Workflow and Business Process
Several explanations for the term ‘Workflow’ exist. The 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 synonymous.
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’ also has an even more generic definition: a process that can apply to any kind of process (e.g., physical or biological process).
According to the above definitions, the meanings of the terms ‘Business Process’ and ‘Workflow’ are different, but nonetheless interrelated:
- A Business Process is related to any kind of activity (manual, automated) which realizes a business objective.
- A Workflow is a partially automated Business Process.
Workflow Management and Business Process Management
The terms ‘Workflow Management’ and ‘Business Process Management’ are both related to key aspects of management, albeit with a number of 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 that automatically manages the corresponding tasks.
On the other hand, the term ‘Business Process’ is more generic, though its management has a specific meaning. According to Gartner, the term ‘Business Process Management (BPM)’ has the following definition: “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 (Figure 1):
- Model or Design
- Implement or Deploy
- Optimize Business Processes
In contrast to Workflow Management, Business Process Management has a separate meaning: it is a management discipline that treats business processes as organizational assets.
Workflow Management Systems and Business Process Management Systems
The terms ‘Workflow Management System’ and ‘Business Process Management System’ are related to IT solutions that 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 relatively simple IT solution that directs documents and tasks to the appropriate 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.
A ‘Business Process Management System (BPMS)’ is the technology used to implement BPM.
Compared to a WfMS, a BPMS is more complex. This is because it tries to automate business processes from ‘end to end’. This means that a BPMS must include the tools and technologies required to support human tasks along with machine processing applications in a way that allows a company to flexibly manage its work.
A BPMS will also typically include reporting and charting capabilities to permit end-users and managers to understand the throughput and response times of 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 that offer support for the entire business process management lifecycle.
To summarize, a Workflow represents an approach and technology for automating a simple flow of tasks in a specific business context.
Business Process, meanwhile, is a more generic term that 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 built upon as part of a process of continuous improvement, which usually requires suitable IT support from a Business Process Management System.
- WFMC Terminology and Glossary English, available at www.wfmc.org.
- Mapping Business Processes to Workflows, available at www.wi-inf.uni-duisburg-essen.de/FGFrank/ecomod/index.php?workflow=default&&lang=en.
- Comparison of technologies for BPM – BPMS vs Workflow, available at www.improving-bpm-systems.blogspot.com/2010/04/comparison-of-technologies-for-bpm-bpms.html.
- BPM vs Workflow, available at www.bpmvsworkflow.com/bpm-vs-workflow.html.
- Do You Understand the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?, available at www.blogs.gartner.com/janelle-hill/2010/04/22/do-you-understand-the-difference-between-workflow-and-bpm.