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Do You Understand the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?

by Janelle Hill  |  April 22, 2010  |  9 Comments

After almost 10 years of steady growth and increased experience with BPM disciplines and technologies, it still amazes me that so many (too many!) IT professionals still think “BPM” is just another name for workflow. (As if the term “workflow” is well understood! NOT!)  Are you in-the-know ? Or are you still trying to figure out the difference?

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Meantime, here’s a sneak preview of the answer…

Workflow is a form of flow management technology that coordinates interactions between people and software systems. It coordinates the flow, the interaction patterns across manual and systemetized tasks. As a technology, it has existed for at least the last 20 years.  Of course it has evolved over the years from being technology that is embedded within individual applications to being a middleware-like technology, shared as a utility across multiple applications.

Furthermore, workflow technology comes in specialized forms. For example, human workflow technology offerings (older products such as  InConcert, early Metastorm and Ultimus products, Staffware,  IBM’s MQ Workflow and newer products like W4 Global) that put software controls around human tasks to better coordinate and manage them. This form of workflow has been distinct from document and image-centric workflow, which primarily enables routing and interactions with such semi-structured content. These days, there are only a handful of pure workflow technology providers (many newer ones designed to complement Sharepoint!)

BPM disciplines emphasize a holistic approach to coordinating work across all resources – people, information, machines and systems. Coordinating the interactions across this broader set of resources requires a different approach to workflow. BPM Suites, the leading form of BPM-enabling technologies, coordinate work across all resources in the same manner; there isnt a specialized language for human performed work vs machine performed work. There is one workflow technology, embedded in the suite, that coordinates the interactions between all resources – human, machine and information – doing all forms of  work including routine tasks, decisions, collaborative activities, research, case work, etc. Thus, a BPMS includes a more advanced form of workflow. Furthermore, workflow is just 1 of 10 technologies found in a BPM Suite. Some of the other critical technologies in a BPMS are BAM, rule engines, UI generation, and a graphical authoring environment ideally based on Explicit Process Models.

Below is our depiction of the full functionality found in a good BPMS. The workflow technology is found in the gear labeled “Process Execution and State Management Engine”. This gear is often called the “BPM Engine”. And voila! This is the source of confusion!

BPMS Gears 2010

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Janelle B. Hill
Research VP
8 years at Gartner
25 years IT industry

Janelle Hill is a vice president in Gartner Research. Her current research area is business process management disciplines (such as modeling, analysis, measurement, process ownership/governance, etc.) and new, BPM-enabling technologies. Read Full Bio


Thoughts on Do You Understand the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?


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  2. Janelle, thank you for taking the time to clarify the differences between workflow and BPM. I just fielded a similar question yesterday. I’ll now point people to your blog entry.

  3. […] the differences between workflow and BPM – Janelle Hill After almost 10 years of steady growth and increased experience with BPM […]

  4. […] Gartner’s Janelle Hill has published the new BPMS specifications in her latest blog […]

  5. The top comment with the e-book download is a scam cpa offer that what you to do surveys and complete personal details.

    It is a pity that such a good article as this one that Janelle wrote is used to promote these surveys.

    The diagram makes it easy to show that BPM is not just workflow on steriods as some call it.

  6. […] Hill from Gartner asked: “Do You Understand the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?“. I enjoyed the comment saying that her answer “makes it easy to show that BPM is not […]

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  8. […] Knowledge Between Your Ears I have spent this weekend reading views on the future of BPM by Janelle Hill on workflow, Jim Sinur on ‘Design by Doing’, Alexander Peters on COEs, Connie Moore on BPMS, Keith […]



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