What is the difference between BPM and Workflow? What do they have in common? We look back at the definitions and origins of the terms and discuss the relationship between BPM and Workflow. The author: 20 years of experience in corporate software. Master (Informatics). Certified Information Security Specialist by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Project manager certified by METI.
1. Definition of BPM
In order to compare the two terms it is necessary to define each of them. First we would like to discuss the definition of BPM. The term „Business Process Management“ (BPM) has been defined in various ways by various organisations and bodies.
1-1. Gartner’s definition of BPM
The definition by Gartner Inc, one of the most influential companies in the IT industry, is important to note. (Gartner, Inc: IT advisory firm, Wikipedia En)
Original quote: Business process management (BPM) is a discipline that uses various methods to discover, model, analyze, measure, improve and optimize business processes. A business process coordinates the behavior of people, systems, information and things to produce business outcomes in support of a business strategy. Processes can be structured and repeatable, or unstructured and variable. Though not required, technologies are often used with BPM. BPM is key to align IT/OT investments to business strategy.
The first and most improtant thing to keep in mind is that Business Process Management is
not just a word that refers to IT tools.
Author’s note: BPM is a discipline. This discipline is difficult to translate. In this article, we dare to translate it as a code of conduct. Some dictionaries translate it as „group discipline“, „organizational control“, or „academic discipline“, but none of these are quite right. Incidentally, we often see BPM described as an academic discipline. However, I feel that the Japanese translation is not only uncomfortable but also a mistranslation. In the original and philosophical sense (e.g. M. Foucault’s discipline (Wikipedia En)), there should be a strong nuance of teaching from authority. I think that a better translation would be doctrine, guidelines and a code of conduct.
1-2. How we approach BPM
We know that BPM is a code of conduct and that it refers to initiatives within a department or across the company. But how are these initiatives put into practice?
Many corporate initiatives are based on indicators or goals. In business process management activities, the maturity of an organization is often referred to. It varies from company to company and depends on the consulting company supporting it, but basically it refers to five stages from one to five. In some cases there is a stage 0 which assumes that there is nothing to manage (Reproduction).
Incidentally, I think that 0: chaos, 1: definition, 2: control, 3: governance, 4: control and 5: adaptation are appropriate expressions.
Unlike other management activities (QMS, EMS, ISMS, etc.) there is no international standard (ISO) for business process management. In the first place, business process is an expression that encompasses various processes such as quality management, environmental assessment, etc. It seems to be too broad in scope.
- ▼Notes▼ Maturity-related standards
- QMS: Quality Management System
- Control of the quality of manufactured goods and services provided. International standardisation since 1987 (ISO 9000)
- Quality management system〔Wikipedia En〕
- EMS: Environmental Management System
- Management of efforts to achieve environmental targets. International standardisation since 1996 (ISO 14000)
- Environmental management system〔Wikipedia En〕
- ISMS: Information Security Management System
- Managing the security of your information assets. International standardisation in 2000 (ISO/IEC 27000)
- Information security management system〔Wikipedia En〕
- PMS: Personal information protection management
- Management of personal data protection activities. Japan Industrial Standards (JIS Q 15001)
- Personal data protection management system
- ▼Notes▼ Gartner’s BPM standard (6 stages)
- Gartner Research: BPM Maturity Model Identifies Six Phases for Successful BPM Adoption
- The Six Phases
- Phase 0: Acknowledge Operational Inefficiencies
- Phase 1: Become Process Aware
- Phase 2: Establish Intraprocess Automation and Control
- Phase 3: Establish Interprocess Automation and Control
- Phase 4: Establish Enterprise Valuation Control
- Phase 5: Create an Agile Business Structure
1-3. History of BPM
By the way, when did business process management activities come into practice?
In the IT and consulting industries, there is widespread support for the idea that the theoretical basis of BPM originates from F. Taylor’s Scientific Management Method (circa 1910).
More than 100 years later, it is still widely recognised as a management theory for analysing and harmonising workflows in organisations〔Scientific Management: Wikipedia En Ja〕. It is said that the idea of managing processes has been inherited by Kaizen activities (quality management methodology) in the 1960s, CMMI (software development methodology) in the 1980s, and COBIT (IT governance methodology) in the 1990s.
What is important here is that BPM
is not a new way of thinking that has emerged in the last 10 or 20 years.
If you think about it, the expression „I want to manage the process“ is a very common phrase. I think it is a universal code of conduct that has existed over a long history. And the term Business Process Management (BPM) itself came to be noticed in the 2000s. This was when Gartner itself coined the term Business Process Management Suite (BPMS).
Author’s note: I’ve always thought that the act of managing business processes is a very natural desire for highly social humans. To put it another way, the history of business process management is the same as the history of mankind I think. For example, when Hideyoshi Toyotomi ordered the surveying of all the agricultural land in Japan, the concept of process seemed to exist. I think there was at least a defined (and controlled) procedure for surveying and a reporting format for assigning roles (but who knows for sure).〔Taikou Kenshi, Japanese Wiki Corpus En〕
1-4. BPMS definition by Gartner
So why did we need the term Business Process Management Suite again?
I would like to review Gartner’s definition of BPMS.
Original quote: Business process management suites (BPMSs) are the leading application infrastructures to support BPM projects and programs. A BPMS supports the entire process improvement life cycle – from process discovery, definition and design to implementation, monitoring and analysis, and through ongoing optimization. Its model-driven approach enables business and IT professionals to work together more collaboratively throughout the life cycle than is possible with other approaches to solution delivery.
Once again, the term Business Process Management Suite was necessary because we wanted to promote a model-driven approach, which is, in short, a new technological trend.
The term Model-Driven Approach has a very deep meaning. I will try to explain it in more detail in the next chapters.
Just keep in mind here that Business Process Management Suite
is a term that refers to IT tools.
The word „suite“ means a set of rooms. A hotel suite is a collection of different rooms. A suite of office software includes Word, Power Point, and many more.
1-5. BPM definition by various organisations
How do other organisations define Business Process Management?
In general the wording is similar to „1-1. Gartner’s definition of BPM“ (← not a term referring to IT tools).
- Quote source: [Salesforce] What is BPM? The basic concept and how to practice using a BPM system
- Quote: BPM is one of the methods of business management.
On the other hand, there are some definitions that refer to IT tools, such as the glossary of the international standard BPMN 2.0.
Quote: Business Process Management: The services and tools that support process management (for example, process analysis, definition, processing, monitoring and administration), including support for human and application-level interaction. BPM tools can eliminate manual processes and automate the routing of requests between departments and applications.
It is important to note that the term Business Process Management
basically refers to a business management method, but in some contexts it can also refer to a set of IT tools.
Image of a business process
2. Workflow Definition
In this chapter we will focus on the term „workflow“ in comparison with „BPM“.
2-1. Workflow definition by Prof. Aalst
Professor Aalst, world famous for his workflows research, says in the beginning of his article BPM: A Survey of Trends (2003) (He is particularly famous for his work on workflow patterns in the 2000s and his work on process mining in the 2010s.) 〔Win van der Aalst, Wikipedia En〕
Original quote 1: It can be considered as an extension of classical Workflow Management (WFM) systems and approaches.
The text of the article goes into more detail.
Original quote 2: Many people consider Business Process Management (BPM) to be the next step after the workflow wave of the nineties… There exist many definitions of BPM but in most cases it clearly includes Workflow Management (WFM).
I believe that this idea is still the basis of thinking within the IT industry in the 2020s. In other words, there is a deep-rooted perception that
Workflow is an element of BPM
Workflow is an integral part of BPM
A decade later, in his paper BPM: A Survey of Widespread Trends (2013), he gives a similar explanation.
Original quote: BPM can be seen as an extension of Workflow Management (WFM). WFM primarily focuses on the automation of business processes, whereas BPM has a broader scope: from process automation and process analysis to operations management and the organization of work… Traditional WFM technology aimed at the automation of business processes in a rather mechanistic manner without much attention for human factors and management support.
Author’s note: The professor’s article „Business Process Management: A Survey“ describes the BPM definition from the point of view of a workflow researcher (applied research in graph theory, applied research in formal languages, etc.). Interestingly, it rejects the idea of invisible processes. Our definition of BPM is limited to operational processes, i.e. it excludes strategic processes and processes that cannot be made explicit. Please note that the process must be known. We cannot provide support without having information about the operational processes (yes, I know the feeling).
2-2. Workflow definition by Gartner
Gartner also states in its „Selection Criteria for BPMS Products“ (2009) and „Selection Criteria for iBPMS Products“ (2011);
Author’s note: BPMS has 10 functional areas, and workflow technology is just one component.
It’s not an official document, but in my blog „Do you understand the difference between workflow and BPM?“(2010), where we claimed that they are completely different.
Author’s note: BPMS is an evolution of workflow. To put it another way, workflow is just one of the 10 technologies in BPMS.
As you would expect from a research firm, it’s a very logical argument. They call their component the Process Orchestration Engine, and they have been using the term „workflow engine“ for some time, but I think they needed to graduate to workflow as well. (CF: Workflow Reference Model)
- Quote source: Do You Understand the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?
- Original quote: Thus, a BPMS includes a more advanced form of workflow. Furthermore, workflow is just 1 of 10 technologies found in a BPM Suite.
- Quote source: Gartner Research: Selection Criteria Details for Business Process Management Suites, 2009
- Original quote: This research lists a universe of features to consider when selecting a BPMS.
- the 10 BPMS Core Components
- Process Execution and State Management Engine
- Model-Driven Composition Environment
- Document and Content Interaction
- User and Group Interaction
- Basic Connectivity
- BAM and Business Event Support
- Simulation and Optimization
- Business Rule Management
- Management and Administration
- Process Component Registry/Repository
- the 10 BPMS Core Components
- Quote source: Gartner Research: Selection Criteria Details for Intelligent Business Process Management Suites
- Original quote: This research examines the key features to consider when evaluating an iBPMS.
- the 10 iBPMS Core Components
- The Process Orchestration Engine Drives the Process From One Activity to Another
- The Model-Driven Composition Environment Helps Design Processes and Their Supporting Activities
- Content Interaction Management Supports the Content Needed to Complete Process Activities
- Human Interaction Management Enables People to Interact Naturally With Processes
- Connectivity Links Processes to the Resources They Control
- Active Analytics Are Needed to Monitor Activity, Progress and Changes in Processes
- On-Demand Analytics Are Needed to Measure and Project Process Outcomes
- Business Rule Management Is Needed to Guide and Implement Process Agility
- Management and Administration Features Help Monitor and Adjust the iBPMS
- The Process Component Registry/Repository Provides Component Leverage and Reuse
- the 10 iBPMS Core Components
Author’s note: Gartner divides the products that support BPM activities (BPM products) into more detailed categories. Specifically, it investigates them in three categories (BPM platform => BPMS => intelligent BPMS). To put it crudely, it is argued that if you value the ability to predict the future you should use an intelligent BPMS (←This is important for large-scale organizations).
2-3. The term Workflow Automation
So what is workflow automation, a term we are seeing more and more in the 2020s?
In Japan the term workflow product has a strong impression of something that requires human involvement, and more specifically it often refers to application approval flows and expense reimbursement flows. In other words, „Human-Centric Workflow“.
Workflow products are a generic term for products that digitize the administrative flow of a company’s various business operations, from agreement and application to approval and decision, in order to improve the efficiency and automation of business processes and strengthen internal controls.
However, if you look back at the history of definitions up to the previous section, you can somewhat imagine that workflow in workflow automation is a nuance of machine-oriented (Integration-Centric) workflow.
I think it would be better to think of it as the full automation of a series of processes. It can be done without human involvement and greatly improves the productivity of routine tasks. (e.g. IFTTT, Zapier, kissflow, Pipefy, Box Relay, WorkFusion, K2 Software, etc.). The difference between workflow automation and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) will be explained another time.
By the way, Workflow Automation does not exist in Gartner’s glossary. Gartner is more about iPaaS (Integration Platform as a Service). Basically, I think it should be used (and understood) as a universal language.
3. About Model Driven Approaches
So what is it about the model-driven approach that makes Workflow systems different from BPMS?
3-1. What is a model?
To begin with, the word „model“ has two main meanings: model and example.
- Plastic models: imitation objects. Not the real thing.
- Molecular model: imitation. Not real.
- Role model: An ideal person. Different from yourself.
- Fashion: Ideal person. Different from yourself.
I think that model-driven, which is a feature of business process management (BPM), should be taken in the sense of a
simplified diagram for recognizing the target.
In other words, it can be said that it is not fully described, but it defines the characteristic points.
3-2. What is a Process Model?
So, does the expression „modeling“ a process refer only to flow diagrams?
Today, process models are conceptually defined by the following three elements:
- Process model
- Business flow: how each process is connected in what order (flow modeling)
- Business data: what kind of data is passed from one process to another (data modeling)
- Underwriting rules: who (an individual, a team member, a machine, etc.) will take over (resource modeling)
In other words, in order to schematize the business process it is necessary to define not only the flow diagram, but also the business data such as address, name, telephone number and the rules of undertaking, such as Mr. Suzuki and the leader of the department to which Mr. Suzuki belongs.
Author’s note: The term „flow diagram“ is also used in various other ways. There are process diagrams, business flow diagrams, workflow diagrams, flow diagrams, flow charts, process tables, and so on. In my opinion, there is no significant difference between them. In addition, BPMN (Business Process Model and Notation) has been internationally standardized as a specific notation method.
3-3. What is model-driven?
I often see and hear the expression „Model-Driven“, but I’m not sure what it means.
„Drive“ means to give momentum in the original sense. There are also expressions such as „drive“ in tennis and soccer. Therefore, I think it is better to recognize it as a
system development style where modeling is done first.
Specifically, as shown in the previous section, we model the business flow business data underwriting rules. Then the system is implemented based on the process model.
Traditionally, BPMS which requires implementation by programmers after modeling/designing has been the mainstream. However, in recent years, No-Code development (system/software development that does not require programming) has become the trend. Today, there are many organizations that prefer a BPMS that can be implemented immediately after the process model (also called a „workflow app“) is completed.
4. Difference between Workflow and BPM
Each product has its own personality. Therefore, it is not easy to describe the differences between Workflow category products and BPM category products. Please understand that the following differences can only be broadly described.
As mentioned earlier, BPM products can direct both humans and machines/computers. However, the essential difference is the presence or absence of modeling. In other words, the difference between Workflow and BPM is to consider the advantages and disadvantages of having a model.
4-1. Differences in business flow settings
In the case of BPM products, the core of the modeling process is the workflow diagram.
This is certainly an extremely big advantage. However, it can also be a disadvantage. In other words, the aspect of being able to describe any kind of flow is directly related to the cost of learning it. (BPMN is easy to read, but may not be so easy to draw.)
However, there is no end to kaizen activities.
- Settings for changing the route depending on the case
- Settings for proceeding to the next process upon timeout
- Settings for diverting to multiple processes in the middle
- Settings for automating default data editing
- Settings for calling a child processes automatically
- Settings for automatically communicating with other cloud services
BPM products can realize various flows (or control patterns) and various controls (i.e. API Orchestration).
4-2. Differences in setting underwriting rules
In the case of BPM products, it is possible to set up complex underwriting rules.
- Designate one person to be in charge of the process (already assigned when the case arrives)
- Designate multiple operators for the process (someone else will take over)
- Designate a person in charge of the process by role name (if more than one person, someone else will take over)
BPM products allow you to realize various ways of assigning work.
4-3. Differences in sharing business processes with internal and external parties
In the case of BPM products, graphical workflow diagrams (BPMN diagrams) are created for all business processes. In addition, modeling results can be saved as a process model. (In the case of Questetra BPM Suite .qar files are used)
Process owners can easily explain the business process of their department. In addition, the management and related departments can check the current business process at any time.
4-4. Differences in the processing of incoming cases
In the case of BPM products, the current location of a case as well as its previous destinations can be checked on the workflow diagram. The person in charge of operating each process can check the operator in the upstream process if necessary.
4-5. Differences in monitoring the flow of cases
In the case of BPM products, the current location of all in-process projects can be checked on a workflow diagram. For example, you can identify the processes that tend to be stagnant and take actions such as increasing the number of staff or automating them, or change the flow of the business. We call this Status Monitoring.
4-6. Differences in the aggregation of processed forms
In the case of BPM products, performance values can be aggregated for each person in charge of a case or for each case route. For example, you can automate performance reports for each person in charge. This is called Performance Monitoring.
4-7. Differences in detecting problems when they occur
In the case of BPM products, permissions for viewing business data can be set in detail. This makes it easier for case handlers to consult with colleagues and related departments, and to get advice and feedback from colleagues and related departments.
BPM activities are only meaningful if we continue to make Kaizen improvements. A lot of issues are hidden even in small administrative procedures.
Let’s face not only the business processes that are visible to the process owners at each site (business processes that are modeled) but also the business processes that are not yet visible (business processes that are not yet modeled). And let’s work together to make small improvements little by little.
PS: Common Misconceptions
- Workflow systems specialize in the application process, while BPM tools target larger business processes such as order-taking systems and manufacturing systems.
- That’s a misconception. There are many companies that continue to improve their application process with BPM tools.
- Workflow is a tool that facilitates quick and smooth application and approval processes, while BPM is a tool that analyzes the entire business and reconfigures operations to improve efficiency by analyzing problem areas.
- BPM also encompasses workflow functions, so it is a tool for smooth progress. In other words, I don’t think I’ve expressed the fact that it is an inclusive relationship.
- Workflow systems are executed manually, whereas BPM tools are executed both manually and also by business applications.
- There is nothing wrong with a BPM tool being able to handle both human and machine processing. However, the first half of the sentence assumes that there are many workflow products that control human work (human-centric products). In particular, from a global perspective there are many contexts for workflow products that control machine work (integration-centric products), so you need to be careful.
- If you want to improve your paper-based operation, a workflow system is recommended…
- This may be right, but basically it depends on whether you want to keep improving or not.