Workflow vs process: what’s the difference?

Workflow and process, workflow automation and process automation – we’ve all heard the terms, but is there actually any difference between the two? We examine the difference between workflows and processes and discuss how understanding this difference can help your team achieve their goals.

The difference between workflow and process

The formal definition for workflow is “the sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion”. Let’s simplify this down even further to just “the sequence of processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion”. According to this definition, a workflow is comprised of processes.

Now if we look at the formal definition for process, we get: “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end”. Using this definition, a process is comprised of tasks.

So, putting everything together: a workflow is comprised of one or more processes, and a process is a series or collection of tasks you perform to achieve a certain goal or end. Put another way:

Workflow = a system or collection of processes

Process = a collection of tasks that achieves particular goal or purpose

All the processes in a workflow contribute to achieving the overall goal or purpose of the workflow. This is the definition of workflow and process that we use at Workflow86.

We’ve seen the difference between workflows and processes defined a few different ways. Some have suggested that the relationship is the opposite of what we have outlined above: processes are comprised of workflows. However, we think that the definition we’ve established above is the most helpful, and we discuss why it is helpful below.

How the difference between workflow and process can help your team

Establishing a formal definition for why workflows and processes are different is one thing. But is this even useful, and how can this difference actually help your team operate more efficiently and more effectively communicate what you want to achieve?

We think the main benefit of thinking of workflows as comprised of processes is that it can help your team achieve big and ambitious goals by breaking them down into smaller process goals, and then into more specific tasks and actions.

🏆 Setting the workflow goal

For example, let’s say that our team wants to streamline how we recruit and hire for new roles. So first, let’s establish the overarching goal: to hire the best candidates for the role. This is our workflow goal – the goal that all the processes inside of the workflow will be pointing towards.

🎯 Setting the process goals to achieve the workflow goal

Now let’s divide this workflow goal into smaller sub-goals that will become the focus for the processes that will make up our workflow. So, to hire the best candidate for the role, we need to:

  • Easily capture all the information we need from an applicant about themselves, their experience and so on
  • Quickly and easily schedule interviews with the applicant
  • Accurately score the applicant so we can compare them with other applicants and make an informed decision on which candidate to hire
  • Efficiently handle all administrative tasks once we have chosen who to hire, such as generating offers and contracts, making sure that everything is correctly done but also not dragging out the process too long

These are our process goals, and we will establish a process or series of tasks that will achieve the goals:

  • A process for capturing information from the candidate
  • A process for scheduling and conducting the interview
  • A process for scoring the candidate
  • A process for generating employment documents

🔨 Setting the tasks to achieve the process goal

And now that we have established the processes we need, we can now go into further detail about all the tasks in each process. Tasks are the smallest building block or atomic unit in a workflow – they are the specific, individual actions that when performed in sequence will achieve the process goal, and therefore help us achieve our workflow goal. So, for example, the process for generating employment documents may be comprised of these tasks:

  • Get all relevant details and information from the candidate required for the contract
  • Insert those details into an employment contract template
  • Generate the draft employment contract
  • Send to the candidate to review
  • Receive the signed employment contract from the candidate

When these tasks are performed, we will achieve the goal for this particular process. When we achieve all of the process goals, we will achieve the overarching workflow goal.

Example of a workflow we built for managing our recruitment process. Learn more 👉 here

3 steps to tackling workflows, processes and tasks

In summary, many people use workflow and process interchangeably, but understanding the difference between the two can help you better understand what exactly you need to do in order to achieve certain goals and aims in your team or business.

Step 1: Establish an overarching goal or aim you want to achieve – this is your workflow goal

Step 2: Break down your workflow goal into smaller sub-goals – these are your process goals

Step 3: Establish the tasks that you will need to perform to achieve each process goal

In this way, we can see how workflow and process automation and tools help teams achieve big, ambitious goals by coordinating all of the processes and tasks inside of those processes. When each task is performed, the process goal is achieved. When each process goal is achieved, the overall workflow goal is achieved.