If you’re familiar process management, you probably know that there’s a lot of buzzwords being thrown around. To make things worse, none of the buzzwords have a real, well-defined definition, so the whole thing can be really confused. The “workflow” or “process” are two of the most common used in the field. Despite this, depending on who you ask, you’ll be told that the two terms are either:
- Exactly the same thing
- Have only minor differences
- Are two completely different things
If you want to finally figure out what’s the difference between the two, we’re here to help!
Workflow VS Process – So What’s the Difference?
Before we dive into what the differences are and why are the two terms confused between each other, let’s start off with the definitions.
A workflow is a series of repeatable activities that you need to carry out to finish a task.
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A process, on the other hand, is a set of repeatable activities that need to be carried out to accomplish some sort of organizational goal.
Even from the definitions, we can see that might be the source of confusion here. Both terms do really sound the same, with end-goal being a major difference:
- A workflow implies finishing a certain task
- A process involves accomplishing an organizational goal
A task can be pretty much anything. So for example, having an important document signed by all the members of the management team.
An organizational goal is a bit more specific – it’s more macro level. Think, onboarding a new client, delivering superior customer experience, etc.
Considering this, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the terms are used interchangeably. In a lot of cases, a process will be exactly the same as a workflow.
Let’s take new employee onboarding as an example.
Since hiring new employees is an essential part of company growth, it can be seen as an organizational goal. Technically, it’s also a task – the HR has to go through several steps to get to get it done.
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Anyway ... we'll continue from where we left off above.
Meaning, new employee onboarding can be seen as both a process and a workflow.
Sometimes, though, you’ll have workflows that don’t have anything to do with organizational goals. These aren’t considered to be processes. For example, document management – your organization has to have a certain document signed by members of the management. This document, however, is purely bureaucratical and doesn’t have a lot of significance.
This would be a workflow – the document has to go through manager 1, 2, 3, and so on until the task is completed.
Source of Confusion & Other Definitions
While the differences we outlined are pretty conclusive, it doesn’t do much to avoid the confusion between the terms. The “organizational goals” aspect of processes can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. Hence, you’ll be seeing a lot of people use workflows and processes interchangeably.
This, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While there’s a clear theoretical difference between the two terms, they’re used exactly the same way in practice. It really doesn’t matter whether you say “let’s optimize that process” or “let’s improve that workflow.”
What might confuse you a bit more is the fact that you’ll find people who offer definitions of the two terms that are completely different from what we discussed. Some refer to workflows as “the automated process.” Others believe that a process is a top-down, high-level map of to-dos, while a workflow is the exact tasks an employee has to complete.
Since there’s no clear, set-in-stone definition for either “workflow” or “process,” though, this shouldn’t be too surprising.
So, when talking about processes or workflows with your colleagues, it never hurts to double-check if you’re on the same page!