Posted in Workflow Automation

Workflow vs Process: Understanding the Difference (+Examples)

Workflow and process are common words in business process management (BPM). 

They’re similar enough that they’re often used interchangeably, which creates quite a bit of confusion — even among experts in the field. 

So let’s define “workflow” and “process” in a way that’ll help you precisely and clearly communicate your ideas around BPM at work.

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Workflow vs Process: What Exactly Is the Difference?

Workflows and processes may seem similar, but there are subtle yet significant differences between the two. 

Understanding what these differences are will help you identify areas of improvement and ultimately improve business operations as a whole.

What Is a Workflow?

A workflow is a series of activities that are carried out to accomplish a task according to a set of procedural rules. 

A common workflow across many businesses is expense approvals. That’s where an employee fills out an expense form and submits it to a specific recipient (usually a manager) for approval.

This workflow has a set of defined rules and practices that govern a series of activities to complete the task. There are also clear start and endpoints. It starts when an employee fills out an expense form and ends when they’re reimbursed

Well-defined workflows streamline repetitive tasks and increase productivity. They provide a blueprint that employees can follow to accomplish a task, whether it’s creating a purchase order or processing product returns.

What Is a Process?

A process is a sequence of repeatable activities that are designed to achieve a specific organizational goal. 

What Is a Process?

For example, a company might implement a standardized customer service process to help meet its goal of achieving 95%+ customer satisfaction ratings.

Processes occur at all levels of an organization and vary across industries. Companies in the agriculture industry follow different processes than those in financial services.

Business processes are important because they standardize how work gets done and lead to more consistent outcomes. Standardization ensures employees perform a task the same way each time.

72% of organizations agree or strongly agree that BPM practices like modeling and optimizing processes have improved overall efficiency. 

You can divide processes into three categories:

  1. Operational processes: Operational processes directly contribute to a company’s value chain — the activities involved in creating a product or service. Examples include manufacturing and distribution.
  2. Supporting processes: Supporting processes don’t directly contribute to the value chain, but they’re still necessary for companies to operate. Examples include document management and equipment maintenance.
  3. Management processes: Management processes monitor and control activities related to various business systems. Examples include strategic planning and capacity management.

In short, a workflow is a series of steps that make up a task, while a process is a set of activities that help organizations accomplish specific goals. Both are essential for getting things done.

Example of a Workflow and a Process

A process may encompass multiple workflows. Consider the procurement process. An organization might take the following steps to procure needed supplies:

  1. Identify the best vendor
  2. Create and approve purchase requisition documents
  3. Generate and send a purchase order
  4. Receive one or more invoices
  5. Take delivery of the ordered items
  6. Reconcile and pay the invoices
  7. Maintain records for audit purposes

Within this process, there are several workflows — approving purchase requisitions, creating a purchase order, getting invoice approval, maintaining financial records, and more.

Optimizing this process is often a key organizational goal. Improving the procurement process means faster turnaround and even cost savings. Improvements can include purchasing from sustainable sources, strengthening vendor relationships and automating individual workflows.

That last point is worth a closer look.

A whopping 94% of employees say they perform repetitive tasks. Some of these include data entry, document creation, and copying data between applications.

94% of employees say they perform repetitive tasks

That’s not all. Employees also spend their time on frivolous activities, such as hunting down documents and chasing signatures.

Workflows not only bring more structure to your processes, but they can also help you identify bottlenecks and uncover ways to fix them.

Consider the workflow for purchase orders in the procurement process. 

Purchase orders enable your company to procure necessary goods and services. But manually performing each step in this workflow is both tedious and time-consuming.

Workflow automation software like frevvo lets you map out each step of a workflow and automate repetitive tasks like document routing.

Here’s an example of an automated workflow for purchase orders:

Purchase order workflow

The process builder is fully visual and doesn’t require any complex coding. You can easily add or remove steps to the workflow diagram and even add conditional rules.

For example, the workflow above includes a rule that only routes purchase orders to an executive for approval if it exceeds a certain value. This helps increase overall efficiency and prevent a backlog of work.

Mapping out a workflow is a valuable exercise, as it allows you to visualize each step from start to finish. This makes it easier to detect redundancies and reduce waste.

Workflow management, where individual workflows are automated, increases efficiency by eliminating delays due to unnecessary bureaucracy. 

It also reduces procurement risks by ensuring strict adherence to business norms and discouraging maverick purchasing.

Workflow Automation: A Key Aspect of Process Management

Workflow automation is just one aspect of business process optimization, but it’s one of the first things most organizations should tackle. 

Employees frequently struggle with the efficiency-killing issues that routinely affect manual workflows — lost documents, missing or error-ridden information, signatures that have to be chased down, missing or delayed approvals, plus more. 

Each might seem like a small thing, but, taken together, they lead to frustrated employees who are neither as engaged nor as productive as they could be.

Using workflow automation software to shift from paper or email to fully automated workflows saves valuable time and improves productivity. It also means better customer service, higher business agility, and happier employees.

Sign up for a 30-day free trial of frevvo’s powerful workflow automation software to automate your workflows and make your processes more efficient.

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Author:

Ashish Deshpande has worked in the process automation space for over 20 years. He has been instrumental in successfully deploying frevvo’s software at hundreds of organizations such as HBO, New York University, and Boston Public Schools. Ashish has contributed to leading publications such as Forbes, business.com and readwrite.com. Ashish received a PhD in Computer Science from Yale University, and a Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India.