Pivot on a dime with BPM: see me on Process Pioneers

In case you miss listening to me blather on about process while waving my hands around to illustrate a point, here’s a video that Daniel Rayner recorded for his Process Pioneers YouTube channel of a conversation that we had recently.

We chatted about challenges that organizations face when implementing BPM (both documentation/management and full automation projects), and some of the wins possible. The “pivot on a dime” quote was about how having insights into your business processes, and possibly also automation of those processes, allows you to change your business model and direction quickly in the face of disruption.

Governance-first content in customer-facing processes

Back in May, I did a webinar with ASG Technologies on the importance and handling of (unstructured) content within processes. Almost every complex customer-facing process contains some amount of unstructured content, and it’s usually critical to the successful completion of one or more processes. But if you’re going to have unstructured content attached to your processes, you need to be concerned about governance of that content to ensure that people have the right amount of information to complete a step, but not so much that it violates the customer’s privacy. If everything is in a well-behaved content management system, that governance is an easier task — although still often mishandled — but when you start adding in network file shares and direct process instance attachments, it gets a lot tougher.

I also wrote a white paper for them on the topic, and I just noticed that it’s been published at this link (registration required). From the abstract of the paper:

Process automation typically provides control over what specific tasks and structured data are available to each participant in the process, but the content that drives and supports the process must also be served up to participants when necessary for completing a task. This requires governance policies that control who can access what content at each point in a process, based on security rules, privacy laws and the specific participant’s access clearance.

In this paper, we examine what is required for a governance-first approach to content within customer-facing processes, and finding the “Goldilocks balance” of just the right amount of information available to the right people at the right time

Head on over and take a look.

ASG is holding their Evolve21 user conference as a virtual event in October, you can learn more about that here.

Accelerating Process Modeling with Process Mining

Back in 2008, I started attending the annual academic research BPM conference, which was in Milan that year. I’m not an academic, but this wasn’t just an excuse for a week in Europe: the presentations I saw there generated so many ideas about the direction that the industry would/should take. Coincidentally, 2008 was also the first year that I saw process mining offered as a product: I had a demo with Keith Swenson of Fujitsu showing me their process discovery product/service in June, then saw Anne Rozinat’s presentation at the academic conference in September (she was still at Eindhoven University then, but went on to create Fluxicon and their process mining tool).

Over the years, I met a lot of people at this conference who accepted me as a bit of a curiosity; I brought the conference some amount of publicity through my blog posts, and pushed a lot of software vendors to start showing up to see the wild and wonderful ideas on display. They even invited me to give a keynote in 2011 on the changing nature of work. Two of the people who I met along the way, Marlon Dumas of University of Tartu and Marcello La Rosa of University of Melbourne, went on to form their own process mining company, Apromore.

I’ve recently written a white paper for Apromore to help demystify the use of process mining alongside more traditional process modeling techniques by business analysts. From the introduction:

Process modeling and process mining are complementary, not competitive, techniques: a business analyst needs both in their toolkit. Process mining provides exact models of the system-based portions of processes, while manual modeling and analysis captures human activities, documents informal procedures, and identifies the many ways that people “work around” systems.

Head on over to their site to read the full paper (registration required).

The (old) new software industry

Facebook is a hot mess most of the time, but I usually enjoy the “memories” that remind me what I posted on this date in past years. A couple of days ago, on April 30, I was reminded that in 2007 I attended the New Software Industry conference at the Microsoft campus in Mountain View. These were the days when SaaS and other cloud platforms were emerging as a significant packaging concept, and companies were rethinking their delivery models as well as their split between product and services.

In reviewing those old posts, there were a lot of points that are still valid today, and topics ranged from development practices to software company organization to venture capital. The discussion about the spectrum of software development practices was especially on point: there are some things that lend themselves to a heavily-specified waterfall-like model (e.g., infrastructure development), while others that benefit from an agile approach (e.g., most applications). I also liked this bit that I picked up from one of the sessions about software industry qualifications:

In World of Warcraft you can tell if someone has a Master’s in Dragon Slaying, and how good they are at it, whereas the software industry in general, and the open source community in particular, has no equivalent (but should).

I finished my coverage by pointing out that this was a very Valley-centric view of the software industry, and that new software industry conferences in the future would need to much more exclusive of the global software industry.

I was already live-blogging at conferences by this point in time, and you can read all my posts for the conference here.

Process and content: the chocolate and peanut butter of business

I’m definitely a process person, but my start in the business was through document-driven imaging and workflow systems. It’s important to keep in mind, no matter where you lie on the spectrum of interest between process and content, that they are often intertwined: unstructured content may be a driver for process, or be the product of a process. Processes sometimes exist only to manage the content, and sometimes content only exists as supporting documentation for a process. A few years ago, I wrote about several of the process/content use cases that I see in practice for the Alfresco blog.

One thing I didn’t cover at that time is the use of processes (and rules) to govern access to content: although a good content management system will let the right person see the right content, not all unstructured content is stored in a content management system at all, much less a good one. Even if content is in a content management system, it may not be appropriate to just let everyone root around in there to find whatever documents that they might want to see. Access to content is often contextual, that is, when someone is acting in a certain role and performing a certain task, they should see specific content. In another context, they might see different content. This is even more important when you open up your processes and content to external participants, including customers and business partners.

I’ve had the chance to talk about some of these ideas in more detail in a couple of places. First, my most recent guest post on the Trisotech blog is called In financial services, process rules content, and looks at how this can work in financial applications such as insurance underwriting:

There are a lot of laggards [which have] a somewhat disorganized collection of content related to and created by processes, stored on multiple internal systems, with little or no internal access control, and no external access. In fact, I would say that in every insurance and financial operation that I’ve visited as a consultant, I’ve seen some variation of this lack of content governance, and the very real impacts on operational performance as well as privacy concerns. This is definitely a situation where process can come to the rescue for getting control over access to unstructured content.

Secondly, I’m presenting a webinar and writing a short paper for ASG Technologies on content governance in customer-facing processes. The webinar will be on May 5th, and the white paper available as a follow-on shortly after that. You can register here to attend. Hope to see you there!

Camunda Platform 7.15: now low-code (-ish)

I had a quick briefing with Daniel Meyer, CTO of Camunda, about today’s release. With this new version 7.15, they are rebranding from Camunda BPM to Camunda Platform (although most customers just refer to the product as “Camunda” since they really bundle everything in one package). This follows the lead of other vendors who have distanced themselves from the BPM (business process management) moniker, in part because what the platforms do is more than just process management, and in part because BPM is starting to be considered an outdated term. We’ve seen the analysts struggle with naming the space, or even defining it in the same way, with terms like “digital process automation”, “hyperautomation” and “digitalization” being bandied about.

An interesting pivot for Camunda in this release is their new support for low-code developers — which they distinguish as having a more technical background than citizen developers — after years of primarily serving the needs of professional technical (“pro-code”) developers. The environment for pro-code developers won’t change, but now it will be possible for more collaboration between low-code and pro-code developers within the platform with a number of new features:

  • Create a catalog of reusable workers (integrations) and RPA bots that can be integrated into process models using templates. This allows pro-code developers to create the reusable components, while low-code developers consume those components by adding them to process models for execution. RPA integration is driving some amount of this need for collaboration, since low-code developers are usually the ones on the front-end of RPA initiatives in terms of determining and training bot functionality, but previously may have had more difficult integrating those into process orchestrations. Camunda is extending their RPA Bridge to add Automation Anywhere integration to their existing UIPath integration, which gives them coverage of a significant portion of the RPA market. I covered a bit of their RPA Bridge architecture and their overall view on RPA in one of my posts from their October 2020 CamundaCon. I expect that we will soon see Blue Prism integration to round out the main commercial RPA products, and possibly an open source alternative to appeal to their community customers.
  • DMN support, including DRD and decision tables, in their Cawemo collaborative modeler. This is a good way to get the citizen developers and business analysts involved in modeling decisions as well as processes.
  • A form builder. Now, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Jakob Freund claim that they would never do this, but there it is: a graphical form designer for creating a rudimentary UI without writing code. This is just a preliminary release, only supporting text input fields, so isn’t going to win any UI design awards. However, it’s available in the open source and commercial versions as well as accessible as a library in bpmn.io, and will allow a low-code developer to do end-to-end development: create process and decision models, and create reusable “starter” UIs for attaching to start events and user activities. When this form builder gets a bit more robust in the next version, it may be a decent operational prototyping tool, and possibly even make it into production for some simple situations.

They’ve also added some nice enhancements to Optimize, their monitoring and analytics tool, and have bundled it into the core commercial product. Optimize was first released mid-2017 and is now used by about half of their customers. Basically, it pumps the operational data exhaust out of the BPM engine database and into an elastic search environment; with the advent of Optimize 3.0 last year, they could also collect tracking events from other (non-Camunda) systems into the same environment, allowing end-to-end processes to be tracked across multiple systems. The new version of Optimize, now part of Camunda Platform 7.15, adds some new visualizations and filtering for problem identification and tracking.

Overall, there’s some important things in this release, although it might appear to be just a collection of capabilities that many of the all-in-one low-code platforms have had all along. It’s not really in Camunda’s DNA to become a proprietary all-in-one application development platform like Appian or IBM BPM, or even make low-code a primary target, since they have a robust customer base of technical developers. However, these new capabilities create an important bridge between low-code developers who have a better understanding of the business needs, and pro-code developers with the technical chops to create robust systems. It also provides a base for Camunda customers who want to build their own low-code environment for internal application development: a reasonably common scenario in large companies that just can’t fit their development needs into a proprietary application development platform.

It’s My 16th Blogaversary

Sixteen years ago, with some trepidation, I hit the Publish button for the first time on Column 2, posting a review of the BPTrends 2005 BPM Suites Report. This was early in the social media days, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in anything that I had to write about. Since then, I’ve written 2,236 posts and 1,026,740 words. My readers from all over the world have contributed 2,095 comments. The readership stats are not completely accurate, since I’ve transferred platforms twice and they would have been reset at those points, although the last change was quite a number of years ago. Based on the current site stats, aside from the Home and About Me pages, the most popular post of all time is Policies, procedures, processes and rules from 2007. More readers are from the US than any other country, although India and Germany have respectable second and third place showings.

Social publishing platforms come and go, and I occasionally dabble in other places such as LinkedIn and Medium, but I believe that maintaining control over my content is important. I choose to make this open platform (self-hosted WordPress) my main platform, rather than a proprietary walled garden that may limit who sees what I write, or go out of business and take my content with them.

When I started writing this blog, I was doing similar technical strategy and architecture consulting work to what I do now. The exposure that I have from writing here has leveraged me into a different and complementary business, and I now spend half my time as an indepedent industry analyst. That started with me asking for free press passes to vendor and industry conferences, since I was writing about the conferences; eventually, the value of what I was writing was recognized, and vendors started to invite me to attend (covering my travel expenses) and include me in analyst sessions and product briefings. Now, they hire me to help with internal strategy, as well as to write and present on thought-leadership and educational topics regarding our industry.

Writing this blog has expanded my business social circle enormously, and I count as friends (or at least friendly business colleagues) many people who I have met because I hit that Publish button. Without a doubt, it has been transformational for me, both in business and in life.

ProcessMaker’s ProcessCon 2021 – it’s a wrap!

Today, I attended (and spoke at) ProcessMaker’s first user conference, ProcessCon 2021. This was virtual, of course, with some pre-recorded presentations and some — like mine — live. There was a reasonable amount of live Q&A, keeping things interesting.

We started with CEO Brian Reale’s opening keynote, then I was up with a presentation on Process Automation for Business Survival; you can see my slides below, and I’ll add a link to the presentation replays when I get it.

I took a bit of a break, then tuned back to see Alan Bollinger, ProcessMaker’s Director of Product & Engineering, talk about the next 12 months of their roadmap, with the upgrade of their ProcessMaker 4.0 to today’s release of v4.1. This adds more than 35 enhancements to the previous version, and cleans up a lot of open issues. I’m not a ProcessMaker aficionado so not sure all of what’s completely new versus enhancements, but there’s some cool new stuff with BPMN signals that allow for choreographed (rather than orchestrated) processes, new things with data object handling, and some new conversational forms capabilities for driving a chatbot-style interface.

Alan Bollinger presents new capabilities for user signals: trigger a process when a user is created

Beyond this newly-released version, they are adding user signals (BPMN signals that can be thrown with any changes to user profile data, e.g., to trigger a process when a new user is created), SCIM for cross-domain identity management, organization rules, parallel/serial multi-instance activities, and script APIs to allow direct REST access to any scripts without using BPMN.

There were some interesting customer case studies, and we finished the half-day conference with an open Q&A with a number of the speakers rejoining, including me. A lot of the questions were product-specific ones for Bollinger on the upcoming releases, but we had a good chat on the relative merits of choreography and orchestration, plus about conversational interfaces.

Keynote at ProcessMaker’s ProcessCon: Process Automation for Business Survival

This Thursday, ProcessMaker is having their first-ever user conference, and I’m giving a keynote! I’m going to look back at our year of living disruptively, and give my view of why process automation is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for businesses to survive and thrive.

The conference runs about 3.5 hours starting at 10am Eastern, and it will kick off with a keynote by founder and CEO Brian Reale on the future of hyperautomation and low-code before I take the virtual stage. The event is free and open to everyone, you will likely find some of the talks valuable even if you’re not a ProcessMaker customer. Also, there’s a Slack workspace to hang out and have discussions before, during and after the event.

Opening up open source development with Bonitasoft 2021.1

I had a briefing with Bonitasoft CEO Miguel Valdes earlier this week to hear more about their 2021.1 release, announced today. Note that they have changed their version numbers to align with the year and release number relative to that year, something I’ve seen starting to happen with a number of vendors.

The most important part of this release, in my opinion, is their shift in what’s open source versus commercial. Like most open source vendors, Bonitasoft is built on an open source core engine and has a number of other open source capabilities, but creates proprietary commercial components that they license to paying customers in a commercial version of the system. In many cases, the purely open source version is great for technical developers who are using their own development tools, e.g., for data modeling or UI development, but it’s a non-starter for business developers since you can’t build and deploy a complete application using just the open source platform. Bonitasoft is shaking up this concept by taking everything to do with development — page/form/layout UI design, data object models, application descriptors, process diagrams, organization models, system connectors, and Git integration — and adding it to the open source version. In other words, instead of having one version of their Studio development environment for open source and another for commercial, everything is unified, including everything in the open source version necessary to develop and deploy process automation applications. Having a unified development environment also makes it easy to move a Bonitasoft application from the open source to the commercial version (and the reverse) without project redevelopment, allowing customers to start with one version and shift to the other as project requirements change.

This is a big deal for semi-technical business developers, who can now use Bonita Studio to create complete applications on the same underlying platform as technical developers. Bonitasoft has removed anything that requires coding from Studio, recognizing that business developers don’t want to write code, and technical developers don’t use the visual development environment anyway. [As a Java developer at one of my enterprise clients once said when presented with a visual development environment, “yeah, it looks nice, but I’ll never use it”.] That doesn’t mean that these two types of developers don’t collaborate, however: technical developers are critical for the development of connectors, for example, which allow an application to connect to an external system. Once connectors are created to link to, for example, a legacy system, the business developers can consume those connectors within their applications. Bonitasoft provides connector archetypes that allow technical developers to create their own connectors, but what is missing is a way to facilitate collaboration between business and technical developers for specifying the functionality of a connector. For example, allowing the business developer to create a placeholder in an application/process and specify the desired behavior, which would then be passed on to the technical developer.

Miguel took me through a demo of Bonita Studio using only the open source version, showing their new starting point of MyProcessAutomation that includes sections for Organization, Business Data Model Applications, Diagrams, and Pages/Forms/Layouts. There are also separate sections for Custom Widgets and Environments: the latter is to be able to define separate environments for development, testing, production, etc., and was previously only in the commercial edition. It’s a very unified look and feel, and seems to integrate well between the components: for example, the expression editor allows direct access to business object variables that will be understandable to business developers, and they are looking at ways to simplify this further.

They are moving their UI away from Angular to Web Components, and are even using their own UI tools to create their new user and administrator portals. The previous Bonita Portal is now being replaced by two applications: one is a user portal that provides case and task list functionality, while the other is for administrators to monitor and repair any process instance problems. These two applications can be freely modified by customers to personalize and extend them within their own environment.

There are definitely things remaining in their commercial edition, with a focus on security (single sign-on), scalability (clustering, elasticity), monitoring, and automated continuous deployment. There are a few maintenance tools that are being moved from the open source to commercial version, and maintenance releases (bug fixes between releases) will be limited to commercial customers. They also have a new subscription model that helps with self-managed elastic deployments (e.g., Amazon Cloud); provides update and migration services for on-premise customers; and includes platform audits for best practices, performance tuning and code review. Along with this are some new packaged professional services offering: Fast Track for first implementation, on-premise to Bonita Cloud upgrade, and on-premise upgrades for customers not on the new subscription model.

The last thing that Miguel mentioned was an upcoming open source project that they are launching related to … wait, that might not have been for public consumption yet. Suffice to say that Bonitasoft is disrupting the open source process automation space to be more inclusive of non-technical developers, and we’ll be seeing more from them along these lines in the near future.