BPM Think Tank Day 3: BPM vendor panel

Next up was a panel of BPM vendors: Phil Gilbert (Lombardi), Angel Diaz (IBM), Marco ten Vanholt (SAP BPX), Burley Kawasaki (Microsoft), Scott Byrnes (Handysoft) and David Shaffer (Oracle). Derek Miers moderated, and posed a series of questions to the panelists rather than having the panelists do short presentations as we saw on previous panels — a much better panel format, in my opinion, and it even generated some conversation between the panelists directly.

Phil mixed it up right away by agreeing with the other panelists that standards are important (duh), but said that the first thing that we need to standardize is the meaning of the term BPM. He also thinks that OSM (Organizational Structure Metamodel) is going to be one of the most significant standards in the coming months, next to BPMN. In other words, people are going to start modelling their business, not just their processes. Marco added that there’s going to be an increasing interest in the processes that span organizations, and standards that support that will become more important. They all seem to agree that business users don’t really care about standards explicitly, but that standards are an implicit part of things that the business types to want: portability of models and reusability of skills, for example.

One question was whether BPM offered via SaaS is reducing the barriers to entry to what is still a complex implementation. Burley feels that it will make a difference for departmental applications that just can’t justify the spend, and for cross-organizational choreographic processes where no one organization is “in charge”, but that there will still be a strong market for on-premise solutions especially at an enterprise level. Angel added that standards are going to play a strong role here, since there’s likely to be a hybrid approach that uses both on-premise and on-demand systems within the same processes. Marco made the statement that some industries will “never, ever have software as a service”; it will be interesting to come back in a few years and see if he has to eat his words. Many organizations already have their data centres outsourced, including those that require advanced security, and I think that SaaS is just a small step beyond that from a security standpoint even though it might be perceived as being something entirely different. Scott things that a template-driven, simpler type of BPM functionality could be adopted by the SMB market. David pointed out that there’s a difference between having BPM embedded in a SaaS application and offering BPM directly as a SaaS, and feels that the latter is going to see much lower adoption. Phil stated that their Blueprint product is a tactic in their way to building a cloud capability, implying that we’ll see some hybrid on-premise/on-demand functionality from Lombardi in the future

They then discussed mechanisms for supporting more collaboration and deeper embedding into a worker’s environment. Scott talked about being able to share, for example, information about the experts for a specific process, and be able to IM them directly. Marco talked about being able to do some collaborative Visio diagramming in a wiki-type plug-in (presumably on BPX); I’m not sure if this something that they have with a browser design interface, or if it’s a place to upload Visio diagrams. He also pointed out that wikis, forums and IM are going to be start to be built into applications for collaboration, further pushing the need for standards since none of us want the BPM vendors to build their own wiki or IM software.

A question from the audience asked whether the vendors are getting inquiries from other vendors to embed/OEM their BPM functionality inside another product, whether SaaS or not. David, Burley and Angel spoke up that they are seeing this; not surprising since Oracle, Microsoft and IBM are all “platform” BPM vendors that tend to offer components rather than a more cohesive suite. Although I haven’t written up my notes from the BPEL roundtable yesterday, this is one of the areas where standards like BPEL will help to facilitate that type of integration. Phil added that they’re seeing this as well, but more from the standpoint of embedding more of their suite rather than just the engine.

Another question was on the distinction between modelling processes for business improvement purposes, and modelling processes as a visual coding/RAD tool. Phil responded that if you’re just buying BPM as a RAD tool, don’t buy it: stick with Java or .Net.

There was a discussion on the role of large vendors in standards, and how large vendors can sometimes take a standard off into their own organization and develop it 80% of the way and bring it back to the standards group: sometimes this works well, and sometimes it allows the vendor to just mould the standard to their own product agenda. We also came back around to the comment that Phil made at the beginning of the panel, where we need to define what BPM is in the market: the vendors all seemed to agree that they all have their own definition of BPM that coincidentally matches completely with their product functionality, and they all agreed on the buzzphrase “BPM is all about the business”. 🙂 The analysts also all have their own definitions, although they all seem to be congealing around the Gartner definition of BPM as a management practice, which doesn’t at all help the issue when the BPM vendors define it in terms of the technology capabilities. Bruce Silver lobbed a small incendiary device from the audience by stating that from the viewpoint of BPM as a management discipline, the vendor products are all exactly the same, and that customers may just see them as snake oil salesmen trying to sell the same thing in a different way. Not sure that we’re going to solve this one today.

It’s interesting watching a vendor panel like this, where the panelists are not allowed to do any product pitches, and where they’re all pretty smart guys: the discussion is a complex weave of philosophy, techno-geekery and thinly-veiled nudging towards their own specific agendas. This is part of what I like about the BPM Think Tank: there’s much more open collaboration between vendors than at other conferences, although there’s always a strong streak of friendly competition throughout the interactions.

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