What’s the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?

In a [ed: since removed] article, a couple of guys discuss their reasons behind their view that Workflow and BPM are different.
[The original article was at http://www.transformmag.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=16400140%5D

I disagree with many of their arguments. 

Nathaniel Palmer writes:

Workflow is concerned with the application-specific sequencing of activities via predefined instruction sets, involving either or both automated procedures (software-based) and manual activities (people work)…BPM is concerned with the definition, execution and management of business processes defined independently of any single application.  BPM is a superset of workflow, further differentiated by the ability to coordinate activities across multiple applications with fine grain control.

First off I have not heard of a modern workflow system that did not control the definition, execution and management of business processes defined independently of any single application.

Secondly, workflow systems coordinate activities across multiple applications.

Third, the phrase “fine grain control” does not differentiate between anything.  A bicycle is a bicycle, whatever its’ size.

 Palmer then writes:  As workflow processes are tied to single applications, process flow is hardwired and does accommodate alternative means for reaching the same task or goal.

 Again I have not come across any modern workflow system where this is the case, perhaps he is confusing a system with workflow and a workflow system.

 Finally Palmer writes:  Distilled into single-word definitions, workflow is about repetition and BPM is about coordination (also automation and orchestration, respectively)

 So if workflow is not about coordination, automation and orchestration what is workflow about?

 Next in the article Jim Sinur gives his definition:

BPM is supercharged workflow that has sophisticated flow design through process modeling and analysis. BPM supports hyper volumes of work and numbers of users with sophisticated event-state engines for long-running business events and transactions.   It is user friendly, “insanely open,” has smart agility features supported by rules engines and utilizes commodity integration technologies.

OK I have highlighted all the ridiculous sales adjectives here.  What he is saying essentially is BPM is workflow with more adjectives.  According to Sinur, BPM is a more supercharged, sophisticated, hyper, long-running, friendly, open, and smart workflow.  So he is either saying BPM is workflow with more adjectives in front of it.  A bicycle is a bicycle, whatever the hyper-superchargedness it may have.

In summing Sinur declares:

Finally, BPM links to legacy composite components and applications, orchestrates Web services, measures business activity and optimizes processes for better business result and work throughput.

Again, workflow systems have done all of the following for a long time now, except for web services which is a relatively new technology.  In addition Business Activity Monitoring in someform has always been a part of some workflow systems it just didn’t have such a fancy title.

Now this may be an almost religious belief but to me it seems that workflow + marketing = BPM, and that is the only real difference. 

Your thoughts?


30 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Workflow and BPM?

  1. Nice! You got the point. I’ve worked with workflow (Oracle Workflow to be more specific) and afet finish this project many people started to talk about BPM. So the doubt figured out: where is the difference? And just like you, i don’t believe in any difference. Both workflow and bpm have the same duties regardless de level of abstraction or wharever comercial claims.
    Congratulations for your point of view!

  2. Would love to see your comments for the below statements.

    “Sandeep Arora writes: # ”

    I am author of BPM book “Business Process Management.Process is the Enterprise” at http://www.bpm-strategy.com. Workflow is just a subset of BPM. Here are some of the differences between the two
    1) Focus: Workflow-> focus is on Task Routing.
    BPM-> focus is on Process Life Cycle Management.
    2) Integration: Workflow-> Tight Coupling between Integrated Applications using custom API supplied by workflow vendor and Third party products.
    BPM->EAI using standard adaptors and B2B integration using Open standards like HTTP, XML and Web Services.
    3) Scope: Workflow -> Application/Department specific.
    BPM-> Enterprise wide and across the value chain.
    4) Process Modeling: Workflow ->Limited.
    BPM->Advanced Process Modeling with essential features like Collaborative Process Design and process Simulation
    5) Reporting: Workflow->Basic Reporting after the Fact.
    BPM->Process metric reports and dashboard views.
    6) Exception management: Workflow->very limited.
    BPM->Live process update using In-flight process and data update.And also side-by-side process version features.
    BPM truly creates the agile event driven enterprise business people have been dreaming of. But caution- implementing BPMS is touch and cannot be managed as a typical IT project.

  3. Hi, I have worked for a company called Newgen Software Technologies Ltd., an Indian based BPM company. This was a debate that used to go on everyday over there. As far as my knowledge goes, the confusion that is arising in the mind is because we are not properly defining the context right. Newgen’s (www.newgensoft.com) product OmniFlow claims that it is a BMP product but most of us believe it is an advanced workflow. Having said that, it still has most of the features that a BPM system has described above by Sandeep.

    In my opinion, the difference between a workflow system (of today’s time i.e. slightly advanced) and a BPM system is very shallow and is more in terms of the BI capability and the Rule Engine capability, which in case if a workflow system is very basic.

    What I would like to know is that is there any difference between a Workflow Engone and a BPM Engine?

  4. Interesting article, & I agree with much of it.

    Several years ago we were designing & implementing workflow-enabled applications. This was before ‘BPM’ was heard of, or indeed ‘SOA’. We called the architecture we were using at the time ‘integrated workflow’.

    The integration this referred to was not ‘ad hoc’, in the sense of just getting data from other applications to support rule-based routing, or calling up data capture screens belonging to those other applications. It was ‘architected’, in the sense that the workflow defined discrete tasks, and it was these tasks which contained the business functionality, either by being built within the workflow environment; or by calling functionality from those other systems; or both. The ‘integration’ therefore referred not so much to data transfer between one system and another, but to the fact that the ‘workflow’ functionality and the ‘business’ functionality were integrated together.

    So I have also not yet come across any difference in principle between ‘workflow’ and ‘BPM’. In fact the claim that they are fundamentally different is particularly ironic given the number of ‘BPM’ systems which still seem to be based on old ‘workflow’ data structures – which after a bit of digging reveal their roots in document management & routing applications.

    Chris Lawrence

  5. Interesting article- Dec 06, 2008
    I have currently working on a project that is being handled as workflow system. In fact it will replace existing workflow system. I have implemented top of line Asset Management and Order Mnagement Application they ll invole some sort of work flow inbuilt into them but I will not call workflow application. Here are the reasons for the same:

    1. These application strive to accomplish a business goal where as
    Work flow is designed to optimize or automate a given process.
    2, These application are so designed if any of the business process
    with the application fails, the alternative peocess kicks in and the
    business goal is still accomplished which I dont see the case in
    workflow tools.
    3. Most of the workflow tools facilate the flow of work items which
    promts user to take some action as compared to system taking
    the action.
    4. Workflow is process/ task driven as compared to data,
    business rules and business intelligence driven.

    In nut shell workflow may we working fine but business goals may still not be achieved.
    BPM is a combination of workflow + Data Rules + Business Rules + Business Intelligence. Data helps business rules to be evaluated and out come of business rules is fed to Business Intelligence which determines the workflow.

    I am not much into books and fancy terminology but have worked a lot with these application. I have not seen any application which is close to what I have explained. I am sure many application are heading in that direction.
    I hope I did not complecate the issue further.

    Sanjeev Nibhoria

  6. Interesting article!

    What fascinates me is that most of commentators almost agree with the author here. I have an interesting view to share. BPM as the name suggests primarily deals with the business processes and the components of BPM rather supports it more efficiently than workflow systems. However, the term workflow has been rejuvenated and is now being implied in domains other than pure business like real-time systems, smart and pervasive systems, mobile, grid and knowledge-driven systems etc.
    In these domains, workflow is the name given to the management of activities smartly, dynamically and less interactively.

    Well, I love to hear comments on this point of view.

    Zafar Abbasi

  7. Next in the article Jim Sinur gives his definition:

    BPM is supercharged workflow that……

    I agree very much with this definition. But could you pls give me the original link of the article writen by Jim Sinur?
    I’d like to reference this.
    Thanks in advance!


  8. Hi Amy I can not seem to find any reference through Google to Sinur’s original article but will keep looking. I can’t imagine that a web page has actually be removed so it must have been placed somewhere else.

  9. According to me Workflow carries a set of rules to be validated against each input independently. Here a resource is not important but business rules are important. So for each new input, an instance of workflow is created.

    BPM carries a set of actions with resources to be validated against each request in queue of that assigned resource. Here resources as well as actions both are important. So for each new request, the same BPM is used.

  10. @Sanjeev:

    2, These application are so designed if any of the business process
    with the application fails, the alternative peocess kicks in and the
    business goal is still accomplished which I dont see the case in
    workflow tools.


    So if something fails in a system (aka workflow node) can it not recover? Have you heard something called ‘compensating workflow’?

    And what is the big problem in pluging in some rules (so called intelligence) into some decision node of a workflow system?

  11. This looks like the original article:


    I agree with most who say that workflow and BPM are largely synonymous. From a high level workflow diagrams can be about anything (processes, systems, etc). Once you add a workflow engine you are including both manual and automated data and business rules. If you add a workflow(read process) repository you are nearly there. Add process simulation and monitoring (I can’t imagine a workflow engine that doesn’t have reporting built in) and you have what I would define as a BPMS.

    The only difference I can see is that for BPM the focus is on process management or governance whereas workflow focuses on either documenting and possibly automating a workflow. But what is the point of documenting or automating a workflow if not to improve it? I would venture that governance is implied by workflow whereas for BPM it is explicit.

  12. need to know can i replace BPM with work flow or they work to gether and integrate each other?
    what is the technology of work flow?

  13. I think BPM includes things like BAM etc whereas workflow is purely executing activities in a predefined sequence. Workflow is more closely related to workflow engine whereas BPM being a superset includes respositories, roles, process templates etc.

  14. Ive worked with workflow and BPM, and there are soe differences but not much. I tend to see them now as a family of activities around business processes with so much overlap differentiating is largely academic.

    The traditional difference was that Workflow was about defining a number of major transformation points and montoring and routing the work between the points. So in an insurance system you might have a quotes systems that on completion leads to customer onboarding process to a payments process etc. Each of those would be nodes on the workflow. BPM would also do this, but would go to lower levels of detail and actually be used to build the nodes and replace humans in large parts of the detailed work. BPM can also be at a higher level and be an extension of EAI (linking systems and creating processes across the systems).

    So even in the early days there were clear overlaps, but now they have all grown into each other and any differences are more of emphasis.

  15. Hello, as you may already found I’m newbie here.
    I will be happy to receive any help at the beginning.
    Thanks in advance and good luck! 🙂

  16. Workflow, the BPM´S grandfather, was the solution to manage processes that were suposed to last forever. Today´s business world doesn´t works supported by processes in state of inertia
    So why discuss it?

  17. What are we comparing here? If we are comparing Spring Web Flow to jBPM we find the following differences: (1) jBPM supports definition of workflows that span multiple people and applications. (2) jBPM manages the state of a workflow. (3) jBPM supports multiple instances of a workflow (4) jBPM provides web-services and browser based UI that users can use to view tasks that they have been assigned (or claim tasks that are compatible with one of their roles) (5) jBPM supports long-lived business processes.

    Spring Web Flow does not provide support for any of these items. It implements a subset of jBPM.

    I have no idea if this is the case for other workflow tools, but it does apply to Spring WF.

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  19. One comment I would add….. A workflow does not have to necessarily require any human interaction. A workflow could be associated with a straight-through process that allow system-to-system communication. BPM on the other hand, usually include varying degrees of human interaction.

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