A Short History of BPM, Part 1

Since I am fast approaching the 19th anniversary of starting my first company, which provided integration services for imaging, document management, workflow, e-commerce and eventually BPM, I have a bit of an historical perspective on the the field and often end up explaining to customers how BPM got to where it is today: sometimes as part of my Making BPM Mean Business course, and sometimes just as a standalone presentation. Although a lot of readers of this blog are BPM professionals of some sort, I’m going to reproduce this history lesson here in several parts. Click on the category BPMhistory in the sidebar to see the complete set to date.

I welcome comments from any of you other “old-timers” out there, and will incorporate relevant corrections and comments into the body of the post.

Part 1: In The Beginning

In the beginning there was workflow. To be more precise, there was person-to-person routing of scanned documents through a pre-determined process map.

As far as I know, FileNet was the first to use the term “workflow” in this context, back in the early 1980’s when they started up, although they were quickly joined in the marketplace by IBM and other product vendors. Most of these early workflow systems were document-focused, that is, the only purpose of the workflow was to move a scanned image of a paper document from one person to another so that they could perform some action on a different system, such as transaction data entry. This was a logical step after organizations started scanning their documents in order to preserve and share them: why not scan them before working on them, then pass them around electronically to try and improve efficiencies? Unfortunately, any direct integration between these other systems and the workflow processes was custom-built, expensive, and not very flexible.

From these early beginnings, workflow systems evolved fairly slowly during the 90’s into products that were much more functional and flexible, primarily in the area of better integration capabilities, more diverse server and client platforms, and some basic process modelling and process monitoring tools. In many cases, however, the workflow products were still very document-centric: the document scanning/management business was such a cash cow for many of these vendors that they didn’t show a lot of vision when it came to finding uses for workflow concepts outside of routing documents around an office. That set the stage for two things to happen:

  • Third-party add-ons to popular workflow products would proliferate, to do all the things that the workflow vendors didn’t deem important.
  • More nimble “pure” workflow startups (the early BPM products) would ignore the document-centric side and build highly-functional workflow products that were unable to handle an enterprise workload, but would push the envelope in terms of functionality.

Before we get to that, however, we need to talk a bit about EAI.

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