Workflow vs. BPM: Roadtrip!

Hi. My name is Zach, and I am in Product Marketing. (Hi Zach.)

So, Product Marketing can mean a lot of different things in technology. For me, it means explaining things so they can be more easily understood.  I take what can be complex concepts, technology components, and ideas and translate them into more easily understood terms, stories, nuggets, and value so Appian customers can make more informed decisions.

In any technology market, there is a lot of noise and confusion. Every so often on the Appian Insights Blog, I’ll cover concepts that may be confusing, but are important to understand. Today let’s look at workflow vs. business process management (BPM).

Many people still confuse workflow with process. It’s easy to understand why. The earliest BPM solutions were focused on workflow—or how individual processes are coordinated. BPM is about designing processes, executing them across people and systems, managing tasks, and continually optimizing it all. Workflow is a component of BPM, but it is more about task management and how repeatable, less complex individual processes get accomplished.

Not clear? Here are a couple quick and easy analogies to help you better understand the difference between workflow and BPM.

The Road Trip Analogy

If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you know there are a bunch of things that you need to do. Get gas, know where you are going, and plan the timing of everything.  A short road trip from here to there? That’s workflow. It’s a pretty straight forward ‘here-are-the-steps-that-must-be-completed-to-get-there’ type of thing.

But what if your job was traffic control?  A part of traffic control certainly is all the individual cars making their individual road trips. But, you are in the master control center, monitoring how the traffic flows and optimizing traffic patterns in real-time. You also analyze past traffic issues and redesign the roads themselves to optimize traffic flow so road trips are more pleasant. That’s BPM. It’s coordinating all the different processes, data, systems, and people.

Still not clear?  How about….

The Zoo Analogy

Sometimes when I take a short road trip, it’s to a zoo about 90 minutes away. My daughter loves the turtles, so when we get there, the turtle enclosure is usually our first stop! My daughter’s bee-line to the turtles? That’s the workflow. She always has a singular focus as soon as we get to the zoo. She heads straight for her favorite animal with our family in tow.

So what’s BPM? The zookeeper! It’s the zookeeper who designs and maintains the habitat; always keeps watch over the health of the turtle and all the other animals; measures daily interactions and optimizes the enclosures so the animals stay healthy and the visitors – like my daughter – enjoy their time at the zoo.

Of course, no road trip would be complete without…

The Ice Cream Analogy

After the zoo, let’s go get some ice cream!  There’s a great ice cream shop on the way home, so we often stop off for a delicious treat. My daughter loves (LOVES!) chocolate ice cream. For her, the stop is always a simple two scoops of chocolate ice cream in a cup. Pretty simple.

My son also loves (LOVES!) chocolate ice cream. But for him, our little ice cream shop is all about the Delicious Dino, a sundae for kids that consists of chocolate ice cream, a choice of chocolate, marshmallow, or caramel sauces, maraschino cherries, and a ginormous dinosaur cookie—either a T-Rex or a Triceratops on top. My son’s version is never the same twice. Sometimes he wants two of the sauces. Sometimes he wants extra cherries. Sometimes he asks to go off the board completely and get it in a waffle cone instead of with the Dino cookie!  The more complex sundae is more like BPM, with the dynamic menu, potential for changes, and delivery of a great experience no matter what happens.

Of course, these are simple analogies that cannot fully paint the picture. But, at the end of the day, the thing to remember is that workflow is simple routing with no optimization. BPM is both the technology and the art of optimizing your business processes and operations. Constantly measuring, adjusting and optimizing the flow of the business. Now…who’s up for a road trip?

Zach Messler

Director, Product Marketing