BPMN Process Vs Workflow

Workflow and Business Process

Several explanations of the term ‘Workflow’ exist, where Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) defines the term Workflow as “An automation of a business process, in whole or part, during which documents, information or tasks are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules.”

It also states that the terms Workflow and Workflow Management are synonyms.

In contrast, WfMC defines the term Business Process as: “a set of one or more linked procedures or activities which collectively realize a business objective or policy goal, normally within the context of an organizational structure defining functional roles and relationships.”

A Business Process has even a more generic term – a process, which can apply to any kind of a process (e.g. physical or biological process).

According to above definitions, the meanings of the terms Business Process and Workflow are different but interrelated:

  • A Business Process in related to any kind of activity (manual, automated) which realizes a business objective.
  • A Workflow is an (partial) automation of a Business Process.

Workflow Management and Business Process Management

The terms Workflow Management and Business Process Management are related to the management of the primary terms, with following commonalities and differences.

As already stated, the terms Workflow and Workflow Management can be treated as synonyms. This is reasonable, since a Workflow already represents a system, which automatically manages the corresponding tasks.

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On the other hand, the term Business Process is a more generic one, where its management has a specific meaning. According to Gartner, the term Business Process Management (BPM) is defined following: “BPM is a management discipline that treats business processes as assets that directly contribute to enterprise performance by driving operational excellence and business agility. The most critical disciplines for BPM success are related to nontechnical issues, such as changing people’s attitudes and assumptions based on building a new frame of reference or perspective (that is, the process perspective) for evaluating business performance of government agencies.”

BPM is commonly represented by the following set of activities, organized into a lifecycle: define, design or model, simulate, deploy or implement, execute, monitor, analyze and optimize business processes (Figure 1).

bpmn workflowIn contrast to Workflow Management has Business Process Management a separate meaning. It is a management discipline that treats business processes as organizational assets.

Workflow Management System and Business Process Management System

Workflow Management System and Business Process Management System terms are related to IT solutions which support individual concepts. WfMC defines a Workflow Management System (WfMS) as: “A system that defines, creates and manages the execution of workflows through the use of software, running on one or more workflow engines, which is able to interpret the process definition, interact with workflow participants and, where required, invoke the use of IT tools and applications.”

In practice, a WfMS is usually a relative simple IT solution, which directs documents and tasks to the responsible users in a specific business process. The process flow is mostly fixed and the ability to integrate between workflow-specific systems and other external systems is often limited.

Business Process Management System (BPMS) is the technology that implements BPM.

Compared to WfMS, it is more complex since a BPMS tries to automate Business Processes from ‘end to end’. This means that a BPMS includes the tools and technologies for supporting human tasks along with machine processing applications in a way, which allows a company to flexibly manage its work.

BPMS also includes reporting and charting capabilities to permit end users and managers to understand the throughput and response times of the business processes. In contrast to a WfMS a BPMS connects disparate systems enabling seamless data sharing and universal control from a single interface.

Workflow Management Systems are centralized and dedicated IT solutions, which automate specific business activities. On the other hand, Business Process Management Systems are decentralized and generic IT solutions which offer support for the entire business process management lifecycle.

Conclusion

To summarize, a Workflow represents an approach and technology for automating a simple flow of tasks in a specific business context.

On the other hand, a business process is a more generic term, which usually involves a complex flow of automated and non-automated tasks. Since business processes are organizational assets that create business value, they have to be managed and systematically improved, which usually requires a suitable IT support – a Business process management system.

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Gregor received his PhD in 2008 in the fields of software engineering and information systems and has nearly a decade of experience in BPMN, starting to investigate and actively use BPMN since its introduction in 2004. In addition, he has participated in the development of one of the first BPMN modeling utilities - a package of plugins for Visio, which were introduced early in 2005 and is the main author of the first BPMN poster (bpmn.itposter.net), which has been translated into several languages and already exceeded 50.000 downloads.