Skip to main content

On Workflow, BPM...and mobile phones

Cindy Cheng, ​Sr. Director of Marketing Communications, EMEA, Appian
August 31, 2012

Every now and then, the question on what is the difference between workflow and Business Process Management (BPM) will surface. This is not a new question and it is worth revisiting. So this blog post is dedicated to rehashing the similarities and differences between these concepts.


At a simplistic, metaphoric level, one could draw a parallel between these process improvement concepts and mobile phones. Think of workflows like cellular phones. Remember those dumb' phones that allow you to make phone calls and not much else? Cell phones transmit radio frequencies to cell towers and connect you to the call recipient. In essence, this is a technology that routes data, connects people to systems and to people.

That's what a workflow technology does at minimum: routing data and documents, connecting people to systems and to other users in the system. It is a technology that has been around for about three decades. Many enterprise software today still include basic workflow capabilities and they work just fine - like how you could still make phone calls with a Motorola 8900 or Nokia 3210.

Even though the technology has been around for awhile, it can still perform like a workhorse and meet a lot of basic work automation and information routing requirements. Just don't expect a lot of bells and whistles that comes with a workflow technology. So you want to implement a workflow application with industry standards BPMN, BPEL, and SOA? Think again and good luck with that.

Business Process Management (BPM)

Remember IBM Simon, the Blackberry 5810, and Palm Treo? Smart phones have actually been around since 1993. The idea that you could do more than make calls from your phone picked up momentum and subscribers in the enterprise world. Business professionals, armed with a smartphone, would get email, surf the web, manage and sync calendars from these smart mobile devices. A smart phone is essentially a marriage between a cell phone and a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA, e.g., Palm Pilot).

Following the mobile phone analogy, BPM is like a smart phone. It combines methodologies like Lean Six Sigma, ISO 9000, ITIL with technologies to continuously improve processes and achieve organizational objectives. BPM takes a holistic approach to manage all the resources involved in a process: people, information, content, applications, and systems.

Note that methodology plays a key role in the equation. You can give someone a smartphone and the person may still use it only to make phone calls, and not leverage all the features to be more productive and efficient. Similarly, using only BPM technology without the methodology will often lead to project failures or poor user adoption. Vice versa, using only BPM methodology while not taking advantage of the technology provides no automation and will not deliver the return on investment (ROI) expected of a true BPM project.

In a way, BPM is an evolved workflow system with complementing technologies to execute more sophisticated business processes, to address more complex and dynamic use cases, and to handle enterprise scalability and performance requirements. The bar has risen continuously as our data consumption skyrocketed and as technologies matured.

So what is your decision? Will you go with basic workflows or will you evaluate how BPM can accelerate process improvement initiatives and add measurable value to your organization? If it is the latter, Appian can help. Download the brochure to learn more about the Appian BPM Suite, and how the global innovator in BPM can help your organization.

Please click on these links to continue reading the series:

Cindy Cheng

Cindy Cheng

Director of Product Marketing

Cindy Cheng