The Case for BPM

Another interesting lunchtime webinar today, “The Case for BPM”, this one featuring Janelle Hill, a VP & Research Lead from META Group (acquired by Gartner as of last week), and Gary Morgen, a VP from Citigroup. It was sponsored by TIBCO, but the first two speakers ran overtime and the poor TIBCO guy had to squeeze his 11 slides into about 30 seconds. Some would say that’s all the time that a vendor should have in an educational webinar, but come on, give them a break, they paid for it.

I really liked Ms Hill’s focus on tying process improvements (and hence the use of BPM) back to business performance objectives or a process improvement methodology such as Six Sigma: although that might seem obvious, there’s a lot of people who get wrapped up in the cool technology and lose sight of what we’re actually trying to do here, which is to improve someone’s business.

I disagree with her broad description of a BPM suite as “unifying workflow, EAI, document/content management, portal and web services technologies”, because I don’t consider content management or portals to be a part of BPM, but rather complementary technologies. Given that we’re migrating to an SOA world, however, the boundaries are starting to blur.

Mr. Morgen talked mostly about Citigroup’s TIBCO/Staffware implementation, but he also had some great words about reducing time/cost of application development by using best-of-breed vendor solutions rather than building it themselves: a refreshing viewpoint to hear from the financial services world, where huge organizations have spent billions of dollars in the past writing their own word processors and database engines. I’ve written previously about the value of using COTS components such as e-forms, so I’m completely aligned with Mr. Morgen’s views on this subject.

I also like the cool Blackberry integration that they’ve done to their workflow, although I don’t want to appear too wrapped up in the technology.

TIBCO will be making this webinar available for download or replay on their website soon; even if you’re not interested in TIBCO/Staffware specifically, I recommend listening to Janelle Hill’s portion for a reality check on establishing your business drivers for BPM.

Also, it will be interesting in the months ahead to see how Gartner and META reconcile their sometimes very different opinions on BPM.

The dreaded “consultant” title

Not unlike the prejudice regarding conference pricing that I discussed in this post, I just got dissed by DCI for using the title “consultant”.

I had a call from DCI this morning, but I was a bit distracted with real work and thought that this was a sales call, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. I just wanted to get through to the part where he would say “would you like any more information”, I would say no and get off the phone. Instead, he said something like “Our business networks are vendor- and consultant-neutral, so judging by your title we don’t think that’s it’s appropriate for you to join. Do you require any other information about us?” I was completely in the dark about what he was talking about, so I said no and hung up.

A few minutes later, I started wondering what this was about, searched through my browser history for DCI, and realized that I had applied to join their Business Process Management business network, about which they claim:

The Business Process Management Network provides a forum for you to learn and share best practices, challenges and solutions. Learn how to effectively identify, analyze and design processes to improve the overall flow of information within your organization.

Members of the Business Process Management Network are involved in the strategy, implementation, execution and management of all functions across the enterprise. They are the individuals who work together to identify, define, streamline and improve processes through business and IT solutions — to meet the needs of the organization, on time and within budget. Members include:

  • Business Analysts
  • Systems Analysts
  • Business Managers
  • Business Process Owners
  • Change Agents
  • Directors / VPs responsible for Enterprise Management
  • Financial and Compliance Professionals
  • Process Analysts and Designers
  • Project and Program Managers
  • Quality Assurance Professionals
  • Strategic Planners

Okay, count me in. I have lots of best practices experiences to share. I’m involved in strategy and implementation. I identify, define, streamline and improve processes. I take on the role of business analyst, system analyst, change agent, process analyst and designer, and strategic planner.

However, since I used the word “consultant” in my title as a sort of shorthand for what I do, they turned me down. Is this some sort of weird discrimination? Are there so many unqualified people using the term “consultant” that I have to abandon it for all time in order to not appear incompetent by (word) association? Or does DCI feel that having a “consultant” in their midst might detract from their own educational programs?

Luckily, since I run the show, I can take on whatever title that I want, so it’s time to go for something that won’t get me banned from the nice places. Or even from DCI.

Alphabet soup for lunch

Just watched a great lunchtime webinar, “The Business Value of Process Standards”, although I was dining al desko and managed to drop sunflower seeds into my keyboard that required some mid-webinar keyboard surgery. I mentioned this webinar in a previous post on BPM standards, and was glad to see that it lived up to my expectations. eBizq usually makes the webinars available for replay on the same link within a couple of days, so you can check it out if you missed it live.

Jeanne Baker, the primary speaker, is VP of Technology at Sterling Commerce, but she was speaking in her capacity as Chairman of BPMI and didn’t even mention Sterling’s products. In fact, the webinar was sponsored by Oracle, so the only product that was (briefly) discussed was Oracle’s BPEL Process Manager.

Since the discussion was on standards, the inevitable alphabet soup resulted, but two acronyms floated to the top of the broth: BPMN and BPEL. BPMN is a standard for modelling business process notation, and BPEL is a standard for executing business processes. Conveniently, BPMN maps directly to BPEL, so they work in concert for designing and implementing business processes. Both of the speakers stressed the importance of the BPMN and BPEL standards, a point with which I fully agree.

On the subject of modelling standards, I especially liked Ms. Baker’s comment on the use of UML for process design (which echoes my own sentiments from my previously-referenced posting): “UML is used by poor, hapless process modellers [who didn’t have anything better, such as BPMN].” I was laughing so hard when I heard that, I didn’t get the whole quote, but that’s the gist of it.

It’s also worth checking out the newly-designed BPMI site, it’s a lot nicer to look at and has a great deal more information than on my last visit there. It gives a much better definition of BPMI’s role in standards development, and features an interesting graphic that Ms. Baker also used in her presentation to illustrate BPMI’s involvement the lifecycle of business process management:

The diagram shows Process Designers as an essential link between business analysts and system architects, but that skill set is often absent on BPM projects. As she spoke about the importance of that role, it struck me that although I started my career as a developer and software architect, I now usually sit in the process designer role, while spreading in both directions into business analysis and system architecture. I describe myself as a “technology catalyst”, because I like to make to make stuff happen, especially that bridge between business and technology.

From the BPMI site:

BPMI focuses upon the Business Process as the inflexion point between the business environment and a technology implementation. Our work is relevant to a wide range of audiences as we innovate a seamless transition ‘path to execution’ for Business Processes. Our aim is to unify process thinking across Business and IT disciplines.

A lofty, but very worthwhile goal.

A “Column 2” sort of girl

Although process, not content, is my main focus, I dropped by the e-Content Institute’s 16th annual Information Highways conference in Toronto today to sit in on a workshop called “Bridging Obstacles in E-mail, Workflow and Compliance Management: Best Practices”. Although it was a vendor presentation by Tower Software, I figured that I’d see something interesting along the way.

As an aside, I have to say something about the conference title: the term “information highway” is a bit of a blast from the past. It might have been on the cutting edge 15 years ago when the conference started, but when’s the last time that you heard it without a snicker involved?

Meanwhile, back at the presentation, the speaker from Tower’s Toronto office couldn’t make it, and the replacement had flown in from DC this morning. She spent half of her intro expressing surprise that none of us had met the original speaker (from what she called “our Canada office”), as if Toronto were a small town where we all have dinner at the local Legion hall together on Saturday night. Sigh.

Tower’s view of workflow is interesting: they consider that it’s either ad hoc, transaction-based or knowledge-based, where the latter can be email-based, process-based or document-based… huh? Okay, I’ll cut the speaker some slack for having to work from someone else’s slide deck, but what was the original speaker thinking? Maybe he was trying to categorize everyone else’s stuff as ad hoc or transaction-based, then show why their “knowledge-based” workflow was better, but it wasn’t clear to me and I’ve spent enough years around workflow such that anyone’s explanation of where they fit in the space should be pretty obvious to me within a couple of minutes.

In spite of all that, some interesting tidbits, particularly about how email messages are now considered evidentiary in many cases, with their legal admissibility being based on authenticity, which in turn relies on content, context and structure being preserved and auditable. Unfortunately, although IT is usually responsible for email, they know nothing about records management (RM); furthermore, individuals manage/delete/archive (or don’t manage/delete/archive) their corporate email as if it belonged to them personally, not the corporation. The answer, even admitted by Tower, is not in a software package, but in the creation and enforcement of email RM policies.

Although their system can capture everything without user intervention, that’s not really recommended because you just end up with a mass of undiscriminated data, not unlike what is on many corporate email servers now. They state that every user needs to take some responsibility for RM (presumably because there are insufficient business rules built into the system to allow it to automatically categorize messages, or even recognize duplicates catalogued by multiple recipients), but I think that the chances of that happening on a suitably complete basis are pretty small when you consider that most people don’t even put the items in their InBox and Sent Items into properly categorized folders.

All good stuff, but a bit of a yawn: now I remember why I kept my focus on process and became less and less interested in content except as an adjunct to process. I recall working on a client project several months ago where I was designing a BPM implementation to integrate with a line-of-business database, hence I had a lot of discussions with the data architect who was designing the database side of things. I dropped by his desk one afternoon and we had a rather passionate discussion about the relative roles of data and process in the system.

After some amount of discussion, I said “Do you know the Zachman framework? Well, I’m a column 2 kind of girl.”

“That explains it,” he said, “I’m a column 1 kind of guy”.

Clearly incompatible.

BPMG London conference

Looking at the BPMG’s 13th annual conference in London next month, some interesting material at all levels. It appears that this is really the main BPMG conference worldwide, which makes sense because BPMG started in the UK and there is a strong BPM community there. The conference in Las Vegas later in May doesn’t seem to have the breadth of London’s event, and I really don’t want the Vegas immersion experience anyway. Besides which, they have one price for “Industry Professionals” and a higher price for “Vendors/Consultants” — what’s with that? I do consulting for a living (although I hate the word “consultant” because of the high number of IT charlatans who assume that title), but I’m certainly considered an industry professional: would I have to pretend not to be a consultant to get a fair price?

When did 3-day conferences get so expensive? The London 3-day (workshops plus conference) is the equivalent of $C3,200, plus the cost of travel and living… a pretty significant outlay for a small business. The Vegas conference is even more for a day of workshops plus the conference, and increases further by adding evening workshops to top out at over $C5,000. Given that budgets are still tight in many organizations, who can justify attending these?

Networking games

I recently started using LinkedIn, a very cool professional networking site that allows you to establish a network of trusted references, then link to other people through your connections on the assumption that they’d be willing to pass along your request for contact to someone that they know. You can search for people based on a number of criteria such as location and market segment, with the search results being all the people who are connected to you by four or less degrees of separation (plus people like me who allow you to request a connection directly without going through an intermediary). I’ve built up a list of 35 people in the last two weeks, which links me to 220,000 people through these connections up to four degrees away. A drop in the bucket compared to one LinkedIn member with over 6,000 people on his immediate connections list, and probably about a gazillion people that he’s linked to, but enough to have me test this out as a networking method. So far, it’s working well enough that every time I meet someone in business now, I search for them on LinkedIn, and either get connected or invite them to join.

Like most other cool things on the web, there’s a game to be had with this. Remember the Googlewhack craze of ’02, where you tried to find a combination of two search words that yielded a single result? LinkedIn lends itself to similar games. Our latest one (thanks Damir) is to find how many people you are connected to in any random country, only counting the connections up to four degrees and not the ones that allow themselves to be contacted without a connection (who will also show up in any search). For example, I’m connected to two people in Gibraltar, even though I’ve never been there, both of them with four degrees of separation. (I also see four others in my search results, but they aren’t connected to me so don’t count according to the strict rules of our game.) The really cool thing is that when I select one of them to see which of my direct connections through which they are connected to me, the first one is connected to me through seven of my direct connections, and I’m pretty sure that four of these seven connections have never met each other. So far, I haven’t found a country where I’m not connected to at least one person, which definitely says something about the power of networking.

Professional networking: a necessity for business? Of course. A fun weekend activity? You bet.

e-forms

I blushed a few weeks ago while reading a friend’s blog entry about me. I appreciate his comment about how I “got” the whole electronic forms thing (in the context of integrating it with BPM), because I see e-forms as an essential part of many BPM applications. When I worked for FileNet a few years back as the Director of eBusiness Evangelism (yes, that was my real title, and yes, I asked for it), I gave presentations talking about how e-forms and BPM work together, and how they can — in some cases — make customization something that can be done by technical and business resources at the customer, rather than by an SI. This was considered heresy in some circles.

I understand that there are a lot of things that e-forms can’t do, but a bigger problem is that a lot of large systems integrators just don’t want to use e-forms, because it makes their job too easy. If it’s too easy, they can’t use their premium-priced Java developers. If it’s too easy, they can’t justify being late and over budget. If it’s too easy, the customer might get the radical idea that they could do some of the work themselves, including ongoing maintenance. In the large SI business model, e-forms are bad for business.

I saw this first-hand while working as a subcontractor to a large SI on a FileNet BPM project. I was responsible for the functional design, and for working with the development team to create the technical design. Because several of the user-facing steps needed to interface with a line-of-business database as well as the BPM system, the out-of-the-box user interface wasn’t going to cut it. However, FileNet has a very capable e-forms functionality, the result of the acquisition that my friend Chris mentioned in his blog posting, so naturally I suggested this to the technical lead on the project. You could have frozen Lake Ontario with the looks that I got in return. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they were writing this from scratch in Java, and I should just shut up and keep out of it. Considering that I’ve probably written more code in my lifetime than the entire development team put together, I could have been insulted, but I was being paid much too well for that. I finished my piece of work and got out of Dodge. Now I hear that they’re a year late and still not in production, and I’m finding it very difficult to whip up any sympathy.

The funny thing is how long it has taken the first-tier BPM vendors to understand the value of e-forms as a part of their product, and either build or buy the capability. They’re so busy building bullet-proof plumbing that they forget about the fact that at some point, a process may have to interface with a person, and that a customer doesn’t want to spend a year having custom screens written in order to do so.

SEx machine

I just watched the replay of a presentation done by Peter Fingar, one of the most prominent names today in BPM and co-author of Business Process Management: The Third Wave. As usual, he had some interesting words about “How Work Works in Business”, because he understands that BPM is about business, not about IT: a fact of which many organizations have lost sight.

There was one false note in the presentation, however: he had a slide that described the work processor as the “strategy-execution machine”, and abbreviated that as “The SEx Machine™”. I kid you not, it even included the ™. With a slightly embarrassed pause, Peter pronounced the abbreviation as “the s-e-x machine”, as if he were the parent of a 4-year-old discussing a taboo subject at the dinner table. I was left wondering what marketing hack created that abbreviation, because I’m pretty sure that Peter wouldn’t coin a phrase to be used in a public presentation that he obviously can’t even pronounce in public. The really funny thing was that he spent a great deal of time in the presentation emphasizing how we had to get rid of 3-letter acronyms in IT, then he goes and turns “sex” into a TLA.

The inconsistency between the presentation slide and his obvious discomfort with the content really gave me pause, because it makes me wonder how many other presentations that I see where the presenter is equally ill-at-ease with the content, but just hides it better.

BPM standards

I feel pretty strongly about the benefits of standards in all areas of technology, and BPM is no exception. For years, we’ve been using different notations in different tools to create BPM systems that don’t communicate with each other because they speak a different language. There’s been a lot of headway in standardizing the communications part — the messaging protocols, for example — but there’s still work to be done in the design end. How can we hope to make BPM systems truly interoperable when they don’t use the same notation to model the flow within the system?

Every BPM system has its process designer tool, but when it comes right down to it, most people model their process in Microsoft Visio before implementing it in the BPM system. First of all, a lot of people already have Visio on their desktop and know how to use it, so there are less licensing and training issues. Secondly, a process model will usually include all sorts of non-automated steps that will never be represented in the BPM system (especially the “as-is” model), but need to be modelled for proper business analysis. I’m not interested in tools, however, but in the actual BPM notation, which can be drawn in Visio or any number of other process modelling tools.

There are standards emerging for BPM notation, with two strong contenders: UML activity diagrams, and BPMN business process diagrams. If you have a technical background and haven’t had your head in a paper sack for the past 10 years, you know about UML; however, you probably know it as a modelling tool for software design, with activity diagrams being used for computational processes, which is why the OMG originally developed it. UML activity diagrams have recently been repurposed for business process modelling: a type of object-oriented flowchart, if you please.

As much as I like UML for software design, I like the emerging BPMN standard (from BPMI, an industry standards body) better: it’s been designed as a business process modelling notation, not retrofit from some other standard; it’s more understandable to business analysts and other non-technical participants; and it has a direct mapping to WSBPEL for process orchestration. It was only introduced last year and may take a while to catch on, but it’s worth knowing about.

If you’re interested in learning more about BPM standards, there’s a non-vendor webinar (a rarity!) called The Business Value of Process Standards at ebizQ on April 6th.

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.