At the PEX North Carolina event earlier this summer, I was asked what the difference was between automated workflow and BPM software, and which did I think the prospect needed for their instance. I’m not surprised that a senior OpEX professional and leader at a major company expressed some degree of bafflement with this, because frankly, I think we as vendors have not been clear.

Instead, vendors have been focusing on the marketing message, trying to position workflow tools as BPM solutions (not a good idea!), while trying to push BPM toolkits as the solution for what would otherwise be regarded as a lower-level problem, e.g. task management.

Automated Workflow

Automated Workflow software is found as a stand-alone tool, but it is also frequently included within a business toolkit with some bells and whistles surrounding it, and then marketed as a BPM. Within more sophisticated BPM software solutions, automated workflow forms a major staple, so it is no surprise that traditional workflow tends to be conflated with BPM.

Workflow is the step-like sequence of tasks which need to be completed in order to move a piece of work through to finished product (or service delivery). Business rules are used to determine when an item should be passed along the workflow to the next stage (task), and these form part of the basis for workflow automation.

Automated Workflow software allows you to put this into practice.


Business Process Management is a discipline, something you practice, to improve business processes in support of organizational objectives.

As a discipline, BPM wields a wide range of tools and techniques, none of which are mutually exclusive or mandatory.

My favorite article on a common BPM definition is on Keith Swenson’s Thinking Matters blog, which I highly recommend as a read for some context on this: .

“Business Process Management (BPM) is a discipline involving any combination of modeling, automation, execution, control, measurement and optimization of business activity flows, in support of enterprise goals, spanning systems, employees, customers and partners within and beyond the enterprise boundaries.”
Keith Swenson

Keith Swenson BPM Thinker

Keith Swenson – Thinking Matters

I do not believe BPM is the sole province of the enterprise, but this definition is the most commonly accepted, refined version I have encountered for what BPM is and is not, so I accept it too. The state of technology available did mean that the resource burden and price tag demanded to implement BPM was only within the capacity of enterprise-class organizations. Technology and BPM solutions have advanced, and SMBs should not be considered excluded from practicing BPM, nor from the tools which support it. There is no sense in splitting hairs in this instance, Swenson’s definition is a good one in my opinion.

[This also underpins why we have taken HighGear down the path of Lean BPM, seeking to place pragmatic and affordable tools to support BPM in all organizations for use by the business person, not the technical specialist, and not just in the enterprise.]

Given BPM has until recently had a very amorphous meaning, it should come as little surprise that vendors offering BPMS (BPM Software) have an eclectic and varied mix of tools under the BPM banner. Modeling, simulation, task management, workflow automation, resource utilization, business activity monitoring, BI and analytics, reporting and collaboration tools, may all find a home under the BPMS term, although sadly this list is not exhaustive. Further, a BPMS can also have any mix of tools within it, meaning that in practice you will have more than one set of BPMS products operating side-by-side (and this is very common in the enterprise too).

In an ideal world, BPM software will also help your processes adapt to the changing business environment in a more agile fashion (though with many BPM vendors, this is more of a lofty hope rather than a firm undertaking). A BPMS will also help you optimize your processes, and this implies the ability to gain visibility on workflows and processes, and to be able to measure and report on performance accurately (“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” – Peter Drucker).

BPM seeks to deliver organizational goals, whereas workflow delivers a product or service. A BPMS is used to support BPM activities, which may, or may not, include Automated Workflow. The deliverable of an organizational goal requires a holistic approach, rather than robotic completion of associated tasks along a pre-defined route.


Automated Workflow – software to automate workflows and control the flow and completion of tasks according to preset business rules.

BPM – Business Process Management is a discipline, a way of thinking and looking at how the organization operates and functions, and how to manage and improve processes and in turn, performance.

BPMS – BPM Software provides tools to support the practice of BPM, which may include Automated Workflow.

For further reading I recommend Keith Swenson’s book which he co-wrote with Jim Farris, When Thinking Matters in the Workplace

When Thinking Matters in the Workplace