BPM Milan: Workshop on BPM and Social Software

It’s a holiday weekend back home, and my birthday tomorrow, so some may consider it a bit weird that I’m spending this week away from my family in Milan at a BPM conference. However, I’ve been excited about attending this conference for months since it’s focused on the research that’s happening in the field of BPM, rather than the usual vendor and analyst conferences that I attend. As a prelude to the conference, today is a day of full-day workshops on various BPM topics, and I’m attending the session on BPM and Social Software. I’m still a bit jet-lagged so may not make it through the entire day, but I’ll do my best.

The workshop is chaired by Selmin Nurcan of the University of Paris and Rainer Schmidt of Aalen University, and will consist of discussion of the various research papers contributed by the attendees — in fact, I seem to be one of the few people in the (small) audience who has not contributed a paper.

Before we got into the individual papers, Rainer Schmidt gave an overview of the issues in BPM and social software. I gave a presentation two years ago at the BPMG conference in London on BPM and Web 2.0 (the terms Enterprise 2.0 and social software were just starting to be used back then) that covers some of the same subject matter.

One main concern in BPM today — which I definitely see in practical applications — is the divide between the abstract process models and lifecycles, and the actual executed processes and procedures: in many cases, the process participants ignore some or all of the process model and best practices, and do things as they have in the past. Another concern is that of process improvements not bubbling up from the process participants to the process designers, since there’s a barrier between those who do the work and those who design the work.

Many BPM implementations have been based on strong ties within the enterprise — command-and-control structures with pre-defined methods and channels of communication — and it is these that are hindering the communication between the abstract and the execution in BPM implementations. Weak ties, greatly supported by social software, create alternative methods and channels for these communications, allowing people to more easily exchange ideas; this promotes the “wisdom of the crowd” wherein ideas can come from anywhere in the organization, and small contributions from many people can provide significant value. The concepts of weak ties and the wisdom of the crowd are those upon which social software are built: in the consumer space, think of the weak ties created with your social graph on LinkedIn or Facebook, and the wisdom of the crowd that contributes to efforts such as Wikipedia.

Lots of Tapscott and McAfee references flying around; this is a bit of an intro to social software that’s likely not required for this particular audience, but serves to provide a standard set of definitions of social software. He covered the basic principles, which will be important for seeing how BPM and social software interact: egalitarian; bottom-up; self-organizing; the value of context via tags and links as well as content; continual information improvement and publication for review; the importance of output and practice over abstract models; and transparency regarding the relationship of the participants.

He then moved into how social software supports (or could support) BPM: first, collaboration in the design, implement, evaluation and improvement phases; and second, the extension of functionality for the operational BPM system. Collaboration in the non-operational phases could be through wikis for capturing requirements, planning projects, and so on; in my opinion, this can also be through the use of more collaborative process modeling tools that allow non-experts to be involved in process discovery, modeling and design. During the operational phase, this could be a wiki to capture new requirements and potential process innovation, as well as collaborative tools for managing and documenting the project. Personally, I think that there’s other potential applications: in my presentation two years ago, I suggested the concept of process tagging and folksonomies to allow process participants to tag instances of processes; user-created process-based mashups (although there’s some argument as to whether mashups are considered part of social software) also deserve some discussion here, which are now much more possible since many of the vendors have introduced end-user RSS feeds to their products.

A great introduction to the day, and I’m looking forward to the research papers and discussions.

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