Work Management Tools vs. Process Management Tools: How to Make the Right Choice

Luke Walker
September 3, 2020

Throughout my management consulting career – and still at least once a week today – I get asked the following question:

“I already have a work management tool that allows me to organize my tasks and projects. Why should I get another solution just to manage processes?”

Well, maybe you shouldn’t. The answer to that question really depends on your unique business requirements.

I realized recently that there isn’t a lot of reliable information on this differentiation available online – just a lot of technology providers telling you that their solution “does it all”. This inspired me to write about the main evaluation criteria one should consider when making the choice between a work or task manager and a business process management tool.

Do you need work management or process management?

If you’re reading this article, then you yourself are probably the tech decision-maker in your team. So let's use your current situation as the example:

In any given month, do you find yourself doing lots of status check-in meetings with your team or teams, where the only purpose of the meetings is to go through spreadsheets, email threads, or bulleted lists on a document to clarify the status of certain work items?

"Where do we stand with that?"

"Who needs to do what, by when?"

"How do we move that further along?"

Sound familiar? Probably seems like you need a work task management tool, doesn’t it?

Well, not necessarily. Because those work items referenced in the meeting could be one-off tasks, part of a broader project, or, in actuality, part of a recurring process.

There are a three different types of work, each with unique characteristics and requirements that should be taken into account when selecting your tooling: tasks, projects, and processes.

Exploring the differentiation between these types of work will help you to hone in on your actual, current needs, and make a more informed decision on your next software purchase that won’t be swayed by industry hype.

Let’s compare.

Work and task managers work best with tasks and projects

Generally speaking, work and task managers perform very well with one-off tasks and project-related tasks.

These tools allow you to keep track of everything, bundle tasks to a project, tick-off completed items, and make changes to work lists as you go. You can typically collaborate, assign responsibilities, add deadlines, and provide whatever necessary context a given task needs.

Tasks are the easiest to identify and manage in these tools. For example:

  • A ‘Thank You’ note needs to be written
  • A website feature needs to be debugged
  • Landing page copy for a product needs to be updated

Tasks like these happen in every organization, and they clearly belong on a task list, because the isolation and relative-straightforwardness of the tasks also makes them the easiest to forget.

Projects represent groups of tasks, which require a higher degree of planning and collaboration in order to execute. There often comes unexpected new tasks, scope changes, and other developments that require your dedicated software to be highly flexible. For example:

  • The rollout of a new accounting software over a 3-month, tiered implementation schedule, which will involve IT, Finance, and other external stakeholders
  • Organization of a major trade show booth, which will now transition to a fully-virtual trade show

If the bulk of your work falls into tasks and projects, then good news – there is an endless range of work management solutions on the market that perform very well, and are available on almost any budget.

Here are a few examples of task and work management tools that I like, have used myself, and have recommend to my clients in such situations:

  • Trello
  • Asana
  • Jira

Each have their own specific strengths and weaknesses, but generally, they would work well in the business situations described above.

A process management platform is built for recurring work

On the other hand, a process can be broken down into ordered steps, which themselves may contain one or more tasks that need to be completed as part of that process step. This, along with their recurring nature and greater predictability, is what differentiates processes from tasks and projects.

More often than not, the tasks discussed in the fictional status meeting mentioned earlier are actually part of a business process. These tasks are probably a recurring part of how your company operates day-to-day. Most managers just don’t realize it.

In spite of not being recognized as such, the individual steps of a process are usually well-understood. There are typically clear operational approaches for each step of a process, including exception handling, and conditional responses – if/then's, do overs, do if and only if, and so on.

This is where process management tools come into play. Digitizing all the steps and conditions of a process end-to-end will provide you with a number of productivity benefits. Their ability to manage every step, nuance, collaboration point, and execution of a recurring process is their foremost advantage.

On the flipside, the flexibility that makes task managers so great for managing projects, is surprisingly detrimental for process management.  Unlike their work and task management relatives – which emphasize organization, collaboration, and documentation of work – process management tools emphasize most heavily on the execution of work. Effectively, they enable teams to execute work, whilst documenting and collaborating in a pre-defined process framework.

To differentiate, at-a-glance:

  • Task Management tools enable a higher volume of coordination in order to execute undefined, one-off tasks and projects. More time spent coordinating, to deliver improved project outcomes. Quality benefits, but limited time benefits.
  • Process Management tools enable the execution of recurring processes with as little coordination or friction as possible. Minimal to zero time spent coordinating, yielding faster turnaround times, and improved outcomes. Quality benefits and massive time benefits.

So, the moral of the story: one system is not better than the other. But wherever possible, work and tasks should be made into processes, not projects.

Process management scales better

Nothing saddens me more than watching a high-growth business implode because of business operations that didn't scale. Happens all the time. And more often than not, the problem could have been avoided with a bit of foresight and better understood, digital processes.

With processes digitized, you build a process infrastructure that will enable you to better analyze your business operations, visualize your strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately scale operations as your business grows.

With digital process management, it's possible to increase total operations volume without seeing an increase in errors, longer delivery times, or a disproportionate number of new hires to service and maintain recurring processes. That’s because you’ve created a stable and adaptable process backbone that doesn’t break with an increased workload as you grow.

Current digital solutions for process management

For process management, there unfortunately isn’t the same endless range of tool options, compared to task and work management.

Many businesses rely on legacy ERP systems, or try to upgrade their core systems to accommodate changes to their processes. Still others bootstrap homegrown solutions.

These approaches can produce good results; however, the lead time and cost projections are generally staggering. On the other hand, modern digitization solutions like Next Matter approach process management differently, with an eye toward faster, no-code implementation and greater flexibility.

A client once said to me: “A digital process is like a custom app that flows exactly to the way we work, while a digital project is like a whiteboard with tasks, post-its and so on. Both have their merits, but they are not interchangeable”

To summarize, there are unique company needs that indicate if you need a task manager, digital process management platform or both. Just ask yourself:

“Where do the tasks that I need to organize come from? Is it a process, or is it a one-off?”

The answer will lead to the right tooling.

About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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