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Business Process Management vs. Workflow: The Difference, Explained

Elizabeth Bell, Appian
October 4, 2023

Business process management (BPM) and workflow are both commonly used terms in discussions about business operations. While they’re related, they’re not the same. What’s the difference?

Business process management and workflow.

Business process management (BPM) is a discipline designed to manage processes across an entire organization, from as small as tracking a team budget to as large as supply chain management for a company. Workflow is how a process is concretely represented in tasks, assignments, decision logic, etc.

An example to illustrate business process management vs. workflow.

To help explain the relationship between BPM and workflow, let’s look at that supply chain management example: 

An automobile manufacturer faced a semiconductor shortage that threatened to stop production, which meant millions of dollars in losses. They needed to stay on top of issues in the semiconductor supply chain so they could be alerted in time and make changes to their plans quickly. When discussing the issue, the team thought the problem might be coming from one area: emails from suppliers getting lost amid a flood of correspondence. They decided to look into it. 

But because the organization had a robust business process management discipline, they knew instead of trying to fix just one bottleneck, they would get better and longer lasting results if they took some time to review and optimize the entire process.

The business team and IT spent time working together to understand the entire process and where the team was struggling. They took a consultative approach to discover where they could improve the process and created a clear means to measure their success. They did find that emails were a bottleneck, but they also found other opportunities for improvement. For example, even when no one missed an email, the employees had to take time to manually input the data and alert the right parties, which drained minutes from the time-sensitive process.

They used a process platform to build a new workflow with low-code, which gave a visual framework for the business users and IT to work together collaboratively. For the new workflow, they outlined specific steps to improve efficiency:

  •  Use AI to extract data from supplier documents in emails. 
  •  Employ robotic process automation (RPA) to input extracted document data into the vendor tracking system. 
  •  Trigger notifications to team members to review numbers above or below a set threshold.
  •  Build a dashboard that shows a visual display of supply levels, marking any issues in red and triggering an alert to specific, listed users. 

They let the workflow run for a couple of weeks, and used health check monitoring to review whether the process was working as expected. They heard after the first week that one of the dashboards didn’t seem accurate based on the data coming in, so they went back and quickly fixed the problem. Thanks to low-code, they didn’t have to wait on a long development cycle—they put it back in motion the next day. 

This new workflow management application provided the team with a 360-degree view of supply chain risks, displayed any impacts to supply, and gave everybody one place to see and evaluate issues coming down the pike.

In this example, you can see that business process management, or BPM, was the overall approach the team took to design and model their new workflow, execute it, measure it, and optimize it, while the workflow referred to the specific steps in the process.

If you want to learn more about business process management and workflow, check out The BPM Guide: The Key to Workflow Automation.

Choosing between business process management software and workflow software.

After reading the example, are you wondering whether to use business process management software or workflow software for your business? Good news! You don’t have to choose. BPM software brings processes, data, and systems together across disconnected organizations, helping them work faster, more precisely, and more effectively. It gives you a way to coordinate and orchestrate actions across multiple workflows, automating tasks with AI, RPA, and other tools where needed. 

As the complexity and scale of processes increase, you’ll need strong orchestration capabilities to help you manage your processes in a way that makes you more agile and improves performance at a lower cost.

Want to see a BPM platform in action? Browse our demo library to see how it works.