BPM2012: Wil van der Aalst BPM Research Retrospective Keynote

Day 2 of the conference tracks at BPM 2012 started with a keynote from Wil van der Aalst of Eindhoven University, describing ten years of BPM research on this 10th occasion of the International Conference on BPM. The conference started in Eindhoven in 2003, then moved to Potsdam in 2004, Nancy in 2005, Vienna in 2006, Brisbane in 2007, Milan in 2008 (my first time at the conference), Ulm in 2009, Hoboken in 2010, Clermont-Ferrand in 2011, then on to Tallinn this year. He showed a word cloud for each of the conference proceedings in the past, which was an interesting look into the hot topics at the time. The 2013 conference will be in Beijing – not sure if I’ll be attending since it’s a long trip – and I expect that we’ll hear where the 2014 conference will be before we leave Tallinn this week.

In his paper, he looked at the four main activities in BPM – modeling, analysis, enactment and management – and pointed out that much of the research focused on the first two, and we need more on the latter two. He also discussed a history of what we now know as BPM, from office automation to workflow to BPM, with contributions from many other areas from data modeling to operations management; having implemented workflow systems since the early 1990’s, this is a progression that I’m familiar with. He went through 20 BPM use cases that cover the entire BPM lifecycle, and mapped 289 research papers in the proceedings from the entire history of the BPM conferences against them:

  1. Design model
  2. Discover model from event data
  3. Select model from collection
  4. Merge models
  5. Compose model
  6. Design configurable model
  7. Merge models into configurable model
  8. Configure configurable model
  9. Refine model
  10. Enact model
  11. Log event data
  12. Monitor
  13. Adapt while running
  14. Analyze performance based on model
  15. Verify model
  16. Check conformance using event data
  17. Analyze performance using event data
  18. Repair model
  19. Extend model
  20. Improve model

He described each of these use cases briefly, and presented a notation to represent their characteristics; he also showed how the use cases can be chained into composites. The results of mapping the papers against the use cases was interesting: most papers were tagged with one or two of these use cases, although some addressed several use cases.

He noted three spikes in use cases: design model, enact model, and verify model; he found the first two completely expected, but that verifying models was a surprising focus. He also pointed out that having few papers addressing use case 20, improve model, is a definite weakness in the research areas.

He also analyzed the research papers according to six key concerns, a less granular measure than the use cases:

  1. Process modeling languages
  2. Process enactment infrastructures
  3. Process model analysis
  4. Process mining
  5. Process flexibility
  6. Process reuse

With these, he mapped the interest in these key concerns over the years, showing how interest in the different areas has waxed and waned over the years: a hype cycle for academic BPM topics.

He spent a bit of time on three specific challenges that should gain more focus research: process flexibility, process mining and process configuration; for example, considering the various types of process flexibility based on whether it is done at design time or runtime, and how it can be by specification, by deviation, by underspecification or by change.

One clear goal of his talk is to help make BPM research more relevant as it matures, in part through more evidence-based BPM research, to encourage vendors and practitioners to adopt the new ideas that are put forward in BPM. He makes some recommendations for research papers in the future:

  • Avoid introducing new languages without a clear purpose
  • Artifacts (software and data) need to be made available
  • Evaluate results based on a redefined criterion and compare with other approaches
  • Build on shared platforms rather than developing prototypes from scratch
  • Make the contribution of the paper clear, potentially by tagging papers with one of the 20 use cases listed above

As BPM research matures, it makes sense that the standards are higher for research topics in general and definitely for having a paper accepted for publication and presentation at a conference. Instead of just having a theory and prototype, there’s a need for more empirical evidence backing up the research. I expect that we’ll see an improvement in the overall quality and utility of BPM research in the coming years as the competition becomes more intense.

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