Workflow vs. BPM: What's the difference?

While business process management and workflow work together, they have two very different functions. Learn how they can fit into your business model.

Colloquially, workflow and business process management are frequently used as synonyms. After all, both refer to incorporating computers into a work activity, automating multiple steps and coordinating day-to-day operations.

But there is a significant difference when it comes to workflow vs. BPM.

Workflow refers to the steps within a single activity. BPM, by comparison, sequences steps across many activities within an organization as a means of improving business results and operational agility.

Workflow is designed to ensure specific users perform particular tasks. It focuses on the steps for performing a single activity. One of the most common, for example, is an editorial review and approval workflow. The content creator, expert reviewer and copy editor all have roles to play, checking and modifying the content before submitting it for final publication.

Most contemporary web content management systems (WCMS) provide workflow management capabilities and user experiences to coordinate the steps -- such as moving draft content items from one reviewer to another -- and to track status updates. Workflow is considered a foundational capability of WCMSes, akin to library services, security and metadata services.

BPM sequences multiple activities across an enterprise that produce an operational result. BPM identifies and maps the set of activities required to complete that result. These activities often involve different departments or functional business units within an organization. They entail various interactions and information handoffs between multiple systems and people. BPM is frequently best represented through a process flow chart. Compared with workflow, BPM focuses on organizational activities, not the actions of individual workers.

For instance, with a software product launch process, the engineering group delivers the product, marketing rolls out the go-to-market campaign, the sales team develops its sales strategies and the customer care team resolves customer problems. Each activity in the process includes a series of steps, supported by different types of IT systems, process management engines and content services platforms.

In years past, BPM depended on complex, technology-driven deployments, typically using different enterprise applications and repositories. Implementation efforts took many months, if not years. Today, contemporary approaches to BPM entail nimbler, rapid application development techniques; cloud computing; flexible application development tools; and an ever-growing number of processes and content services.

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