Business processes, workflows, and projects. These ways of working are connected and rely on each other to reach your goals.
Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, they are not the same. In this article, we’ll look at key elements of business processes, workflows, and projects.
You’ll learn about the differences and similarities between each element, and how business processes can improve project outcomes.
What is a Business Process?
A business process is a set of steps performed by an individual or a group of individuals to achieve a goal. Every business relies on processes to get work done in the right order.
Processes cover everything from ordering office supplies to new employee onboarding, vacation requests, and procurement.
Business process management refers to ‘how a company creates, edits, and analyzes’ processes. These processes can be reviewed individually and together to fully understand their impact on the business.
Business processes help organizations to:
- Standardize ways of working
- Reduce errors and rework
- Improve productivity
- Respond quickly to customer requests
- Streamline collaboration within and between teams
- Approve projects and proposals easily
- Ensure compliance with regulations
- Improve risk management.
Let’s review five defining characteristics of a business process.
A business process has a fixed start and endpoint, along with a defined number of steps.
Business processes are repeatable and predictable.
A business process can be executed multiple times by different people and deliver the same results. New employees are welcomed in the same way. New suppliers go through the same review process.
A business process should add value to the organization, helping to improve productivity and efficiency across teams.
Every step of a business process must contribute to the overall success of that process when used. There is no room for unnecessary steps.
Once defined, it’s easy to optimize business processes to improve outcomes, for example, reducing the time between a verbal offer to a new employee to sending the final contract.
Documenting business processes requires end-user input. However, the finalized process is often automated using a BPM tool such as Nintex, with little input needed from users. As we’ll see below, workflows are key to automating your business processes.
A business process is not task management or project management. Task management is the key to project management, and projects are one-off endeavors.
However, business processes impact on ways of working and information flow, which influence project outcomes. We’ll review this relationship in more detail later on.
7 Steps for Creating a Business Process
1. Pick one process
Start with an important process used regularly in your organization. Think about the purpose of the process, why it was created, and measurements of success.
2. Document the steps
Next, note the main steps and tasks of the process. Begin with a simple list of tasks and outcomes, adding more as needed.
When documenting the process, it helps to:
- Include the trigger and end events. When does this process begin and finish?
- Identify who owns each step or task.
- Check for data points used in the process.
- Note any forms used to input information.
Once you’ve completed the first draft of the process, ask end-users for their inputs to make sure you’ve covered the main steps.
3. Test the process
Try the process, following each step carefully. Make notes about the process, especially any ideas for improvements or questions about particular steps.
Update the process as needed.
5. Test again
Repeat steps 3 and four!
6. Share the process
When ready, share the newly documented process with your team to test and gather feedback.
7. Repeat as needed
Repeat this approach as needed for existing and new processes.
Once the process is finalized, create a visual representation of the agreed steps. For extra clarity, use Business Process Modeling Notation, an internationally recognized series of shapes and symbols.
Having covered the basics of business processes, it’s time to learn more about workflows, a tool for completing processes.
What is Workflow?
Part of business processes, a workflow is a way of executing tasks in a logical order. Workflows are typically automated.
Think of business processes as strategy, with workflows as the practical instructions for delivering that strategy.
Workflows have four key characteristics worth noting.
A workflow is defined by a series of steps, aimed at completing an action.
Steps can be linear (completed one after the other) or parallel (executed at the same time).
Workflows have a fixed duration and are triggered by a particular event, for example, logging a new project task.
Workflows can run at any time and as often as needed.
Typically, workflows are linear; users move forward from one step to another.
Like a business process, workflows are repeatable and deliver consistent results.
Workflows are measured by completion rate, particularly when using automation software.
Workflows are made up of four elements. Let’s take a closer look at each component using the example of a vacation request.
- Actors, people or software responsible for the task. In this instance, a team member needs to submit a vacation request and a team manager is responsible for reviewing this request.
- Activities, the task that is performed, often represented as a step. Here, this includes logging the vacation request using a form in an online portal.
- Results, the desired outcome of each step, i.e. the request is approved or rejected.
- State, the movement between steps. In this case, the request moves from ‘new’ to ‘approved’ with just a few clicks.
Workflows are key to executing projects. By automating key elements such as gathering feedback on a document and task tracking, you can streamline administrative tasks.
This creates more time to focus on the project itself!
Workflows standardize project work, helping to keep everyone on track with their work.
Of course, workflows can be used in any part of an organization at any time, not just during projects. It’s likely you are using workflows every day without realizing it!
So far, we’ve covered business processes, workflows, and how these two elements work together. As mentioned above, both business processes and workflows can influence project outcomes. Let’s take a closer look at this.
Projects, Business Processes, and Workflows
A project is a temporary, one-off endeavor aimed at reaching a particular goal. Projects have a fixed beginning and end, a defined scope of work (what will be delivered), and assigned resources, including budget.
Business processes create the right environment for project delivery. Likewise, projects can be used to improve business processes.
The following are a few examples of business processes with direct impact on project outcomes:
- New project request management, which defines a process for reviewing and approving new projects.
- Gathering requirements
- Document approval
- Risk management
- Resource management.
General processes such as vacation requests and new vendor selection can also help or hinder your projects.
The differences between projects, processes, and workflows can be summarised as predictability, measurements, and optimization.
Both business processes and workflows are based on repeatable, consistent steps towards an end-goal. It doesn’t matter who uses a workflow or follows a process – the results will always be the same.
Projects tend to be more complex and unpredictable! Whilst a project manager will develop a strong plan, it’s impossible to account for every unknown challenge that can arise during project execution.
As such, project teams need to be flexible, quickly responding to new priorities and requirements.
Recurring projects are unlikely to face similar issues as previously completed projects, making every project new!
2. Metrics of Success
Completion is a key metric of success for business processes and workflows.
Projects are often measured within the triple constraints – time, cost, and quality. Did the project deliver the desired outcome to a high standard, on schedule, and within budget?
The story of a successful project is complex, incorporating numerous metrics like issues, risks, open tasks, costs, and % Complete.
Another difference between projects, processes, and workflows is optimization. Projects are focused on delivering change rather than improvement during execution.
Project teams are tasked with creating something – a product or service – that will add value to the organization. Once the deliverable is complete, end-users can make improvements. This can lead to more projects!
After a project is finished, the team can use a post-mortem to document valuable lessons and suggest improvements for future projects.
In this article, you’ve read about business processes and workflows, and how these elements can influence project outcomes.
To recap, a business process is a set of steps performed by an individual or a group of individuals to achieve a goal. A workflow is a set of instructions for executing these steps, frequently relying on automation to reduce errors.
Starting with the approval process through to resource management and supplier contracts, business processes and workflows can streamline projects. After all, teams want to get to work quickly and shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel for every project task!
If you are consistently struggling to deliver project outcomes, take a look at the supporting business processes and workflows.
- Are the relevant processes as efficient and clear as possible?
- Should your organization invest in a business process management tool?
- Do end-users understand how to use processes and workflows?
- Do you need to document any new processes for projects?
- Can existing workflows be improved, for example, automation?
- Does your project team need additional workflows?
The seven-step approach for building and improving a business process is a good starting point.
If your organization is using SharePoint for project management, it’s easy to get started with workflows.
Depending on your requirements, try the out-of-the-box workflows for feedback and approval, SharePoint Designer, Microsoft Power Automate, and Nintex.
It’s about creating the right environment for your projects.