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Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN)

What is Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN)?

Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN), also called Business Process Model and Notation, is an open standard to diagram a business process. It is like a flowchart and uses standardized graphics to represent the participants, choices and flow of the process. The diagrams are designed to be detailed, but easy to read without training. This allows the same diagram to be used by executives, analysts and technical implementation staff to foster collaboration and understanding between groups. A BPMN diagram does not directly translate to any specific implementation.

How is Business Process Modeling Notation used?

At its core, BPMN is a collection of symbols and rules on how to connect those symbols to represent a business process. These diagrams are referred to as a Business Process Model and they can be used to diagram a public or private process. The original intent of BPMN was to help bridge the communication gaps that often exist between the various departments within an organization or enterprise. BPMN is commonly used in business process management initiatives.

BPMN does not directly correlate to any specific workflow implementation, but it is often used to represent coded flows in an understandable way. For example, a business analyst may create a BPMN diagram representing a business process. A programmer can take that diagram and implement it using business process execution language (BPEL) code in business orchestration software. The software can then generate a BPMN diagram of the implemented process for review by an executive.

Business process categories
Business process categories include supporting processes, operational processes and management processes.

Overview of Business Process Modeling Notation icons

BPMN can be thought of as a graphic programming language. Each icon has a defined use and meaning in the diagram. These icons each represent a step or activity in the process.

Flow Objects are connected to create the main sequence and to control the process flow. They are subdivided into Flows, Events, Activities and Gateways.

  • Event. An occurrence indicating an interruption of a flow. It is represented by a circle. Events are subdivided into Start Events, Immediate Events or End Events.
  • Activity. Work done in a process represented by a rounded rectangle. They can be an atomic singular task, or a compound process made up of another process flow.
  • Gateway. A branching point in a flow represented by a diamond. They can be exclusive decisions, inclusive decisions, branching parallel activities or complex gateways.

Connecting Objects are directional arrows connecting flow objects to represent the sequence. There are three types of connecting objects: Sequence Flows, Message Flows and Associations.

  • Sequence Flow. A solid line representing the order of objects that have only one source and one destination.
  • Message Flow. A dashed line representing the flow of messages between participants.
  • Association. A dotted line to link artifacts with objects.

A Swimlane is a container for separating activities. Swimlanes can be horizontal or vertical. There are two types of swimlane: a pool and a lane.

  • Pool. A box representing a separate entity, such as another department or business. Pools can be drawn without internal process representation as a "black box" for external participants.
  • Lane. A box to partition within a pool to represent internal divisions. For example, to represent roles in an organization such as manager and associate.

Data objects are input, output and intermediary information in a process. They are represented as a file with a folded corner.

Artifacts are clarifying information added to a diagram that does not affect the flow. Examples are a dashed box to represent a grouping and a note for a text annotation.

Business process management lifecycle
Business process management lifecycle includes the design, model, execute, monitor and optimize phases.

History of Business Process Modeling Notation

BPMN was initially developed by the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI) in the early 2000s. After BPMI merged with the Object Management Group (OMG), they took over maintenance of the standard. In version 2, released in 2011, the name was changed to Business Process Model and Notation, but it kept the same acronym, BPMN. The latest version, released in 2014, is 2.0.2.

BPMN 2.0 introduced modern features to the standard. It includes a defined XML interchange format. It also allows for different classes of diagrams including the choreography diagram and the conversation diagram.

data flow diagram methods and symbols
BPMN is an open standard to diagram a business process, representing participants, choices and flow of a process.

BPMN relationship with other standards

BPMN is a powerful tool for representing business processes, but it is limited in scope and requires the use of other standards for implementation or to capture other types of activities. For decision flows, Decision Model and Notation is recommended. Although BPMN contains standards for data objects, it does not capture all events in the data lifecycle, therefore, a data flow diagram is recommended.

BPEL is an XML standard for orchestrating business processes for web services. There is no direct connection between BPEL and BPMN, but there are methods to map BPMN processes and flows into BPEL executable code. The BPMN can help model a BPEL before it is implemented or to help explain a BPEL flow.

Unified Modeling Language (UML) is a standard that helps software developers outline objects and relationships in software. The BPMN can help developers capture needed information to create a complete UML model of software in development.

Learn ways to maximize business process automation benefits, keys to transforming your business with hyperautomation and how to navigate the evolving BPA tools market.

This was last updated in April 2022

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