The Spectrum of Workflow

[Note: As an enterprise, before you start trying to improve the quality and productive output of workflow, you need to figure out what kind of workflow you face. Below, the enhanced excerpts from our recent counsel to a web services company seeking to elevate the level of enterprise workflow consciousness.]


Our advice is to start the effort by determining where [your company’s] operations fit on the spectrum of workflow.

The most basic – the most universal – proposition of business is simply this: The reason for an enterprise’s existence, the way it makes money – is through the value that it delivers to customers and other stakeholders. That value is only delivered by the work that the enterprise performs, and that work has to be performed in some method of workflow.

Those methods exist, whether enterprises are intentional about them or not. In our view, those methods are descriptively termed process management, project management, and case management. We used to not draw the distinction.

We used to say that workflow was all about processes – that workflow was synonymous with process; to a degree, that will always be true. In fact, we used to state the sequence of our proposition underlying business process improvement as value-work-process. But, the workflow spectrum is broad, and a single approach will not fit every enterprise situation, will not singularly fit every industry space. By necessity, workflow solutions are becoming more industry-specific, often more enterprise-specific; that is particularly the situation when it comes to the applications that interact with – and enable – the workflow.

Ironically, as the workflow spectrum has broadened and the applications have become more specific, most enterprises find themselves in need of addressing all three methods.


PROJECT MANAGEMENT: In residential construction – which is SAI’s primary vertical – workflow is project management with embedded, repeatable processes; homebuilding companies are primarily Project Management Organizations (PMO), and they are multi-project, which really makes them Project Portfolio Management Organizations (PPMO).

Project management has long timeframes with a lot of task dependency and resource contention; although individual projects (jobs) have similarities, their work breakdown structures can vary significantly, depending on the project requirements. So, they tend to be treated as individual projects managed in a portfolio. A PMO schedules projects, not the process.


PROCESS MANAGEMENT: On the other hand, the operations of manufacturing companies are essentially about process management – continuous flow, sometimes single-piece, very repetitive, very definable, very standardized, often, very transactional. We choose to differentiate between cross-functional workflow – which I refer to as processes – and workflow performed in sequence by one person or department, which I prefer to call procedures.

And, we choose to differentiate between processes (documented in process models), which are intended to provide an in-depth, largely internal understanding of workflow, and value streams (documented in value stream maps), which are intended to provide an external, higher-level view of workflow, resource capacity, material flow, and information flow.

Having drawn those distinctions – processes, procedures, and value streams are of the same genre; project management is a different animal, and process-centered enterprises have workflow management requirements that are distinct from those of a PMO. If you place process management and project management on a spectrum, they tend to be at opposite ends of that spectrum. In terms of automating workflow steps – obviously not the entire distinction – some process steps can be automated, but project tasks usually cannot.


CASE MANAGEMENT: Then, there is the emerging discipline of case management, which is not really on the single plane/spectrum with processes and project management. In a sense, process, case, and project management triangulate. They are distinct. To be sure, case management has been around a long time in certain industry verticals, such as healthcare, insurance, and legal; it is extending into additional segments. And, case management is becoming an alternative to a pure process approach. The primary distinction – and argument – for case management is in what Bruce Silver (Bruce Silver Associates) describes as case management’s “unstructured progression” of workflow, situations that are more ad-hoc (as opposed to pre-defined).

Case management also applies to workflow situations that are more document-intense (as opposed to data-intense); to situations that share documents in the same folder; to situations that require real-time collaboration (as opposed to a more defined sequence); and to situations that involve physically separated, remote, and independent resources.

From an automation standpoint, some of the sub-processes in case management can be automated, in fact, automation probably offers the biggest overlap between process management and case management; process management and case management use the same execution language (i.e., XML, XPDL, BPEL export), and they will likely link to Business Process Management Notation (BPMN) as the standard.


The applications that support process management, case management, and project management are very distinct. Our recommendation would be to figure out which type of workflow you are managing, before you start to consider the application that you need.

We don’t know what situation [your company] is facing, or which scenario would best define its workflow. But, you should start with making that distinction. Start with the context.

That would be our advice.