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When considering case management applications, the differences between workflow and business process management (BPM) become increasingly important. Even advanced workflow capabilities are not enough: A comparison of the two demonstrates why.

Workflow is standard functionality included in many enterprise content management (ECM) software systems. In some cases, it may be marketed as process management, so it is important to understand the difference. In contrast, a BPM suite (BPMS) of tools includes workflow and should be used when additional functionality is required, as it is within most case management applications.

This article examines the differences between traditional workflow and BPM by using a simplified purchase order-processing example.

What is workflow?

Unstructured content-often an electronic surrogate of a paper document, has a specific life cycle within a business. In this case, I define life cycle as the period of time a piece of content is useful to a business operation. An example of unstructured content might be the electronic image of a purchase order, a common document used by many businesses.

Electronic documents flow between the various workers of a business, and many workers often need to reference the documents to accomplish their work. Workflow can then be defined as the steps involved in routing a piece of content through its life cycle.

As an example of a workflow operation, let's step through a workflow within a purchase order business process. If you follow the steps a purchase order takes throughout its life cycle, you can better understand exactly what a workflow is. In this example, imagine that an office supply company receives a customer order for new office supplies.

If received as a paper document, the purchase order is scanned, and an electronic image of the purchase order is created (alternatively, it could have been transmitted as a PDF document or via electronic data interchange [EDI]). This is the first step of the purchase order document workflow. The image is sent to the order entry clerk's work queue of orders to be processed. Viewing the image, the clerk enters the products and quantities into an enterprise resource planning (ERP) order-processing application. The shipping clerk fulfills the order from the ERP system but logs into the content management system to confirm the shipment by double-checking against the original purchase order.

The shipping clerk routes the purchase order image to the billing department, where the billing clerk electronically marks the order as complete, updates the file with the associated customer invoice number, and archives the image for five years.

This example shows workflow as the automation of paper flowing through a process. Instead of moving paper physically, you're moving images of that paper electronically through a sequence of work tasks. Now, look at how BPM can improve this process.

What is BPM?

BPM is a foundation for orchestrating business processes as well as a business discipline for continuously optimizing the way a business operates. To satisfy comprehensive BPM requirements, a suite of integrated business process tools (a BPMS) is required. A BPMS enables the understanding, automation, and optimization of business processes. The routing of documents is just one element of BPM. Let's look at the purchase order example again, but this time in the context of BPM.

The objective of workflow is to replace the physical movement of documents with the electronic movement of document images in a predefined sequence. The objective of BPM is overall business process management and optimization using process-centric technology.

BPM starts with the quantitative analysis of existing business processes-referred to as Business Process Analysis (BPA). To perform BPA, you first need to establish a baseline of characteristics for the existing processes. The baseline is established by discovering the details of the current state of the business processes.

With the current state discovered, the next step is to develop an improved future state process design. By understanding the properties of the current state process along with capturing any issues or opportunities for improvement, the business analyst gains an understanding of what changes are required to optimize the process design. When BPA tools are part of the BPMS, the proposed process design can be imported directly into a process builder or modeling interface, where the business logic is configured.

Assume that using the purchase order example the office supply vendor has completed an analysis of the existing order entry process. The analysis determines that the order entry process can be streamlined by eliminating unnecessary activities and automating others.

Before the business analyst gives the new process design to the development group for implementation, the new design is simulated. Simulations are run to confirm how the new process will act. Using a variety of "what if" scenarios, the order entry process and resource allocations are changed until an optimum flow is designed. The development group uses this new process design to create a new order entry application.

Now, when the office supply vendor receives a purchase order, it is immediately scanned. Specific information is automatically recognized and extracted from the paper document. A clear advantage of BPM over workflow is its ability to integrate with existing applications and to choreograph interaction with those applications.

The BPM system validates customer information extracted from the scanned purchase order against the data within a customer relationship management (CRM) application. Based on the new order entry process, if the purchase order is from a new customer, the BPM system adds the customer information to the CRM database. This automated step between systems was proven to save time and money. Another benefit of using BPM is that the office supply vendor can now accept orders directly from its Web site. Choreographing the interaction with and integrations to existing applications is a key advantage of BPM over workflow.

The BPM software connects the dots between other systems that need to communicate but aren't integrated. For example, product information extracted from the purchase order can be input directly into the order management application. Similarly, after the products are packaged and shipped to the customer, the BPM system can transfer shipping and delivery status information to a customer communications application, which sends attractive, personalized e-mail and postal mail notifications.

Using a BPMS, the office supply vendor can also monitor the progress of individual orders and order processing trends for the new order entry application. The vendor implements Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) to track activities, order status, and exception conditions. When there is a problem with an order that requires human involvement, the BPMS can orchestrate the human steps required to resolve the concern. A BPMS with collaboration tools can more effectively move between human and system-based processes to ensure the smooth completion of the process. The BAM module can now track cycle time specifics and statistics across the order entry process from order receipt to fulfillment.


BPM is understandably mistaken for advanced workflow and workflow as BPM. Many companies start with an implementation of content management, the goal of which is to reduce their use of paper documents. A subsequent phase of an ECM implementation is to replace the physical movement of documents with an electronic orchestration of document images. This is workflow.

BPM provides more than electronic document movement: It is a technology-based approach for understanding, automating, and optimizing business processes. Complex business processes are a mixture of human and automated activities.

When a user performs manual activities interacting with a BPM application, the interface should be intuitive, flexible, and open-intuitive and flexible in the way a user is empowered to use his or her judgment to make decisions, flexible and open in the way a user can interact with the application either directly or using another application such as an e-mail client.

Process orchestration involves integrating with existing back office applications. Any application can be made to talk to any other, but what the level of effort is required? Will you need to write code, or can you simply configure a process template to integrate to applications?

Regardless of whether you use workflow or BPM, it's important to reduce the overall complexity of the environment by using a single, integrated platform flexible enough to orchestrate any type of process, open enough to integrate with other applications easily, and robust enough to start small and scale to handle large volumes.

About the Author

Jerry Silver is a senior product marketing manager for EMC Documentum xCP and is also responsible for the Documentum Developer Community. He has over 25 years of IT development and marketing experience, specializing in content management, collaboration, application development, Web technologies and social media. Jerry spent 15 years at Oracle in a variety of technical roles, most recently as principal product manager of Oracle Application Server Portal. He also served as director of product strategy with content management vendor NCompass Labs, now part of Microsoft, and was director of product management for XMetaL, a leading XML authoring tool. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerrySilver.

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