How to Define a Business Process


Here’s a situation I have witnessed before: management decides they want to train employees on an important topic, such as web security. They ask an Instructional Designer (ID) to put together a course that includes important security information. One of the topics they want the training to cover is how to report a security breach. When you ask your security Subject Matter Expert (SME): What are the steps to report a security breach? You get a lot of head-scratching and confused looks. No one has ever defined that process. How should the breach be reported… should it be an email? A phone call? Who should receive that email or call? What if the breach happens during a holiday? Your SME isn’t really sure of the answer because it’s never been formally defined or documented. But if the organization wants to train employees how to report a security breach, the business first needs to answer those questions and properly define the business process.

The above-mentioned scenario is a common one, as many businesses (especially start-ups and smaller sized organizations) don’t have a great deal, if any, of their processes documented. Employees are all getting things done their own way, which works… until it doesn’t.

This illustrates why training and business processes go hand-in-hand. When you’re training employees, you’re teaching them how to carry out business processes. If there is no documented business process or no defined way of doing things, how can you teach employees how it’s done? This is why sometimes, as an ID or training designer, you might need to be able to define business processes as a part of your job.

Here are the high-level steps you can follow to document your business processes.

Choose the starting point

The first step is to identify the starting point for your business process. A business process typically involves many steps and covers many sub-processes. Some of the steps that occur earlier in the process may affect what happens further down the line. But your process could cover too much and be too far-reaching if you don’t select the right start and end point. Another helpful tip is to start by covering the most common scenario, to avoid covering too much.

Let’s look at an example. Say you’re defining the business process for how to onboard a new employee. A logical starting point for this process could be when the new hire accepts the job offer. The onboarding process might be different for a full-time employee vs. an intern, but if 80% of the new hires are full-time employees, it’s probably a good idea to start with that. 

Identify all the roles involved

Business processes often involve multiple roles and span across multiple departments. The first part of the process might be carried out by one role, then passed along to someone in a different department, then it goes to another person, and so on. You’ll want to identify and include all of the job titles and departments that need to provide approvals, make decisions, or be notified as a part of the process.

The onboarding process involves people across multiple departments. It might involve a Recruiter who sends the final job offer, a Human Resources Administrator who creates an employee profile for the new hire, an IT Specialist who sets up the computer, a Finance team member to add the new hire to payroll, and others. 

Interview people

Asking questions and interviewing the people who carry out the business processes is integral to understanding exactly how the processes are done. You’ll need to sit down with each person involved, one at a time, and have them explain, step-by-step, how they do their job. You’ll ask questions like:

  • What is the trigger that kicks off this process?
  • Why do you do it this way?
  • How do you get this piece of information?
  • What is the next thing you do immediately after this step?
  • What happens if this step goes wrong?

You will continue this line of questioning until you reach the end of their part of the process.

For example, to understand the onboarding process you would start by sitting down with the Recruiter and asking them to walk through their portion of the process, step by step. You might start by asking “What is the first thing you do when an offer is accepted by a new hire?”. Say they respond: “Once the offer is accepted, I communicate this to the rest of the team.” your follow-up questions might then be “How do you communicate this? Who do you communicate it with? Why do those specific people need to know? What would happen if they didn’t?” and so on. 

Document each step

As you’re interviewing the people involved in the process you’re defining, you want to properly document each step in the appropriate order. It’s also a good idea to include relevant notes or tidbits of information that could affect the outcome or that might impact that step.

For the Recruiter involved in the onboarding process, the steps might look like: 

  1. Email the final offer to the candidate with instructions and a deadline for acceptance
  2. Receive the email from the candidate accepting the new offer
  3. Email the candidate to welcome them to the team and provide instructions for the next step which is completing a background check (notes here could include exactly what is needed from the candidate to submit the background check in terms of ID, etc.)
  4. Send an email to HR, IT, Finance, and the new hires boss to communicate the offer acceptance and the start date (notes here could include the text from an example email and disclaimer that start date is pending successful background check)
  5. Receive email with information for the background check 
  6. Initiate the background check process (this step could have further sub-steps that explains exactly how to do this)

Specify time frames

One of the crucial things you’ll want to identify is the time frame when each step happens. Identifying the time frames is key to making sure that things happen in a timely fashion and in an order that makes sense.

For example, if the background check takes 10 business days to process, you’ll want to document that in your steps. The timing of steps will impact subsequent steps and processes. For example, the new hire can’t start until the background check is complete. This means they can’t join the team until a  minimum of 10 business days after the background check process has been initiated. The timing of when that process is kicked off will affect when they come on board. 

Create a flow chart

A picture is worth a thousand words. This is why it’s a good idea to create a visual flow chart of all the steps, roles, and the time frames involved in the process. The flow chart allows you to conceptualize the steps in the process and see how they flow across the different departments. It also makes it easier to pinpoint problems or disconnects in the process.

Here’s an example flow chart for the onboarding process:


Defining business processes is an involved task, but it’s a necessary part of creating effective training. Keep in mind that business processes are ever-evolving; you’ll need to make updates and changes to the process over time.

Following the steps outlined above will help you define and document your processes. Having properly documented processes will help the business run more smoothly and will allow you to build more effective employee training.

Do you have any tips of your own for defining and documenting business processes? Let me know in the comments, and follow me on Twitter for more training tips and tricks.