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When it comes to business process management (BPM), you need to understand the fundamental differences between a workflow vs. process. A workflow is a specific sequence of activities used to accomplish a particular task. A business process, on the other hand, is a series of tasks used to reach an organizational goal.

What Is A Workflow?

Diving deeper, a workflow is used to optimize a series of steps that streamlines the completion of a specific task. 

A workflow serves to eliminate bottlenecks and streamline business operation tasks to be more simple, attainable, and trackable. A workflow is similar to a recipe for one dish that is part of a larger meal, ensuring that the dish can be prepared in a sequence of steps that anyone can follow.

What Is A Process?

A process, using our recipe analogy from above, is the high-level plan for the entire meal and every course of that meal. A business process brings together the set of tasks, team members, process flow, and tools needed to complete a project.

Without the process guiding the flow of work, all of the recipes might be delicious but they won’t create the overall experience of a delicious meal. A process consists of multiple, well-organized workflows that reduce the friction of finishing normally time-consuming tasks.

Workflow vs Process: Differences & Similarities

There are key differences and key similarities between processes and workflows. There is quite a bit of overlap between the two, but you will find both are critical when it comes to project management.

Below is a table outlining the core differences and similarities between workflow vs process:

DifferencesSimilarities
WorkflowProcess
GoalsStreamline, reducing time spent on individual tasksCompletion, finish projects efficiently and effectivelyAutomation can help both thrive in project management
ScopeMicro-level, task-orientedMacro-level, project-orientedApps and tools help manage both micro and macro
FocusAutomation, optimizing the quickest path of completion between tasksApproval, ensuring tasks are completed to move projects closer to completionData is the backbone of both to improve and tighten the focus of each
StrategyTactical, break down tasks and quickest path to accomplish all tasks in a sequenceProcess mapping, defines what it will take to complete a projectHaving project managers at every step is critical to both strategies
TemplatesDependent, workflows only function with well-defined templatesIndependent, processes can function without templates in order to complete projectsWith or without templates, automation, or strategy both workflows and processes are required for profitable businesses
The key differences and similarities between processes and workflows.

Differences

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1. Goals: Streamline vs Completion

The goal of workflow design is to reduce friction on time-consuming tasks, typically with the help of business process automation or workflow automation. However, the goal of business processes is to achieve the goals of the project and bring it to completion as efficiently and effectively as possible.

2. Scope: Micro vs Macro

The scope and sequence of a workflow is narrowed down to the micro-level. Workflows are meant to help manage details and individual steps (sometimes with workflow diagrams). This helps to ensure all of the steps are completed easily and quickly. An example of a workflow is the set of tasks associated with sending a new employee an offer letter. A business process, on the other hand, is the entire employee hiring process from interviewing to onboarding.

3. Focus: Automation vs Approval

The focus of a workflow is on creating or working with workflow automation platforms to ensure a smooth and effective process. Meanwhile, business process management is focused on the approval process needed for completing projects for the business as a whole, moving pieces of the project along as quickly and effectively as possible. 

4. Strategy: Tactical vs Process Mapping

Using our example of a workflow for human resources, the strategy involved in workflows is tactical in nature. Workflows break down every task involved from purchase orders for new employees to routing employee onboarding questions to appropriate stakeholders. Business processes implement process mapping strategies to outline what it will take to complete a larger project.

5. Templates: Dependent vs Independent

Workflows and workflow automation software are dependent on templates and step-by-step tasks. Processes, however, tend to be more organic. While many processes go from step 1 to step 2, some processes allow you to skip steps based on use cases, new client needs, or any number of factors that might affect the project.

Similarities

1. Both Thrive With Automation

While workflows practically require automation tools, both business processes and workflows thrive with the use of automation. 

Workflow automation software minimizes time spent on a series of tasks. Business process automation software, though, focuses more on a bird’s eye view of the project as a whole and allows for quick and simple approval processes to move the project along efficiently.

2. Both Have a Plethora of Apps and Tools

Many tools focus on no code workflow management, but many apps also have plenty of uses for business processes, too.

While workflow automation tools might auto-progress tasks throughout a process in the background, these apps also often offer notification updates for project managers, optimized data and dashboards, and use case insights based on how the workflows progress.

3. Both Best Succeed When Supported By Data

Speaking of data, both workflows and processes only succeed when they are backed by data-driven results.

You can only automate steps in a workflow when you fully understand where time-consuming tasks can be optimized and where entire steps can be removed. Likewise, business processes can only be streamlined when the data supports that projects can be completed more efficiently with the appropriate corrections.

4. Both Require Project Management Team Members

Some might think that workflow automation would eliminate the need for project management, but both workflows and processes require project management team members throughout the whole project.

Project managers are integral to developing the sequence of activities needed for effective workflows. Likewise, a business process requires the oversight of someone who can adjust workflows and processes based on the requirements to bring a project to completion.

5. Both Are Crucial To The Success Of a Business

Out of necessity, almost all businesses have a process. Projects, of any variety, must be completed in order for a business to function. However, for a business to be successful and thrive, it must also have workflows to ensure project tasks can be completed in a timely, organized, and repeatable manner.

Are Workflows Or Processes More Common In Project Management?

While processes are more common in project management than workflows, it is only because having at least one clearly defined process to complete projects is the bare minimum for a business to continue functioning.

If your business is thinking about project management, and if you call yourself a project manager, then you’re probably more concerned with workflows (and having more of them). This is because workflows lead to business processes becoming smoother, replicable, and far more efficient. You need both to sustain a healthy and profitable project management system.

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Now that you better understand the differences between workflow vs process, you may want to dive deeper into all things project management workflow. We have a 6-step guide with best practices that can help you get started doing exactly that!

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Galen Low
By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.