Business Process or Workflow – Chicken or Egg – Who Comes First?

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Many a times, you ask the definition of business process or workflow, it so happens that the mention of other happens while a person is trying to define any of them. And, the next moment the question is asked that what is the difference between business process or workflow, and that which contains which one. This article tries to define each one and relate them appropriately while mentioning distinct difference between them? At times, it tends to appear like a chicken or egg situation which represents the fact that whether workflow in your systems may be progressed to define and create business processes (bottoms-up) or business process, once defined, needs to be executed using workflow.

Chicken Or The Egg - BPM or Workflow

Chicken Or The Egg – BPM or Workflow

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Why the differences have been confusing so often?
Following are some of the refrences which represent the confusion people tend to have while talking about workflow and business processes:
  1. A business process management (BPM) tool allows one to design, develop and execute one or more workflows. Thus, the workflow requirements of a product/services could be easily fulfilled by any BPM tool.
  2. If above is true, people often asked why can’t a workflow tool be used to do BPM?
DefinitionsTrying to define them in isolation is very difficult as workflow can be simply termed as one of the manifestation of a business process. Also, trying to define them without speaking about their nature of being part of a larger systems such as workflow system or BPM system is equally difficult. As I try to do this, you may find the definition more or less same. However, do check below and let me think if I did fairly well in defining them:-).Following is what I experienced and also arrived at, after reading multiple different pages on same:

  • A workflow is primarily a set of related tasks which when executed completes the process (look here the mention of “process” as I mentioned above;-) in part or full. In another words, a workflow represents an approach and technology for automating a simple flow of tasks in a specific business context. The workflow steps could be related with human intervention or could be completed with the help of application. Softwares with specific workflow requirements just need a workflow tool and may not need to consider business process and related tools and frameworks (BPM). For example, consider a set of business requirements which need a set of users to approve the documents while interacting/commenting on the document. This requirement may just be fulfilled by a workflow system. Consider any document management system. They do include an inherent workflow system which requires a set of users to review and approve the documents. Thus, a set of business requirements could be built using a software systems comprising of workflow tool without paying any attention to various different aspects of BPM.
  • A business process is a set of activities (represented as tasks/steps) which needs to be performed to fulfill the needs of a business function there by achieving one or more business objectives. These activities could be performed by either with human intervention or with the help of applications. According to Gartner, the term Business Process Management (BPM) is defined following: “BPM is a management discipline that treats business processes as assets that directly contribute to enterprise performance by driving operational excellence and business agility.” BPM is commonly represented by the following set of activities, organized into a lifecycle: define, design or model, simulate, deploy or implement, execute, monitor, analyze and optimize business processes (see the figure below).
    Gartner BPM Lifecycle

    Gartner’s BPM Lifecycle

    The business process could consists of one or more related workflows. The business process management needs a more holistic approach to defining, analyzing, simulating, executing, and monitoring an organization’s business processes. Apart from workflow automation, one could do following with BPM tools:

  • Process definition & modeling
  • Workflow automation
  • Process management & analysis
  • Process optimization
  • Business intelligence
  • Business activity monitoring (BAM)
When do I need workflow and when BPM?
  •  Workflow could suffice some of the following requirements:
    • To meet the requirements of Review/Approval/Rejection of documents or tasks based on one or more business rules.
    • Bring agility to integration of cross-functional systems in different line of businesses (LOBs). Well, this could be as well achieved using enterprise service bus (ESBs). However, workflow could externalize the management of workflow steps and related business rules.
  • You may need BPM when you would want to bring agility to integration of cross-functional systems in or across line of businesses while measuring using metrics such as kep performance indicators (KPIs) and Business activity monitoring (BAM) tools.
Ajitesh Kumar

Ajitesh Kumar

Ajitesh has been recently working in the area of AI and machine learning. Currently, his research area includes Safe & Quality AI. In addition, he is also passionate about various different technologies including programming languages such as Java/JEE, Javascript and technologies such as Blockchain, mobile computing, cloud-native technologies, application security, cloud computing platforms, big data etc.

He has also authored the book, Building Web Apps with Spring 5 and Angular.
Ajitesh Kumar

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