BPM Futures

Renewing BPM for the coming decade

Isn’t it time we re-thought the definition of BPM? It seems to be getting increasingly jelly-like – wobbling and spreading to encompass every possible interest group. Check this out – the ‘official’ definition (at least until the editing debate settles down) from Wikipedia: “Business process management (BPM) is a management approach focused on aligning all aspects of an organization with the wants and needs of clients.” Presumably contrasting sharply with previous generations of business management methodologies, which focussed on aligning all aspects of an organization with the wants and needs of small furry animals. I love Wikipedia, but if this is the wisdom of crowds, then civilization is surely doomed.

My recollection is that the term BPM came into usage in the late 90s as a way for new entrants (Savvion, Lombardi, Metastorm and Ultimus come to mind) to the existing workflow automation market to differentiate themselves from the incumbents. A key aspect of these newcomers was a serious attempt to make the process definition environment more friendly and useful to business process analysts/modellers, for example with simple BPMN flowcharts and built-in simulation.

However, the newcomers could not emphasise this aspect alone, partly because the incumbents already used graphical process definition (albeit, they would argue, a less business friendly version), and partly because their prospective clients were also concerned with other features, such as ease of integration and reporting. So “BPM” became associated not only with built-in business modelling/simulation but also better integration and reporting (think Business Activity Monitoring) – something not contested by workflow automation incumbents, since some already had excellent integration and they could swiftly match any reporting improvements. Very quickly, everyone sold “BPM” products.

And everyone bought them. The tremendous success of BPM technology, particularly in banking/financial services, telcos & the public sector, over the last 12-13 years (since the explosion of new “BPM” products in the late 90s) has had a further, diluting effect on the terminology. BPM projects are now routinely enterprise-scale, and are therefore attracting a spending level significantly higher than most process improvement /modelling initiatives. This in turn means that a much wider constituency of professionals wants to be involved in BPM projects – and often rightly so, given that enterprise roll-outs do require a wider range of skills, particularly in relation to business (process) analysis. Unfortunately some of these folk are taking positions in relation to BPM terminology that owes much more to their history in process improvement than to the technology that created BPM.

Is this just technology bias? Well, consider your favourite BPM project, and imagine the impact if all of the BPM technology was suddenly removed. What new analytical or process improvement method would remain to distinguish the activities of business improvement folk today from those you might have seen 15 years ago? Six Sigma, Lean, more general process improvement techniques are tremendously important – but have they changed so much in recent years that they constitute a new business management methodology called BPM?

So is BPM defined by technology alone? Think again of your favourite BPM project, and this time remove the entire concept of process improvement, Six Sigma and Lean. What are you left with? I suspect something that looks a lot like workflow automation, at least in its primitive form – a process defined and automated … then the project finishes and the process improvement team (suddenly reappearing) pulls out its Visio charts and starts to negotiate future change with the IT department.

If BPM is to have any substantive and paradigm-changing meaning, it must include both technology and process improvement in a way that reflects their roles and illuminates their synergies. A suggestion:
BPM is the superior state of process management attained when business process analysis and improvement activities are supported by technology workbenches that are themselves deeply integrated with the systems in which the processes are to be executed.

This definition addresses the relationship between BPM, process modelling/simulation, workflow and ERP (and other types of ‘Core’ systems). The following statements become true:
• “BPM” products that do not include deeply integrated workbenches for process modelling, simulation and analysis are not BPM – they are workflow. Nothing wrong with that – many, perhaps most, of the world’s “BPM” implementations to date probably fall into this category and they have provided significant return on investment to their customers.
• Where a workflow product does include deeply integrated workbenches for process modelling, simulation and analysis it is indeed BPM or, perhaps better, ‘BPM-enabled workflow automation’.
• ERP (and other) systems that include deeply integrated workbenches for process modelling, simulation and analysis may also be classified as BPM – or perhaps ‘BPM-enabled ERP’.
• Process improvement professionals can state that they are practicing BPM (or process improvement in a BPM environment) if and only if they are using BPM-enabled technology. They might be practicing BPM in relation to processes executed in a workflow automation or an ERP system.

Such a definition would set a standard for all stakeholders and provide a target for both business and vendors to aim at, with a vision of process improvement and execution progressing in harmony that is both radical (in the context of where the “BPM”/workflow journey has actually been over the last 20 years – whilst a number of products would pass the BPM test above, many solutions based on these products remove the levers that would put process improvement professionals in the driving seat) and ‘back to basics’, in that this is very much what the pioneers of workflow automation envisaged in using ‘graphical process definition’ in the early 90s.

It remains a compelling vision, and one that could drive competitive advantage for those that adopt it in the decade to come. The first step is to collectively recognise the vision and the terminology under-pinning it for what they are, and discard all wobbly-jelly BPM definitions along with sub-prime loans and easy credit, as relics of the decade we’ve just left.