How Is Workflow Different from Business Process Management?

We get asked how workflow is different from business process management (BPM) quite often. It’s a distinction that distracts more than helps, but the question persists – so here’s an attempt to address it.

Whether you know it or not, workflow is a big part of your everyday life. You and your company use it all the time, yet many people aren’t sure what exactly a workflow is or how it’s different from other process management tools.

Thinking of workflow and Business Process Management (BPM) conjures two separate identities.

In one camp, we have BPM: the very serious management strategy that involves consultants, weeks or months of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the other camp, we have workflow: the scrappy young kid who handles the little things but can’t play with the big boys.

The problem is that neither idea is accurate. In fact, BPM and workflow are really just two sides of the same coin.

“Big BPM”

That being said, heads and tails are not the same. BPM and workflow do connote two separate cultures, and these differences involve both the types of processes they work with and the way those processes are addressed.

Traditionally, BPM companies like IBM or Appian work with a company’s strategic resources – the data that’s core to their business.

Take a large restaurant chain for example. Their strategic resources would be their food contracts and order delivery forms. They cannot successfully continue business without these resources, and that’s where BPM comes in – it goes after primary, high-visible, company-wide processes.

First, BPM teams watch how strategic resources are used from start to finish. Then, they take the recorded data to identify slow points, backlogs, or any other weaknesses in the chain. Finally, BPM teams research, test and develop improvements in the data and resource management process.

BPM views the process strategic-level data takes as an asset – something to be managed and improved.

The way this data goes through the company is valuable to BPM, not just what’s in it. Its formal development turned on its side; instead of defining data and then determining how it will be used, BPM practitioners define the process and then determine the data it will need.

BPM’s complexity comes from the research and development that goes into creating better solutions where the process comes first and the data exists to serve it. Enterprise organizations spend hundreds of hours with BPM to refine and improve strategic resource management. BPM practitioners bring in highly educated people to create a unique solution, and ensure that it’s performing after rigorous testing.

BPM is complex for a reason. It manages and measures critical resources in their entire lifecycle through the levels of a company.

Here Comes Workflow

And then there’s workflow.

Workflow refers to the steps you take from the beginning to the end of a process. This could be the personal workflow that you do alone or the chain of work within a large team or department. The idea of workflow leads to workflow automation, whose job is to streamline manual and paper-based processes often comprised of unstructured tasks involving people, processes, and content.

Workflow automation has grown substantially. Now it can pull data from several sources, like Salesforce, Dropbox or Office 365, and generate new documents, forms, applications and more. Users simply need to give approval for the workflow automation to push the work along on its own.

The key separation between BPM and workflow is that workflow is in the user’s hands.

Automated workflow solutions are often built by the users who own the problems. Solutions take hours or days to make, not weeks or months, and this promotes organic growth at an employee level.

Part of this is certainly due to the problems being tackled by workflow being “smaller,” tactical, practical, etc., but part of it is that the way those problems are approached being more direct and interactive.

There’s not much of a risk of “analysis paralysis.” There’s a desire to try and refine.

Similarities and Complementary Strengths

At their core, BPM and workflow have a very similar goal: To improve company processes. BPM and workflow see value in the actual process itself, not just the information it carries.

Both are about tasks, automation, integration and data transfer.

In many cases, software primarily used for building workflow automation solutions can be used for some BPM projects – and vice versa. BPM’s focus on formality requires some tools that the world of workflow automation would find non-essential, and some software suites are clearly optimized for one approach versus the other, but the assertion stands.

BPM often takes a few high-profile problems and improves them. Workflow takes thousands of tactical problems and fixes them. Now companies have two methods that can focus on what they do best.

A common flaw BPM finds with strategic resource management is when it moves through departments. Work and content flow within a department is likely to follow a department-specific pattern, and may look much more ad-hoc than BPM practitioners find comfortable, let alone optimizable.

That’s fine; a fine way to use BPM and workflow together could be to let a formal BPM effort move work from department to department, and let workflow handle what happens within a department.

Two Camps, One Goal

BPM is still critical for any enterprise organization, but workflow is increasingly important, as well.

As BPM digs deep, workflow spreads wide.

This is not a situation where you can only have one or the other; the best companies use both. Rather than seeing BPM and workflow in their separate camps, examine the bigger picture. You’ll find that collaboration, not competition, is inevitable when the overall goal is to increase productivity.


Mike Fitzmaurice

Vice President of Workflow Technology Mike “Fitz” Fitzmaurice is Nintex's subject matter expert and chief spokesperson for workflow, business transformation, and technology evangelism. Before Nintex, he spent 11 years at Microsoft, and was involved with every version of SharePoint from pre-2001 through the 2010 release. His expertise includes process automation, integration, collaboration, and a lot of other “ation”s. Follow @mikefitz on Twitter.

Request a live demo
See how you can manage, automate and optimize your business processes today ‐ get a demo from one of our experts.
Why Our Customers Trust Nintex on

Please wait while form loads...

Couldn't load the form.

Please disable your ad blocker or try a different browser. If you continue to experience issues, please contact