What Is Business Process Modeling?

6 min read

Business process modeling gives organizations a simple way to understand and optimize workflows by creating data-driven visual representations of key business processes.

Most enterprises have a pretty good idea of the various business processes powering their daily operations. However, when they need to ensure that those processes consistently drive optimal outcomes, “a pretty good idea” isn’t enough.

If an organization wants research and development (R&D) investments to produce sufficient returns, IT issues resolved with minimal downtime or a highly accurate lead qualification workflow, it needs to understand these processes on an objective and comprehensive level. Even the business users directly involved in these processes may lack total transparency into exactly what happens at every step of the way.

Business analysts can gain end-to-end views of the business process lifecycle through business process modeling, a business process management (BPM) technique that creates data-driven visualizations of workflows. These process models help organizations document workflows, surface key metrics, pinpoint potential problems and intelligently automate processes.

What is business process modeling?

A business process model is a graphical representation of a business process or workflow and its related sub-processes. Process modeling generates comprehensive, quantitative activity diagrams and flowcharts containing critical insights into the functioning of a given process, including the following:

  • Events and activities that occur within a workflow
  • Who owns or initiates those events and activities
  • Decision points and the different paths workflows can take based on their outcomes
  • Devices involved in the process
  • Timelines of the overall process and each step in the process
  • Success and failure rates of the process

Key aspects of business process modeling

  1. Process models are not made manually. Rather, they are produced by data-mining algorithms that use the data contained within event logs to construct models of the workflows as they exist.
  2. Because process models are based on quantitative data, they offer genuinely objective views of workflows as they exist in practice, including key data, metrics or events that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. For example, by creating a model of its new account creation process, a software company might discover that a significant number of customers are abandoning the sign-up process because it takes too long. A model could even help the company pinpoint the exact stage at which these drop-offs occur.
  3. Process models are typically rendered using one of two standardized styles of graphical business process notation: Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) — also called Business Process Model and Notation — or Unified Modeling Language (UML). Within these notation systems, certain visual elements have universally recognized meanings when used in a process model. Whether an organization uses UML diagrams or BPMN diagrams, these standardized notation methodologies allow process models to be easily shared and read by anyone:
    • Arrows represent sequence flows
    • Diamonds represent decision points or gateways
    • Ovals represent beginnings and endpoints of processes
    • Rectangles represent specific activities within a workflow
    • Swimlanes are used to identify who owns which components of a process
  4. Business process models shouldn’t be confused with process maps, another common type of business process diagram. Process maps are based on employee reports, are created manually and provide higher-level views of workflows. Process models are data-driven deep dives that present more objective views of workflows.

Learn more by reading “Process Mining vs. Process Modeling vs. Process Mapping: What’s the Difference?”

How business process models are made

To fully understand business process modeling techniques, one must first understand the relevant business process modeling tools — event logs and process mining.

Most enterprise IT systems maintain event logs. These event logs are digital records that automatically track state changes and activities (i.e., “events”) within the system. Anything that happens within a system can be an event. The following are some common event examples:

  • A user logs in
  • A user updates a record
  • A user submits a form
  • Information is transferred between systems

Event logs track both the occurrence of events and information surrounding these events, like the device performing an activity and how long the activity takes. Event logs act as the inputs during the production of process models.

Process mining is the application of a data-mining algorithm to all of this event log data. The algorithm identifies trends in the data and uses the results of its analysis to generate a visual representation of the process flow within the system. This visual representation is the process model. Depending on the process targeted for modeling, process-mining algorithms can be applied to a single system, multiple systems or entire technological ecosystems and departments.

Business process modeling use cases

Process models offer unprecedented levels of transparency into company workflows, making them a key business process management tool. While process models can be leveraged in any scenario that requires analyzing business processes, these are some of the most common use cases:

Gaining 360-degree insight into processes

A single process model can contain a wealth of workflow data, allowing team members to analyze a workflow from multiple perspectives. Business analysts often use business process modeling to zero in on the following workflow components in particular:

  • Control flow: “Control flow” refers to the order in which steps and commands are executed within a process. A process model depicts a flowchart of a given process so that a team can clearly see what steps are taken and when. This perspective also helps the team identify any dependencies between steps.
  • Organization: A process model can capture who is involved in a process — including people, teams, systems and devices — and how they interact with each other. This perspective illuminates the connections between people and systems that form the organizational social network. In this way, a process model offers insight into how various components of a business function together.
  • Time: A process model can record how long a process takes, overall, and how long each step takes, allowing the team to identify delays, slowdowns and bottlenecks within the workflow.
  • Case: A process model can offer a general view of how a given workflow typically plays out, or it can reflect a particular case – or instance – of a workflow. Teams often use this case perspective to analyze anomalous process outcomes. For example, if a specific instance of a workflow results in lower-than-average outcome quality, teams can isolate exactly what went wrong.

Optimizing and standardizing processes

Process models accurately reflect existing workflow inefficiencies, making it easier to identify opportunities for process optimization. Once workflows have been optimized, businesses can use process modeling to standardize workflows across the entire enterprise. The model acts as a template for how processes should play out, ensuring that every team and employee approaches the same process in the same way. This leads to more predictable workflows and outcomes overall.

Assessing new processes

Process models can take the guesswork out of implementing and evaluating new business processes. By creating a model of a new process, business users can get a real-time look at how that workflow is performing, allowing them to make adjustments as necessary to achieve process optimization.

Analyzing resource usage

Process models can help companies track whether money and resource investments produce suitable returns. For example, by creating a model of the standard sales process, an organization can see how sales representatives are utilizing the tools and systems at their disposal. It may turn out that a certain tool is used much less frequently than anticipated, in which case, the organization can choose to disinvest from the tool and spend that money on a solution the sales team actually uses.

Communicating processes

Process models transform complex processes into concrete images, making it easier to disseminate and discuss processes throughout the organization. For example, if one department has a particularly efficient process for troubleshooting technical problems, the business can create a model of this process to guide implementation on an organization-wide scale. 

The benefits of business process modeling

Business process modeling arms an enterprise with objective business intelligence that supports more informed decisions for resource allocation, process improvement and overall business strategy. With a clear view of processes, enterprise teams can ensure that workflows always drive the desired results. As a result, operating costs are lower, revenue is higher and business outcomes are stronger.

Specifically, business process modeling allows companies to do the following:

  • Access and utilize quantitative process data: Without a process model, teams are limited to discussing and analyzing workflows in qualitative and subjective terms. As a result, teams may not accurately understand their workflows; they may make business decisions based on misunderstandings, assumptions and/or incomplete knowledge. With process modeling, teams have access to quantitative workflow data, including success rates and error rates, allowing for a more rigorous analysis of business processes.
  • Streamline and accelerate process automation: Before a process can be automated, an organization needs a clear understanding of how that process plays out in reality, including the business logic underpinning each decision point. A process model illuminates both the way a workflow unfolds and the relationships between events, actors, tools and systems within and between processes. This viewpoint helps a team document the process itself and the business rules that guide its execution. This information makes it easier to effectively automate workflows the first time.
  • Keep operation costs down: Process models provide organizations with an easy way to identify opportunities to optimize existing processes. This makes it easier for the company to ensure that processes consistently produce the desired outcomes. As a result, business processes require less investment to maintain and generate positive outcomes at a lower cost.

Business process modeling and IBM

Process modeling forms a cornerstone of any automation effort or business process management initiative. Without comprehensive views of existing processes and their undergirding business logic, enterprises cannot effectively optimize and automate workflows at scale.

Take the next step:

IBM Blueworks Live is a cloud-based business process modeling software designed to help organizations discover business processes and document them in a collaborative fashion across multiple stakeholder groups. Teams can work together through an intuitive and accessible web interface to document and analyze processes. No download required.

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