Human, Interrupted

I just read about yet another analyst BPM workshop that claims to be “the definitive education on BPM”. Oh, puh-leeze. There is no such thing as a 2-day definitive education on a topic as broad as BPM, and besides, the analysts can’t even agree on the definition of BPM. I wrote a short course on BPM for a client recently (no, it wasn’t the definitive education on BPM), and as part of that, I created a brief history of BPM to show how this space evolved. One thing that becomes painfully clear in looking at the evolution and current state of BPM is that although everyone agrees that BPM is about managing processes, there is no clear definition of the divisions within the space, or which technologies belong where (if anywhere) within it.

It’s almost biblical: in the beginning, there was human-to-human workflow. Some time after that, there was system-to-system EAI. They were distinct, and that was good because everyone understood which was which. In time, workflow begat EAI-like capabilities in order to facilitate human-to-system interfaces, and EAI begat human-facing workflow-like capabilities in order to handle exceptions within processes. Then, workflow begat BAM and simulation, and EAI begat B2Bi. Finally, workflow and EAI together adopted process modelling and business rules (they didn’t beget these technologies, they already existed in other fields).

Then, the abomination: the analysts created a Tower of Babel by lumping all of this together and calling it BPM.

Yes, it was confusing before the term BPM was applied to it all, since workflow and EAI overlapped significantly, but it’s now monumentally more confusing to customers because any vendor in the entire BPM space can claim that they “do BPM” and can therefore compete with any other vendor. I saw a particularly painful example of this at a large company that had chosen an integration broker suite for their BPM standard. The internal IT groups were fully indoctrinated that this was the only BPM tool that they could use, and they actually seemed to believe that BPM meant the considerably narrower field of EAI. One of the senior people, on hearing me describe the requirements of a human-facing BPM project, referred to it as “human-interrupted”. Not surprisingly, there are considerably more system-to-system BPM projects than any other type in that organization; who would willing pick up that square peg and try to ram it into a round hole?

In an attempt to help with the confusion, the same analysts who lumped all of this together as BPM created divisions within the BPM space based on functionality. Unfortunately, they all created different divisions based on widely varying criteria. For example, Gartner, whose definition I tend to align with, created a taxonomy in a research note back in 2003 based on process type, dividing the space into pure-play (application-independent), integration-focussed, administrative, collaborative, and embedded. [For my work with back office systems, the key segments of the BPM space are pure-play and integration-focussed; pure-play is, more or less, what evolved from workflow, and integration-focussed is what evolved from EAI.] Delphi, on the other hand, makes divisions based on the degree of human interaction: person-to-person, person-to-system, and system-to-system. This is a very useful way to categorize applications of BPM, but I don’t agree with it as a way to categorize the products themselves, since all of them claim to do all of it.

There are many other BPM taxonomies: at least one per analyst, and usually one per vendor. Most of them are not created for the altruistic purpose of trying to clarify the space.

Creating a taxonomy is hard work, because it requires projecting a complex, multidimensional space onto a much simpler space of lower dimensionality in order to make it comprehensible and useful. BPM is definitely a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, making the process even more difficult. BPM is not just workflow plus EAI plus BAM plus business rules, et cetera: it’s the near-seamless integration of all of these tools that is the real competitive differentiator, because that’s what enables an organization to do things that they could never do before.

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