What is the Business Process Model and Notation diagram?

In Business Intelligence & Analytics

Professionals in sales, project management and other areas use business process modeling software to define their approach to any specific process.
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Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) is a graphical representation used to specify business processes in a business process modeling (BPM). Learn the essentials of BPMN diagrams and BPMN 2.0, along with the history, purpose, benefits, symbols, diagram types, and essential tips for business process modeling.

Business Process Modeling Method (BPMN) schemes are used in different areas, e.g. in sales and project management. In development, this tool is important in the business intelligence phase: all user-system interaction scenarios are described with the help of BPMN.

This notation system was created specifically to find a common language between analysts and managers without technical training.

What is BPMN?

Business Process Model and Notation is a system of notation that depicts business processes with the help of flowcharts. A BPMN diagram shows in what sequence work activities are performed and information flows.

Any business process can be described with the help of modeling, but in the context of this article we're talking more about web systems, sites and applications.

A clear scheme shows where the processes have bottlenecks or deadlocks that cause customers to leave or fail to finish the target action (application, purchase, call). BPMN highlights areas that can be improved and models ways to adapt to new conditions.

BPMN diagram example

BPMN diagram example

Why to use BPMN diagrams

The main advantage of BPMN diagrams is that they are understandable both inside and outside the organization. The notation describes processes in a language available to all project participants. It is understood by the development team (business analysts, programmers, product managers) and the customer side (owner and employees).

Information in graphical form is more perceptible than complicated technical text. Diagrams simplify the work on the project: the customer understands how the system will work, and he can make adjustments at the stage of discussion of the project.

But if it is an easy-to-understand language it doesn't mean that anybody can use it. BPMN schemes are prepared by specialists, business analysts. They describe business processes in detail and consistently so that the project can then be easily implemented in development.

Purpose and benefits

Business analysts, process participants, managers, technology developers, and external teams and consultants. Ideally, it provides enough detail and clarity for a set of business activities to bridge the gap between process purpose and execution.

Graphic representations can be much easier to understand than narrative text. This facilitates communication and collaboration, achieving the goal of efficient processes that deliver high-quality results. It also contributes to communication to create the Extensible Markup Language (XML) documents required to carry out various processes. An important XML standard is called BPEL or BEPEL4WS, which stands for Web Services Business Process Execution Language.

BPMN diagram elements

BPMN diagram elements

Elements and symbols of BPMN 2.0 diagrams.

BPMN illustrates these four types of elements for business process diagrams:

  • Flow objects: events, activities, gateways
  • Link objects: sequence flow, message flow, association
  • Swimlane: pool or lane
  • Artifacts: data object, group, annotation


Activities are those actions (tasks) that need to be performed at a certain stage of a business process. When modeling, they are usually denoted by rectangles, which corresponds to the essence of the action.

Actions can be elementary, i.e. indivisible into some simpler actions, and non-elementary, i.e. such actions that decompose into a sequence of certain simpler actions when detailed.

In other words, it is an event that starts, changes, or completes a process. Event types include message, timer, error, clearing, signal, cancel, escalation, link, and others. They are represented by circles containing other symbols based on the type of event. Based on their function, these are classified as "throwing" (triggering an activity) or "catching" (being generated by an activity). 


A particular activity or operation performed by a person or system. It is represented by a rectangle with rounded corners. They can become more detailed with subprocesses, loops, offsets, and multiple instances.


Decision point that can shape the path based on conditions or events. They are represented as rhombuses. They can be exclusive or inclusive, parallel, complex or data or event based.

Gateways are also needed when the procedure depends on certain factors. For example, when working with customers the gateway appears at the stage when the client makes a decision about the purchase - "yes or no". With a positive decision it is necessary to make a purchase, with a negative decision - to find out the possible reasons for refusal, to work with the "refusal", etc.

Sequential flows

Shows the order of activities to be performed. It is represented as a straight line with an arrow. It may depict a conditional flow or a predefined flow.

Message flows

Represents messages flowing between "pools" or boundaries of the organization, such as departments. It should not link events or activities within a pool. It is depicted by a dotted line with a circle at the beginning and an arrow at the end.


Represented by a dotted line, it associates an artifact or text with an event, activity or gateway.

Pool and swimlane

A pool represents the main participants in a process. Another pool may be in a different company or department, but it is still involved in the process. The swimlanes within a pool show the activities and flow for a given role or participant, defining who is responsible for which parts of the process.

Pools (participants) and tracks reflect the distribution of responsibilities. A pool or track refers to an organization, role, or system. Tracks allow you to divide pools and other tracks hierarchically.


Additional information inserted by developers to give the diagram the appropriate level of detail. There are three types of artifacts: data object, group, or annotation. A data object shows what data is needed for an activity. A group shows a logical grouping of activities but does not change the flow of the diagram. An annotation provides further explanation to a part of the diagram.

Executable and non-executable business processes

In business modeling processes can be divided into two types - executable which will really work with the help of special software like Bizagi, and non-executable, i.e. business models which are needed only for studying and demonstrating variants of how the company works.

In principle, there is no particular difference between their construction, the only important thing here is the desired result. Or the business model will only be used to facilitate the understanding between the customer (the manager) and the consultant (the performer). Or this notation will later be used in some software environment to organize the company's work. In normal manuals you will not find such a division into two parts. But I personally believe that it makes sense to conditionally divide business processes in this way because different desired results will require different depth of detail and choice of possible tools to work with.

Executable business processes must be built in strict conformity with all BPMN notation rules, otherwise the software won't work correctly with the business model. Executable processes are needed, for example, at enterprises that adopt the process approach to activity. The software allows to trace all the processes in real time, and on the basis of the data received at each stage, the head of the company and departments will always be able to understand at what stage the work on this or that process is. This method allows to increase management efficiency considerably.

Non-executable business processes are needed solely to demonstrate the business model. It can be a diagram showing the real state of affairs in the enterprise, it can be a visual illustration of the supposed changes in reengineering. In this case, of course, you can use any convenient tools, including traditional for many IDEF0. And observance of modeling language rules is only necessary to achieve mutual understanding.

When starting to work with BPMN, it is recommended initially to create non-executable business processes. It's really very convenient notation for illustrating proposals, demonstrating bottlenecks in business, even just for yourself to understand the structure of the organization very well with the help of notations. The visual graphics and strict rules help a lot.

Executable version requires deep knowledge of BPMN and paying attention to every detail just like you create a program (algorithm) for computer, just using graphical notation, not textual language. This is a job for experienced professionals.

BPMN: language for Business Process description

And the basis of modeling here is to have a language to describe business processes. And it's important to understand that this is really a language, just like programming languages or even languages that people speak, it's also simple on a basic level and complicated when you start learning the nuances. This language has its own rules, its own semantics, its own spelling, its own laws, which must be learned and strictly adhered to. On the other hand, like any artificial language, designed not for living communication, but for a strict and unambiguous description of some actions and processes, it is in principle easier than "living" languages, and its rules are strictly logical.

In addition, because of the limited range of tasks that this language has, it is much more defined in terminology. But there are still a lot of nuances, some combinations of "words" with their own meaning. And it is very important to strictly follow the rules for combining the different elements of the language and to know the limitations (what is not allowed to be combined with what, how to begin a description, how to end it, etc.).

And as any technological language, the description of business processes has its own specific structures, to understand which is extremely difficult without a certain level of technological knowledge. Therefore, to study a language of business process description it is also important, in the first place, to understand the technology, for the description of which it is designed.

For example for modeling business processes you will need knowledge of such notions as "conditions", "cycle", "decomposition" and others.

It is important to understand that BPMN is not a language for describing IT systems. This notation is intended to describe the domain of real business. And both software systems and people (company's employees, customers, suppliers) can be involved here. This is the most important difference between this notation and graphical means of describing programs.

Disadvantages and important features of BPMN

To choose any tool, it is also important to understand the possible disadvantages:

  • There are a significant number of concepts and terms in the BPMN notation, you need to know them and apply them correctly.
  • High entry level. As with any multitool, it takes more time to learn than other notations (IDEF0, IDEF3).
  • Knowledge of business analysis is required. In BPMN models are not just pictures or diagrams, you can draw them in any graphical editor. A good structure and clear consistency are very important here.

What you should remember about BPMN

BPMN is a diagram of blocks and connectors that depict all the activities taking place in the system. This diagram is made in the Discovery Phase of Business Intelligence.

With BPMN diagrams work becomes more dynamic: business analysts pass the project more quickly to developers who do not need to spend time on getting into the system and understanding the processes.

Development team and customer understand each other better, BPMN eliminates the possibility of "double reading" and thus no misunderstanding either.
The diagram improves communication not only within the company but also creates a common information field when communicating with the customer.
BPMN clearly shows the weak points where potential customers may leave. This means it will be much easier to fix or prevent "leaks".

Secondary models within a BPMN diagram

Diagrams are used to communicate concepts to diverse audiences, both non-technical and technical. Secondary models allow different audiences to easily differentiate between sections of the diagram, finding what is most applicable to them. The types of secondary models are:

  • Private business processes. These are processes internal to a specific organization and do not cross organizational pools or boundaries.
  • Abstract Business Processes. They occur between a private/internal process and another participant or process. The abstract process shows the outside world the sequence of messages needed to interact with the private process. It does not show the private/internal process itself.
  • Collaborative business processes. They show the interactions between two or more business entities.
BPMN 2 diagram in MS Visio

BPMN 2 diagram in MS Visio

Other diagram types

There are other diagram types in BPMN 2: conversation, choreography and collaboration.

  • Choreography diagram: shows interactions between two or more participants. It can also be expanded with secondary choreography.
  • Collaboration diagram: shows interactions between two or more processes, using more than one pool. All combinations of pools, processes and choreographies can be used in a collaboration diagram.
  • Conversation diagram: in general, this is a simplified version of a collaboration diagram. It shows a group of related message exchanges in a business process. It can be expanded with secondary conversations.

Comparison with other process models

EPC (Event-driven Process Chain) and BPMN are two notations with similar expressiveness regarding process modeling. A BPMN model can be transformed into an EPC model, while conversely an EPC model can be transformed into a BPMN model with a slight loss of information. One study showed that for the same process the BPMN model could require about 40 percent fewer elements than the corresponding EPC model, but with a slightly larger symbol set, and thus the BPMN model would be easier to read. Conversion between the two notations can be automated.

UML and BPMN activity diagrams are two notations that can be used to model the same processes: a subset of the activity diagram elements has similar semantics to the BPMN elements, despite the symbol set being smaller and less expressive. One study showed that both types of process models appear to have the same level of readability for novice users, despite the higher formal constraints of an activity diagram.

A subset of BPMN can be transposed directly into WS-BPEL, which is an expression of a process directly executable by a workflow engine.

What is the difference between BPMN and UML?

The main difference between UML and BPMN is the difference in perspective.
UML is object oriented and BPMN is process oriented. For this reason, BPMN is widely used in both IT and business, while UML is more suitable for developing IT systems and less suitable for process improvement.

What is the difference between BPMN and flowcharts?

Business process modeling and notation is a flowchart method of graphically representing business processes. This is done exactly like creating a flowchart process map. The only difference is that BPMN comes with its own symbols and elements.

Is MS Visio an example of BPMN?

BPMN is an international standard for business process modeling. Microsoft Visio Professional is the modeling tool of choice for most large organizations. 

Key tips for business process modeling

  • Clearly define the scope of the process with a beginning and an end.
  • You might start by mapping the current business process to highlight inefficiencies, then model a better process with BPMN.
  • Look for BPMN diagrams that fit on a single page, even if it is the size of a poster, as is the case in some cases.
  • Arrange sequence flows horizontally. Show associations and data flows vertically.
  • You can create various versions of the diagram for different stakeholders, depending on the level of detail needed for their role.
  • The BPMN is not suitable for modeling organizational structures, functional breakdowns, or data flow models. Although the BPMN describes some information flows in business processes, it is not a data flow diagram (DFD).