Workflow and project management tools - what's the difference?


According to Wikipedia, "The project is a one-off enterprise designed to create a unique product, service or end result." (Source: The same page mentions that projects have three main characteristics: one-off, unique, and continuous. That is, a project can be understood as any chain of activities that is not continuously present in the operation of an organization, but which is of a certain duration and fulfills certain goals, such as product development or development of a new service. When the goal is achieved, the project ends, often even the team created for the project disintegrates.
A simple project, for example, could be the construction of a house. As with any other project, certain conditions must be met in order to be successful. It is the responsibility of the “project manager” - in this case the contractor - to ensure that all conditions are met, otherwise the project will not be successful.
In this case, the end of the project is clear: when all work is done, the house is in a turnkey state, the project ends.


The wording can be a bit treacherous here, not as clear as in the case of the project. In English, the terms workflow and business process overlap. We most usually use the term "workflow" for IT systems managing business processes. That is, workflow is an IT tool - software - that we use to manage our business processes. Unlike projects, business processes are multi-step, repetitive chains of activities that are constantly present in the day-to-day management of a company. Business processes can also be divided into steps - similar to projects - and these steps are managed by the workflow system. These include account management processes, mailing, filing processes, contract creation processes, complaint handling and sales processes, and so on. It is also important that while projects can be modified during their completion, workflows are always pre-set. In day to day, repetitive operations it is most important to keep business processes consistent, therefore delivering consistent results. The flexibility of the process is secondary or even undesirable.


To sum up, the difference between workflows and projects can be seen in the following:

  • Permanent or ad hoc activity?
  • Are the tasks repetitive and parts of day to day operations or are they designated for a certain purpose without repetition?
  • Do we need to achieve a specific goal at a given time or do we have a set of recurring tasks in the life of a company?

In the example of the previous project, home building, the workflow, or process, management can also be highlighted. After all, when the house is built, that is, when the project is completed, there are various processes involved with the house: paying utility and other bills, paying related taxes periodically, regular cleaning, regular maintenance, regular garden cleaning, periodic window cleaning and much more. It can be seen that while the project is ready and completed - that is, the house is completed - its maintenance requires continuous, repetitive activities - these can be interpreted as processes! After all, while the house is standing and living, the above never ends - unfortunately, after two years, for example, we can't say that the "electricity bill payment project" is complete and we don't have to deal with it anymore, instead we have to do the same thing again and again. 


Many times we find ourselves in a situation where the CEO declares that we do not need a workflow system, we can manage our projects well, we have all the tools. At this point, it is a real problem to understand that although the two may be remotely similar to each other, their purpose, method of use, and solutions to other types of problems are completely different. As we saw in the previous example, in all walks of life, we come across processes (often projects), just as companies' day-to-day operations are based on processes - even if they are not consciously named or designed.
Going back to the basic question, if you have to deal with your company's day-to-day operations, routines, and management, workflow will be the solution, while for project management, though workflow may be suitable, a project management tool shall be chosen.

DESIGN AND implementation

Another important difference is that while project management tools are mostly focused on project planning, and usually have manual steps for project implementation, the workflow - designed processes run immediately, automatically, and the system monitors the completion of each step on time. These steps can be manual, automated or mixed. Yet another important element is that workflows consist of pre - designed processes and steps cannot be changed by users in an ad hoc way. Of course, process owners with the appropriate permissions can modify processes, but there is no way to "adjust" deadlines, for example, when tasks are sliding. In such cases, the workflow system looks for a solution along a pre-defined process, such as escalating the problem or even automatically allocating more resources to the process. In a project management system, planned and factual data can be compared, so that missed deadlines and other changes can only been observed after the project is done.


In summary, project management tools and workflow systems show similarities in some respects, but there are more differences between them than at first glance. Therefore, it is advisable to plan, before implementation, what kind of system we use for the task, according to the nature of the task. However, the capabilities of the systems also need to be considered and chosen accordingly - bearing in mind that workflow may in some cases be a substitute for project management tools, but not vice versa.