This is a telling question for people wanting to get operational improvements into their business. By asking this one single question we can tell how to best help people. However the conversation invariably starts with “what’s the difference?” If you delve into the blogosphere on this topic you will find reams and reams of discussion, argument, opinion and possibly vitriol. For me, it has become quite clear over the last few years.
If you look into the forward progress of a business process and there are very definite paths to follow (typically directed by arrows on a flowchart) – then you are workflow. That’s cool, there is nothing wrong with that. That is automation. That is how Henry Ford made motoring affordable. There is a definitive and predictable path for every eventuality, both ‘happy days’ and exceptions. That is absolutely workflow, and we can help out.
However if you look forwards into the future path or flow of a business process and all you can see are guardrails of governance down each side and a flexible, range of possible options and all those options are acceptable and approved but un-sequenced, and not all of them need to be completed in every iteration of the process, then you are BPM*. If the only flowchart arrow path you can see is by looking backwards to see where you have come from, then you are absolutely BPM, and we can help out.
The workflow place is described as ‘doing by design’. An expert (or team of!) will laboriously and painstakingly define every approved possible path and option iteration for the business, thereby rigidly adhering to the constraints of governance. Then it is just a matter of blindly following those procedural arrows at every junction. We go out and hire clever, experienced, expensive people to work in the business and then force them to blindly follow the procedural path regardless of context, experience and creativity. It sounds easy but actually handling all the ‘unhappy day’ activities is exhausting and in reality, rarely done.
The BPM place is about ‘design by doing’ Define the acceptable boundaries demanded by governance then set out all the possible activities on a menu and let people get on with it, no arrows. If someone thinks it’s better to perform B before A and Y before X, let them do it. Over time the natural order of best practice will form. This leads to efficiency. Smart systems will self-learn and start to intelligently offer up best next actions. This leads to effectiveness. People can collaborative to uncover new and better ways of doing things. This leads to innovation and competitive differentiation.
That’s the difference between workflow and BPM.
*Sometimes this sort of BPM is also called something like Adaptive Case Management, Unstructured Workflow, Intelligent Business Operations, Event Driven Process, Dynamic BPM.
You can read more about Professional Advantage and business process management here.