BPM vs Workflow – Which to Choose


Workflow is the steak, BPM is the whole frickin’ cow (or some such silly comparison).

FYI – I work at OpenText and I used to work at Oracle. This post is neither endorsement nor condemnation of either company. Actually, I’m not endorsing or condemning anything or anyone. Except hot dogs, I really like hot dogs. I fully endorse hot dogs. Oh, I condemn sweet potatoes, beets, and Justin Bieber.

At the end of October I was in Vancouver at an Enterprise Information Management (EIM) 101 breakfast thingy being put on by OpenText. Part of the seminar dealt with OpenText’s Business Process Management (BPM) solutions (yes, there’s more than one). After the BPM spiel some guy asked if he needed workflow or BPM, or words to that effect. His question is one I’ve heard often over the years in seminars, on projects, during sales pitches, in training, etc. Many people that I’ve spoken to & overheard are thoroughly baffled by what the differences are between workflow products and BPM products, never mind trying to figure out which they need.

In part, this bafflement is caused by people not understanding the differences between processes, workflows, and activities (tasks), from a non-technology perspective. The bafflement is also caused because we (vendors) have done a crappy job in articulating the differences between BPM tools and workflow tools, and that BPM tools can execute workflows, but workflow tools pretty much suck at BPM but can execute a business process.

Before I provide an answer and my take on it, here are some definitions that I’ve been using (I didn’t make them up) for many years:

  • (Business) Process – a series of related workflows that produce value for an organization. Typically involves multiple roles & multiple business units
  • Workflow – a series of related tasks required to complete a portion of a process. May involve multiple roles & multiple business units
  • Activity – a single piece of work that must be completed in order to allow a workflow to progress. Involves single role & single business unit

Within the context of ECM a workflow takes place wholly within the ECM toolset. A workflow is used to route content through some path, usually for some sort of approval, review, editing, and so on. Typical scenarios include routing contracts, approving and editing press releases, updating policy documents, etc. These flows may cross departmental boundaries, but they don’t cross application boundaries (i.e.: they are executed entirely within the ECM toolset.). Don’t think that just because they stay within the confines of an ECM tool that workflows are by default simple. I’ve designed SOX compliant contract approval workflows for a Canada based biotech firm that were freaking complicated, but could easily have been contained within ECM workflow from most of the Gartner ECM MQ upper right quadrant residents.

BPM is more involved than workflow. If done correctly, BPM takes an holistic approach to defining, analyzing, simulating, executing, and monitoring an organization’s business processes (yes, multiple processes because a BPMS can manage inter-process interactions) from end to end. A Business Process Management System (BPMS) contains multiple pieces, in addition to the simple ability to define and execute business processes. In my opinion, the most important pieces of a BPMS are the enterprise service bus (ESB – allows communication between various applications), the rules engine, and the ability to constantly monitor and improve.

So, back to the Vancouver dude’s question … You need both BPM and workflow if yours is an organization of a size and complexity just a little above any mom and pop pizza shop & herb outlet. You already know (‘cause I just told you) that your ECM workflow engine can’t do BPM for you. What you need to ask is if your BPMS can do workflow that leverages the content in your ECM system.

Point to Ponder: Why do you think ECM vendors have acquired BPM companies? I’m not answering for you; I just want you to think about it a bit.

8 Comments on “BPM vs Workflow – Which to Choose

  1. Chris, a good answer to a difficult question, in the interest of furthering the debate below is a couple of excerpts of a document I produced addressing the same:

    “Workflow addresses the routing and status of something between a “Start” and “End” position, as an item passes along a workflow it can be subject to many activities and there can be a range of routes available between the “Start” and “End” positions. It is often used to determine how something is created, be it a document or a manufactured item going through multiple stages in a pre-set order, workflow doesn’t typically involve interaction with other business systems except at the beginning and end of a process.”

    “Business Process Management (BPM) systems support, help control and can automate business processes – where a “business process” is defined as a sequential number of activities that generates an outcome and integrates with other business applications (CRM, Accounting etc.). Examples include; Client On-Boarding, Payment Processing, Raising Orders, Holiday Requests, Expenses and Sickness forms. These processes can require input from multiple individuals and other business applications and the BPM systems that support them fall into three categories; Human Centric, Integration Centric and Document Centric.
    • Human Centric BPM – focussing on human interaction.
    • Integration Centric BPM – focusing on the linking of multiple business systems.
    • Document Centric – focussing on document related tasks such as review and collaboration.
    In terms of integration with other business applications it is possible to use this to validate information, extract data or push data into these systems.
    BPM systems also help organisations improve the way they operate; they form a key component for companies looking to highlight problem areas and pain points. Key to the differentiation between Workflow and BPM is that whilst BPM systems can cope with workflow, a pure workflow system will not generally meet the system integration capabilities and flexibility of a good BPM product. “

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