“Workflow” is Back

I think the term "Workflow" is back.

Not that it ever went away. It is just that it has been such a pejorative word. The most common reason given for the difference between "Workflow" and "BPM" was: Workflow is that old stuff we don't do anymore, BPM is much newer, much better.

Some people felt that workflow was support for work without any back-end integration. I honestly don't know of any workflow vendor that did not offer integration to backoffice system, nor how you would accomplish keeping workflow separate from the backoffice. I always point to the 1995 "Workflow Reference Architecture" which always had an "Interface 3" which is a standard way to integrate to a system or service. But there is a general impression that there were some workflow products that could not be integrated.

Regarless of the reason, from 2001 thru 2005, all the workflow vendors and workflow practitioners changed to using the term "BPM" due to this marketing fluff.

Some thought BPM was a more inclusive term: it mean not only the automation of business tasks, but also the modeling of it, the review of how well things are running, and the overall *management* of those business processes. To manage a process, you have to be able to see it, manipulate it, keep multiple versions of it, and be able to measure its effectiveness. This point of view makes sense: you are "managing" the workflow processes in a much more tangible way. Unfortunately, due to the influence of two very strong vendors, IBM and Microsoft, and in their over-promotion of BPEL, as well as some other notable gadflys of the BPM wave, the term BPM came to mean really something closer to Enterprise Application Integration with a process approach. We also call this "Web Service Orchestration". It took three years from 2002 thru 2005 for the market at large to realize that BPEL really was just about coordinating messages from server to server. This realization has caused the meaning of BPM to collapse from an all encompasing term, to one that means little more than "EAI".

There recently has been a big realization that "Human BPM" is very important. IBM and SAP release their BPEL4People white paper. BEA buys Fuego, a notable human workflow vendor. Oracle prepares new human capabilities above (and possibly separate) from their BPEL engine. And Microsoft talks about their Workflow Foundation, which is also separate from their BizTalk EAI.

The term "Human BPM" is a bit cumbersome. I was recently asked to give a presentation at DCI's BPM Conference on the subject of "Techniques for Using Workflow to Bridge the Gap Between Business and IT". They have not had any workflow talks for the past three years, but this year it seemed appropriate to get back in touch and see what has been going on there. In discussios with many of the experts there, they felt that the term "Workflow" now means the human oriented side of BPM, while BPM cover both the human as well as the EAI style BPM. Gartner is now using the term "BPM Suite" to mean technology that covers both human and system BPM among other criteria.

That works for me. I must give Microsoft credit for being brave enough to use the term "Workflow" and to use it for capability that is consistent with the original meaning. I propose now that BPM be the overarching term, with Workflow representing the human capabilities, and "Service Orchestration" being the system capabilities. We will see if this comes to pass.

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12 Responses to “Workflow” is Back

  1. Great post — it’s time that we “took back” the word workflow. I don’t completely agree that BPM now means EAI, but I do think that BPM is being used to describe anything that’s remotely related to process, making it relatively meaningless. I’ve been blogging “A Short History of BPM”, and your post ties in nicely with today’s “Tower of Babel” post.

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  5. happyfish says:

    Well said. Of course it is only a matter of time before it is renamed something even more catchy or stupid like a human computer complimentary technology process-O-rama suite of Service Oriented Power, when some over zealous marketing guru tries to out do some other over zealous marketing guru.

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  7. kswenson says:

    David Chappell wrote a nice response
    On Defining Workflow
    in his blog. He suggests that Microsoft is using ‘Workflow’ as the overarching term, and ‘BPM’ as part of that. In some ways I would prefer these definitions, but in the end I will go with any definition as long as we all agree.

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  11. Keni says:

    Haha, it all makes sense now.
    I’m trying to shop for a workflow application for my company and all my google searches for the keyword has not done really well. After this post, my search for BPM system ratings returned the kind of info I need.
    So much for BPM, business people indeed like the Buzzword, developers just need to get the job done!

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