The difference between workflow and business process management

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By Peter Hilton

When you talk about business process management and mention workflow management in the same breath, people sometimes ask the obvious question: ‘What is the difference between BPM and workflow management?’ Are they the same thing, or is that like comparing apples and oranges?

It’s a good question, because BPM is a broad subject, and there is more than enough room for confusion. With that in mind, there are two potentially reasonable answers to the question.

  1. BPM and workflow are just the same thing.
  2. BPM and workflow are not the same thing.

Oops! Some people are more bothered by this awkward situation than others. That’s also entirely reasonable, which is why this question deserves a good answer. Here are two  alternatives to choose between.

Workflow is the modelling part of BPM

How you think about workflow vs BPM seems to heavily depend on your perspective. If you have a broad focus or work on the management part of BPM, then you probably get annoyed when people think BPM is a kind of software.

The broad view of BPM considers workflow to only be about process modelling or perhaps execution.

From this perspective, BPM includes:

  • organisational process mapping – discovering the ‘process landscape’
  • detailed process modelling – designing how the work works
  • managing process execution – team management
  • automating process execution – using software
  • managing process improvement.

This is, above all, the view that BPM is a management discipline and not just what process analysts or (worse) software developers do. For bonus points, you might even extend the list with things like process excellence, transformation and change management.

The main benefit of this point of view is that it helps avoid inappropriate model-obsession or technology-obsession, and encourages an appreciation of the big picture. However, the alternative has benefits too.

Workflow is the same as business process

Life might just lot be a lot simpler if you take the view that workflow management and business process management are just two imperfect names for the same thing. After all, both terms are equally vague, so it isn’t always helpful to attach more specific meanings to one or the other.

There are still plenty of differences between what people mean when they talk about ‘workflow management’ or

‘process management’. However, these tend to be different ways that different people understand or apply workflow and process management, rather than differences between the two.

The only reason that we have more than one name for process-oriented approaches is that we’re still looking at a better name. After all, work doesn’t really ‘flow’ anywhere, and it isn’t just businesses that have processes. Business process management isn’t a very good name for the discipline, for example because it isn’t only useful for businesses, but it’s the best name we have. Apart from ‘workflow management’, unless you think that’s worse, of course.

The way this point of view works is that you agree with the idea that there’s a multi-faceted management discipline that possibly includes things like modelling and technology, and only add that the terms ‘business process’ and ‘workflow’ are interchangeable. Then use the term that seems least odd in each situation.

Tools for workflow management and BPM

One of the reasons for having to think about this thorny but frivolous question is the apparent contradiction between the Signavio Process Editor and Signavio Workflow products, and what they are used for.

Signavio Process Editor is very much a BPM solution, whether or not you think that’s the same thing as workflow. Professional process modellers use it to create and publish detailed process models, which have a variety of uses and can be valuable resources.

Signavio Workflow’s original tagline was ‘workflow simplified’, which we used because it sounds friendlier than anything about BPM, in some circles. This is a perfectly reasonable idea, because Signavio Workflow is easy enough to use that business people – operations staff, HR and various kinds of managers – can use it to automate their workflows without a process analyst in sight.

On the other hand, Signavio Workflow is really a Business Process Management System in that it uses models based on BPMN 2.0 to automate business processes, adding user collaboration, custom forms and integration with other information systems, which is what any other BPMS does. The ‘only’ difference is that Signavio Workflow is a tool that everyone can use.

In conclusion, you can resolve the confusion between BPM and workflow management either way, and everything’s probably going to be alright. It doesn’t really matter whether you classify systems as workflow software or business process software. The only complication is when you start thinking about using Signavio Workflow for case management as well as workflow, but that’s another story altogether.