Workflow vs Business Process Management – What’s the Difference?

It’s not uncommon for people to use workflow management and process management interchangeably. After all, there are some fundamental similarities between the two that makes it easy to confuse the terminology.

Let us take an example of the accounting department of a business. Business process management will include managing its complete activity set like payables, team salaries, vendors etc. On the other hand, workflow automation for this department can be setting up an application to manage payables only.Plasma

In the grand scheme of business, whether you call it a workflow or business process management isn’t going to necessarily impact the project itself.

Unless you’re actually trying to achieve a specific goal, like improving efficiency. Then the distinction is very important.

In this piece, we’ll talk about the similarities and differences between the two so you can accurately plan your projects, recognize where each is applicable in business, and know which resources are most appropriate going forward.

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Understanding Workflow Management

Workflow management is typically done through a tool that allows project managers or leadership teams to create and oversee a specific sequence of tasks that are all part of a specific workflow. This is usually done through some kind of a diagram that shows the flow of work.

The workflow diagrams tend to be fairly basic; it’s typically the most rudimentary set of instructions which provide enough information for someone to take action and move on to the next step.

What’s important to note about workflow management is it’s less about the process and more about the people who are involved as well as their specific role.

For example: A workflow might start with a customer with split options that show them booking a taxi by phone or online. This connects them to a live operator on one branch or through an agent online. Both branches might converge to a specific server where the next step is a booked ride with one of the several drivers available in the workflow.

customers to taxi server workflow chart

It’s not typically an automated process, but the workflow shows the flow of the customer and the structured path to booking along with the specific people involved.

Another example of a workflow is one that can be credit for a specific role and includes a specific set of instructions or next steps based on yes or no questions. In the following image, you can see the workflow begins with Reading an article. The workflow includes instructions on what to do based on yes or no answers, ultimately leading to one of two conclusions.

article publishing workflow flowchart

Again, with the workflow, you’re dealing with people-centric tasks.

Applicable uses for workflow management

While some workflows can be automated with more costly tools, typically around a workflow that is executed several times simultaneously, most are not. They’re merely there to define key steps in a specific task where multiple people are involved and they outline each individual’s role.

Here are some examples of where workflow systems are commonly used:

Sales Departments -When representatives at different levels may be going through a similar sales cycles across a portfolio of clients, where each of those clients is at a different stage of the sales funnel. This is similar to the booking example above.

Customer Service – Workflows are often used in customer service and technical support when you have varied tiers of services. A workflow defines which agents handle which tasks. Based on the inquiry from the customer or their specific issue, the workflow provides instruction on how the issue should be routed and assigned

Manufacturing – In manufacturing, a workflow would define the specific steps to completion of a step in production and those who are involved. This is often seen in segments of a production line.

Organizational Workflow – Larger workflows can be created that show a 30,000’ overview of the general flow of business. For example, it might show the flow in a B2B business starting with a purchase order that goes to receiving, to manufacturing, then moves to the warehouse, to packaging and finally to distribution. In this example, there are no specifics to the processes but instead, it shows the overall workflow, which might even include other incoming branches from customer service or a sales department.

Again, it focuses on the people/departments and not on the detailed processes.

Understanding Business Process Management (BPM)

If workflows focus on the people performing the tasks and their individual roles, then business process management focuses on defining the individual processes of an organization in an effort to improve the efficiency of those processes.

With the approach, a company would typically define the current processes being employed from end to end. Those processes would be detailed to include the actions and steps that are part of each phase of the process. This can be done for a specific project, for individual departments, or for an organization as a whole.

bpm business process management life cycle

This initial process map allows you to see where things begin to bottleneck and where the seams may be starting to give way and reduce the efficiency. When matched with data it provides clear insight on the changes you can make to improve individual segments to make the process more efficient.

Businesses seeking to grow typically use process management to streamline efforts across multiple departments and teams, and ultimately reduce costs or provide a better quality of service to customers.

In the previous segment, there was an example in manufacturing where workflow defined specific steps in a production line. With business process management you would map out detailed instructions of every step that takes place. Then, using data, you could identify the most critical bottlenecks to make that production line more efficient.

How Business Process Management (BPM) Is Typically Deployed

Virtually every business can benefit from process management as they work to accomplish their goals and objectives. Even a drop shipping business can clearly define the processes that involve sourcing goods, how those goods get listed on the website, how they’re marketed and promoted, how orders are fulfilled and how post-order engagement takes place to improve a customer’s lifetime value.

Here are a few examples of what process management can be used for:

Healthcare organizations – Healthcare systems like hospitals have a lot of different teams working to care for patients.  The processes are complex and there’s a lot of opportunities for problems to occur. Process management helps reduce inefficiencies and bottlenecks to provide a better quality of care for patients.

Financial – Banks and other financial institutions, like Hedge Funds, use business process management to ensure each step in their processes are followed closely in order to comply with federal regulations.

Creative – Design agencies that work with multiple teams and contractors use process management frequently. That ties provide accurate details and next steps as projects move from ideation to design, coding and development, copy production, quality assurance, review, and deployment. Creating approval processes maximizes efficiency and eliminates bottlenecks.

Workflow VS Business Process Management (BPM): Key Differences

If your workflow is the instructions, the process management creates the strategy to ensure the people and the steps work as intended. Think of your workflow like the playbook for a football team. It defines where a player should be during a specific play. In that scenario, the team’s coach is the process management. He has everything mapped out in terms of who goes where, how they get there, what they need to do make each play successful, etc. He is there to deploy each play in the most efficient manner, monitor it, make corrections and keep the team efficient.

Remember, workflows focus on organizing people or departments, and in some cases resources and documents. Once a workflow is created it’s often followed like a map until someone deems that a change is necessary.

Business process management, on the other hand, is an ongoing monitoring and analysis of the overall process once it has been defined and deployed. Rather than just making sure the right person is on the right task, or that a specific document has been sent.

With that said, it’s quite common to create workflows that manage and even automate individual segments within larger processes.


What you choose is largely determined by your goals. If you need to create a detailed map of the processes in your organization with the goal of improving efficiency and reducing costs from errors or bottlenecks then business process management is the most suitable option. It’s scalable, and with an approval process system in place, you can ensure that your processes are running efficiently and consistently.

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