyond a few departments, a more comprehensive approach may be required.
Most companies undergoing a business improvement initiative will investigate using a dedicated BPM system. As long as your organisation has the budget and willpower to implement them, BPM systems tend to provide large benefits against the cost of resource investment. This is largely due to their healthy focus on the big picture – analysing and optimising all of the elements making up organisational performance. BPM software solutions can offer an unbelievable level of control and ownership of numerous important areas from evaluation to manual notifications. Because the solutions are scalable, too, organisations can test the solution’s efficacy within one department before expanding out to the whole company.
Ultimately, although they are closely related, workflow management and business process management can be easily distinguished from each other as long as you remember some fundamental truths. Workflow is about routing of tasks, without any optimisation involved. BPM, meanwhile, concerns itself with the means and methods of optimising business operations by measuring and adjusting any number of flows and processes.