If you work in IT, development, or DevOps, it can be easy to feel like everything you do is incident response. You constantly face issues that demand your time and attention.
Those issues, however, are not the same as actual incidents, and it’s important not to conflate day-to-day operational workflows with incident response. Managing the issues that arise as you go about normal workflows is one thing. Identifying and responding to actual incidents is another.
Here’s a breakdown of the similarities and differences between workflow management and incident response, and where both disciplines fit within the work you perform as a developer, IT engineer, or DevOps engineer.
What Is Workflow Management?
Workflow management is a generic term that describes how an organization manages the day-to-day operations that drive their business. Those operations can involve any aspect of the business, not just IT work. In IT specifically, however, workflow management refers to the approach that you take to handling everyday tasks like deploying applications or viewing monitoring data.
What Is Incident Response?
In contrast, incident response (which is also sometimes called incident management) refers to the tools and processes that an organization uses to handle unexpected disruptions. The term is used almost exclusively within the context of IT work, rather than serving as a generic concept that applies to any type of business process.
Workflow Management vs. Incident Response
It can be easy to conflate workflow management and incident response, or fail to understand where one stops and the other begins. Both practices share several key characteristics:
- They involve using tools and processes to solve problems.
- They require troubleshooting and problem solving. No matter how carefully you plan your workflows, problems will arise within them, and you’ll need to solve them. These problems are not of the same scope or scale as those you face in the context of incident response, but they are still problems.
- They require you to manage personnel resources in order to ensure that the right people are available to perform the right tasks.
- They involve the prioritization of different processes and resources. You must know which workflows are more important than others, as well as which incidents are most critical, and then assign resources accordingly.
- In order to work well, they require careful documentation and knowledge management between team members.
- They are ongoing, continuous processes. As long as your business is operating, you will be managing both workflows and incidents.
- They support business continuity by ensuring that operations can proceed as expected.
- When performed inefficiently, they can lead to fatigue on the part of your team, wasted money, and more.
Yet there are key distinctions between workflow management and incident response. Beyond the fact that workflow management is a rather generic concept and incident management is specific to IT work, incident management is also distinguished by the following factors:
- Incident management is about responding to unexpected disruptions. That’s not to say that you didn’t plan for the disruptions – in a well-designed incident response strategy, you will have playbooks in place for handling common scenarios – but the types of incidents that you have to manage occur at times and in ways that you didn’t see coming, by definition. In contrast, workflow management is about following processes and procedures that, unless an incident occurs, are predictable and laid out ahead of time.
- Incident management requires urgency in a way that workflow management does not. When you design your operational workflows well, you don’t need to scramble unexpectedly to deploy a new application release or stand up a new server. You can plan tasks ahead of time and complete them according to the schedule you define. In contrast, with incident response, you have to react quickly, and usually with little warning.
- Whereas workflows can be managed using real-time communication channels that are defined ahead of time, incident management may require thinking quickly about how best to coordinate a response. Depending on when an incident occurs, who is responding to it, and which systems are affected, one communication channel (like Slack) may be better than another (like email or phone calls).
- Incident response is based in part on alerts and notifications. Alerts aren’t a key component of workflow management.
In short, then, incident management is what happens when you receive an alert that something has suddenly gone wrong. By definition, it involves dealing with the unexpected. In contrast, workflow management is about keeping things running according to the plans you laid out ahead of time. In workflow management, deviations from preset plans are a problem to avoid; in incident response, they are the main problem to solve.
Workflow Management vs. Incident Management Tools
It’s worth noting, too, that the tooling surrounding both practices is different. Unless you track and manage workflows manually, you would use purpose-built software platforms for this task; Business Process Management (BPM) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software are designed in part to cater to the needs of workflow management.
Incident management is somewhat more complex in that it typically involves multiple tools. You have monitoring and alerting systems in place that notify you when something goes wrong, but you also need separate tools to help you manage your response to those incidents.
More specifically, you need incident management software that allows you to determine which incidents to prioritize, make sure that you assign response tasks to the best-qualified and most available engineers, and avoid inundating your team with so many response requests that they become burned out. If you attempt to use monitoring software to generate alerts and then manage your responses manually, you will very likely find it difficult to know how to triage effectively and how to use your team’s time and resources efficiently.
Businesses rely on workflow management and incident response to keep their operations running smoothly. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that a well-designed workflow management strategy will also allow you to manage incidents, or vice versa. These are two distinct disciplines that require different methodologies and tooling.