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What's the Difference Between Workflow and Process Flow?

November 6, 2020

Administrative workflows and processes are the bread and butter of higher education. Thousands of forms are submitted and processed every semester across an institution.  

Because processes and workflow are so crucial to achieve goals, it’s important to understand them. When we understand them, we’re able to draw conclusions and see opportunities for optimization.

What's the difference between workflow and process flow?

First, let’s define what we mean by workflow and process flow. 


Workflow is the sequence of steps involved in moving from the beginning to the end of a task. It is the set of tools, technologies, and activities that enable documents or information to flow from one point to another. Ideally, it's best to use a workflow automation software to track data, manage projects, and monitor your results.

Process Flow

Process flow refers to business processes. A process is a series of actions or operations with the purpose of achieving an organizational goal. A process might involve the combination of multiple workflows to accomplish a goal. 

The definitions sound similar, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably. The most significant difference between the two is their purpose. In short, the purpose of a workflow is to accomplish a task. The purpose of a process is to achieve an organizational goal.

Let’s see our definitions in context. 

What is an example of a workflow?

graphic of a man creating a workflow on the computer

A student needs to change their major from English to Communications. The workflow includes the technologies and activities used to accomplish the task. The workflow process begins after the student has submitted their form requesting a change. 

Step 1. An administrator sends the form onto an advisor within the student’s current department. 

Step 2. The advisor receives the form and approves or denies the change of major. 

Step 3. Upon approval, the form is sent to the dean of the student’s current school, the School of Humanities. 

Step 4. Pending approval, the form is sent to the dean of the student’s requested school, the School of Communications.

Step 5. After approval, the form is sent to a campus administrator in the Registrar’s Office, where the student’s records will be updated in the Student Information System and any other campus identity solutions.

After step 5, the goal of processing a form was accomplished and the workflow is complete. 

What is an example of a process flow?

Steps of a Process

On the other hand, the process looks slightly different. The process starts and ends with the student.   

Step 1. The student locates and fills the form.

Step 2. The student submits the form.

Step 3. An administrator receives the form, confirms it was filled correctly, and assigns the correct approvers.

Step 4. An administrator send the form into the workflow.

Step 5. The workflow is completed successfully and the student is notified their major has been changed. 

Note that the objective of the process flow, a successful change of major for a student, is much broader than the objective of a workflow. 

When discussing the difference between workflows and process flows, it may be helpful to ensure everyone is on the same page at the beginning of your discussion. This becomes especially important when you engage in mapping or diagramming activities. Mapping is just one of the many methods used to streamline and optimize a process. Learn more about what process mapping is and the different types!

Understanding the difference between workflow and process flow in higher education

To conclude, workflow and process flow are different in outcome. Workflows are used to accomplish a task and process flow is used to accomplish an organizational goal. As you take a deeper look into your workflows and process flows, you will likely see opportunities for automation. Take a look at Kuali Build, a forms and workflow automation platform, to see how you can optimize your workflows and processes.

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