At its heart, business process management (BPM) is about improving processes. BPM and workflow are not interchangeable terms. Workflow is just one part of BPM.
Workflow involves coordinating specific tasks that make up a process. For example, how do you go from receiving an order to fulfilling it? What human or automated tasks need to be accomplished in that process?
BPM, on the other hand, is about designing, executing, and optimizing processes. It typically incorporates multiple workflows, automation tools, and manual tasks in a system of processes — a system that can be quite extensive and that threads through an entire organization or line of business. BPM can be defined as “a method of efficiently aligning an organization with the wants and needs of its customers, both internally and externally.”
Workflow describes each person’s role in a process and the instructions they follow to do their part. The purpose of defining a workflow is to organize your daily processes.
BPM coordinates the whole organization or department with the goal of improving the efficiency of its processes. More than just workflow management and automation, BPM aims for continuous improvement of each process.
Here’s an analogy: Let’s say you’re bringing a team to an industry conference to introduce new products, connect with others in your industry, and hear keynotes and panel discussions. You need to make various plans and arrangements. Someone books transportation and accommodations. The team attending the conference meets to go over messaging, create a staffing schedule, and decide who will attend which sessions. Once there, you have to set up your booth. Together, these steps make up your conference-attending workflow.
But what if you’re not attending conferences but hosting them? Booking venues and speakers, securing hotel deals, coordinating the floor and events, designing the layout for optimal foot traffic, scheduling events in rooms that can accommodate the number of conference-goers expected to attend, arranging for power, Wi-Fi, security, and so on — that’s a complex business process ripe for BPM.
A provider of workflow management tools might tell you BPM is too complex for your needs. A BPM provider, on the other hand, might say it’s not enough to manage workflows and that you need the coordinated approach to your whole business that BPM can provide.
You’ll need to use your best judgment when deciding what kind of software solutions are right for you. Keep the above distinctions in mind, and you’ll be on the right track.