Business Process Incubator: Another Online BPM Community, But With Standards

BPM standards, I mean. 😉

Yesterday saw the public beta launch of the Business Process Incubator; although this was inadvertently announced by Robert Shapiro during a public webinar last month, it only moved out of closed preview yesterday. I had a briefing from Denis Gagné of Trisotech, one of the driving forces behind BPI, and have had a test account to try it out for the past month.

BPI has a focus on BPM standards, especially BPMN and XPDL, and is intended to a be a hub for content and tools related to standards. That doesn’t mean that this is another walled garden of content; rather, a lot of content is mashed in from other locations rather than being published directly on the site. For example, if you search for me on the site, you’ll find links to this blog and to a number of my presentations on Slideshare, plus the ability to rate the content or flag them on a My Interests list. That means that there’s a lot of content available (but not necessarily hosted) on the site from the start, and it’s growing every day as more people link in BPM-related content that they know about.

The site is divided into four main areas:

  • Do, including services for verifying, visualizing, validating, publishing and converting process models in various standard formats. These are premium services available either directly on the site or via an API: you can try them out a few times with a free membership, but they require payment for more than a few times each month.
  • Share, for contributing content such as process models, tools and blogs; this is also used to view process models shared by others.
  • Learn, for viewing the links, blogs, books, training and other content added in the Share section.
  • Tools, for viewing the tools added in the Share section; these are categorized as diagramming, BPMS, BPA, BAM and BRE. Trisotech’s own free BPMN add-in for Visio is here, but is also featured directly on most other pages on the site, something that competing diagramming tools might object to.

Most content on the site can be tagged and rated, allowing the community to provide feedback. There needs to be better integration with other social networking besides just standard “community share” options on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and this site just begs for BPI iPhone app, or at least a mobile version of the site.

Although I like the clean user interface, the categorization takes a bit of getting used to: for example, you add both content and tools in the Share section, but you view the links to content in Learn and the links to tools in Tools. Furthermore, you both contribute and view process models in the Share section; this appears to be the only type of contribution that is viewed in Share rather than another section. Also, the distinctions between some of the functions in the Do section are a bit esoteric: most users, for example, may not make the distinction between Transform (which is an XML transformation) versus Convert, since both turn a file of one type into another type. Similarly, Verify ensures that the file is a BPMN file based on the schema, whereas Validate ensures that there are no syntax errors in the BPMN file.

Although vendors can participate in the community as partners, it is vendor-independent. Rather than vendor sponsorships, the site is monetized through a membership model that allows access to most of the content for free, but requires a $300/year premium membership for unrestricted access to premium features, such as process model validation and translation services. In that way, the bulk of the site revenue is expected to come from corporate end-user organizations that use a combination of free and premium memberships for their users, and can sign up for a corporate membership that gives them four premium memberships plus 50% any additional ones. End-user organizations are becoming more aware of the value of BPM standards, and understand the value proposition of a standard notation when using process models to communicate broadly within their organization; BPI will help them to learn more about BPM standards as well as being a general resource for BPM information.

Businesses can have their own page on the site using a custom URL, fancy it up with their own logo and business description, and list all of the site content that belongs to them, whether links to tools, blogs or other content. Partner pages are free, but are monetized by referral or commission fees on any RFI/RFQs, services, training or paid content offered via those pages.

The cloud-based functions offered in the Do section are also available through a public API for vendors to include directly or white-label them in their own offerings; although monetized for this wasn’t settled last month, it would be possible to do this through an API key, much like other public APIs. Both APIs and a toolbar are available for including BPI content and functions on another site.

Partners are already ramping up on the site, and by fall, BPI will be in general availability for all members. There’s now quite a bit of choice in BPM online communities: in addition to all the BPM-themed social networking sites and discussion groups, there are now several public communities offering tools and functionality specific to BPM, such as BPM Blueworks and ARISalign. Gagné sees BPI as complementary and partnering with those sites – for example, those sites could have a partner page, as BPM Institute does – since they augment the other sites’ content with standards-focused materials. BPI’s openness via APIs and a toolbar allows it to be added as a BPM community from another site, and will likely see many referrals from BPM vendors who don’t want to build their own community site, but like the idea of participating in one that’s vendor-neutral. Although BPI is focused on BPM standards, the open platform gives it the potential to grown into a full BPM social networking site with a broad variety of content.

By the way, as your reward for reading this entire post, here’s a link to get a free premium membership. Enjoy!

The State of BPMN Implementation: Webinar Replay

Here’s the replay of the webinar that I did yesterday with Active Endpoints – it runs almost 90 minutes, because we just kept the Q&A going at the end with all the interesting questions from the audience.

Unfortunately, during Alex Neihaus’ intro to the live presentation, the entire audience may have heard that I forgot to turn my *&$%^ phone off, and it started ringing at just the wrong time: definitely my bad. Then, I was disconnected from GoToMeeting (through no action of mine, just one of those things), which is why I went through a bit of reconnection confusion at the start of my part of the presentation. In spite of these glitches, I was finally reconnected and we got started.

Enjoy the replay.

BPMN In The Real World Slideshow

Webinar done, we’re just on the final Q&A; I saw about 170 people logged in at one point, a pretty good turnout. The replay will be available on the VOSibilities blog or on iTunes.

Here’s my slides, with the “Process Model Hall Of Shame” removed:

As I mentioned in the presentation, there are a lot of great resources on the BPMN standard; my presentation was about how people are actually using it rather than the standard itself.

Webinar Today on the State of BPMN Implementation

I’ll be speaking on a webinar today about how BPMN implementations are happening in the real world of customer process modeling. This is not going to be an update on the BPMN 2.0 standard itself – you can watch the excellent update from last week by Robert Shapiro for that – but rather a review of what I’m seeing in terms of real-world adoption within customer organizations, plus some tips on how to make that adoption happen.

The webinar is from 12-1pm ET on Thursday, February 18th; I’ll be on first, followed by Michael Rowley, CTO of Active Endpoints (who are sponsoring the webinar), who will demo their BPMN 2.0 product. You can sign up here.

BPMN 2.0 Industry Update

It’s webinar day here at Column 2: this is my third in a row, this one an update on the BPMN 2.0 standard by Robert Shapiro, who participates in both the OMG BPMN 2.0 and WfMC XPDL 2.2 standards efforts. We’re already starting to see vendor support for BPMN 2.0, even though it’s not yet fully released, as well as books and training materials.

The concept of subclasses in process modeling has been included in this version, where there is a simple subset of eight elements used for process capture by non-technical process analysts/owners (start, end, sequence flow, task, subprocess, expanded subprocess, exclusive gateway, parallel gateway), then a larger subset for a “descriptive” persona, a larger-still subset for a “DODAF” persona, then the entire set of more than 100 elements.

You can download the accompanying PowerPoint deck for a more complete view of subclasses and their corresponding personas. I can certainly understand why many of the event variations were pushed out of the simple subclass, but I’m not sure that I agree with excluding pools and lanes, since these are pretty commonly used constructs. Also not sure why the US DoD’s enterprise architecture standard is impacting what is supposed to be an international standard.

These subclasses are important for vendors of modeling tools, but also for those looking to use BPMN as a standard for representing processes: this gives a good idea of how to split up the standard by the type of reader (persona) so that you don’t overwhelm the less technical audiences with too much detail, but also provide the greater levels of details for complete process specification.

Shapiro went on to discuss what most consider to be the most important (and likely the most controversial) part of BPMN 2.0: diagram interchange; BPMN 2.0 does not include an XSD schema, and there is ongoing work to create an XSD that is aligned with the metamodel. For those of you who follow BPM standards, you’ll know that XPDL is currently the de facto standard for process model interchange, supported by many vendors; these efforts are continuing in a separate organization (BPMN is managed by OMG, XPDL by WfMC) so it’s good that Shapiro and others are there to bridge the efforts across the two standards. We’re now seeing the emergence of XPDL 2.2, which will support the interchange of BPMN 2.0 process models. XPDL may eventually disappear in the face of a comprehensive BPMN 2.0 diagram interchange standard, but that will take years to happen, and a lot can happen in that time. In the meantime, XPDL will likely be used as an alternative diagram interchange format for BPMN 2.0 diagrams, with vendor support required for both standards.

The Business Process Incubator site has been created by several of the companies participating in both BPMN and XPDL standards efforts as a source for information as well as a variety of standard-related tools such as Visio templates. Shapiro also predicts that many tool vendors will release web-based BPMN 2.0 modelers, as well as BPMN and XPDL converters.

If you’re interested in where BPM standards are headed, it’s worth listening to the entire webinar, especially the Q&A at the end; I imagine that it will be available at the registration link on the WfMC site that I posted in the first paragraph.

BPMN 2.0 tutorial #BPM2009

Hagen Völzer from IBM Research in Zurich – and a member of the BPMN standards group – gave a tutorial on BPMN 2.0, with a specific focus on the new execution semantics.

BPMN 1.1 has taken us a long way towards a standardized process modeling notation, but has several shortcomings: no standardized execution semantics, no standardized serialization, and lack of choreography support. BPMN 2.0 addresses these and some other issues, but does not include organizational models, data models, strategy and business rules. BPMN 2.0 is still being finalized and will be adopted as a standard sometime in 2010, but many vendors are starting to include the new features in their products. The challenge, as he points out, is representing the interrelationship between the new diagram types.

He walked through BPMN, highlighting the changes to the visual notation in 2.0:

  • Lanes can be used to structure visualization of activities by any suitable attribute, not just roles
  • Call activity type that can call another process or a global task.
  • Business rule activity type (although this could be handled with a service task type).
  • Non-interrupting boundary events, including all event types except error events.
  • Escalation events.
  • Event subprocesses, which is an event handler within a subprocess (hence has access to the subprocess context); this can be triggered multiple times for the containing subprocess, and all event subprocesses must terminate before the containing subprocess terminates.
  • Inline error handler, which appears similar to the event subprocesses but for handling errors; it can handle the error locally rather than propagating it up the scope tree.
  • Compensation event subprocess, similar to the previous two handlers but for handling compensation events.
  • Data are now first class elements, and can be used as an input or output to an activity using the new data association that describes data flow between data objects and activities or events.
  • Choreography diagrams containing (not surprisingly) choreography activities that represent the activities between the participants; the pools and message flows are hidden, and only the choreography activities and the linkages between them are modeled. The two diagram types can be combined to show the choreography in the context of the pools and message flows.
  • Conversations, which collapse multiple related message flows to visually simplify a diagram; conversations can include more than two participants.

He also walked through the execution semantics, which are based on token flows, with token being produced and consumed by activities, events and gateways. BPMN 2.0 also specifies the representation of an activity lifecycle to map all of the actions that can occur around an activity. We looked in detail at the token-based execution semantics for an inclusive join (where the number of tokens generated by the split is not known locally) in a variety of nested contexts. The complexity of this explains a lot about why the 7PMG guidelines recommend not using inclusive ORs: if it’s this hard to figure out all the possible execution semantics, it’s going to be complex for a human to understand the model visually.

He ended up with research opportunities that have been created by the new specification, such as formalizing semantics of choreography diagrams (now we know his motivation for sitting on the committee 🙂 ); it seems that there are many unresolved issues remaining.

It was useful to have a complete walkthrough of the specification as a refresher and to see the changes in context. I’m left with the impression that the event handlers and some of the other new features are exceptionally useful, but unlikely to be well-understood (and therefore used) by non-technical business analysts. As another one of the attendees pointed out, they’ve just invented a new visual programming language.

Lombardi Blueprint update

Home pageI recently had a chance for an in-depth update on Lombardi’s Blueprint – a cloud-based process modeling tool – to see a number of the new features in the latest version. I haven’t had a chance to look at it in detail for over a year, and am impressed by the social networking tools that are built in now: huge advances in the short two years since Lombardi first launched Blueprint. The social networking tools make this more than just a Visio replacement: it’s a networking hub for people to collaborate on process discovery and design, complete with a home page that shows a feed of everything that has changed on processes that you are involved in. There’s also a place for you to bookmark your favorite processes so that you can easily jump to them or see who has modified them recently.

At a high level, creating processes hasn’t changed all that much: you can create a process using the outline view by just typing in a list of the main process activities or milestones; this creates the discovery map simultaneously on the screen, which then allows you to drag steps under the main milestone blocks to hierarchically indicate all the steps that make up that milestone. There have been a number of enhancements in specifying the details for each step however: you can assign roles or specific people as the participant, business owner or expert for that step; document the business problems that occur at that step to allow for some process analysis at later stages; create documentation for that step; and attach any documents or files to make available as reference materials for this step. Once the details are specified, the discovery map view (with the outline on the left and the block view on the right) shows the participants aligned below each milestone, and clicking on a participant shows not only where it is used in this process, but where it is used in all other processes in the repository.

New step and gateway added - placement and validation automaticAt this point, we haven’t yet seen a bit of BPMN or anything vaguely resembling a flowchart: just a list of the major activities and the steps to be done in each one, along with some details about each step. It would be pretty straightforward for most business users to learn how to use this notation to do an initial sketch of a process during discovery, even if they don’t move on to the BPMN view.

Switching to the process diagram view, we see the BPMN process map corresponding to the outline view created in the discovery map view, and you can switch back and forth between them at any time. The milestones are shown as time bands, and if participants were identified for any of the steps, swimlanes are created corresponding to the participants. Each of the steps is placed in a simple sequential flow to start; you can then create gateways and any other elements directly in the process map in this view. The placement of each element is enforced by Blueprint, as well as maintaining a valid BPMN process map.

There’s also a documentation view of the process, showing all of the documentation entered in the details for any step.

Not everyone will have access to Blueprint, however, so you can also generate a PowerPoint file with all of the process details, including analysis of problem areas identified in the step details; a PDF of the process map; a Word document containing the step documentation; an Excel spreadsheet containing the process data; and a BPDM or XPDL output of the process definition. It will also soon support BPMN 2.0 exports. Process maps can also be imported from Visio; Blueprint analyzes the Visio file to identify the process maps within it, then allows the user to select the mapping to use from the Visio shapes into Blueprint element types.

Ballons on steps indicate comments from reviewersThere are other shared process modeling environments that do many of the same things, but the place where Blueprint really shines is in collaboration. It’s a shared whiteboard concept, so that users in different locations can work together and see the changes that each other makes interactively without waiting for one person to check the final result into a repository: an idea that is going to take hold more with the advent of technologies such as Google Wave that raise the bar for expectations of interactive content sharing. This level of interactivity will undoubtedly reduce the need for face-to-face sessions: if multiple people can view and interact simultaneously on a process design, there probably needs to be less time spent in a room together doing this on a whiteboard.There’s a (typed) chat functionality built right into the product, although most customers apparently still use conference calls while they are working together rather than the chat feature: hard to drag and drop things around on the process map while typing in chat at the same time, I suppose. Blueprint maintains a proper history of the changes to processes, and allows viewing of or reverting to previous versions.

Newly added is the ability to share processes in reviewer mode to a larger audience for review and feedback: users with review permissions (participants as opposed to authors) can view the entire process definition but can’t make modifications; they can, however, add comments on steps which are then visible to the other participants and authors. Like authors, reviewers can switch between discovery map, process diagram and documentation views, although their views are read-only, and add comments to steps in either of the first two views. Since Blueprint is hosted in the cloud, both authors and reviewers can be external to your company; however, user logins aren’t shared between Blueprint accounts but have to be created by each company in their account. It would be great if Blueprint provided authentication outside the context of each company’s account so that, for example, if I were participating in two project with different clients who were both Blueprint customer and I was also a Blueprint customer, they wouldn’t both have to create a login for me, but could reuse my existing login. Something like this is being done by Freshbooks, an online time tracking and invoicing applications, so that Freshbooks customers can easily more interact. Blueprint is providing the ability to limit access in order to meet some security standards: access to a company’s account can be limited to their own network (by IP address), and external participants can be restricted to be from specific domains.

One issue that I have with Blueprint, and have been vocal about in the past, is the lack of a non-US hosting option. Many organizations, including all of my Canadian banking customers, will not host anything on US-based servers due to the differences in privacy laws; even though, arguably, Blueprint doesn’t contain any customer information since it’s just the process models, not the executable processes, most of them are pretty conservative. I know that many European organizations have the same issues, and I think that Lombardi needs to address this issue if they want to break into non-US markets in a significant way. Understandably, Lombardi has resisted allowing Blueprint to be installed inside corporate firewalls since they lose control of the upgrade cycle, but many companies will accept hosting within their own country (or group of countries, in the case of the EU) even if it’s not on their own gear.

Using a cloud-based solution for process modeling makes a lot of sense in many situations: nothing to install on your own systems and low-cost subscription pricing, plus the ability to collaborate with people outside your organization. However, as easy as it is to export from Blueprint into a BPMS, there’s still the issue of round-tripping if you’re trying to model mostly automated processes.

Heather Kreger, IBM, on SOA standards

It’s impossible for me to pass up a standards discussion (how sad is that?), so I switched from the business analysis stream to the SOA stream for Heather Kreger’s discussion of SOA standards at an architectural level. OASIS, the Open Group and OMG got together to talk about some of the overlapping standards impacting this: they branded the process as “SOA harmonization” and even wrote a paper about it, Navigating the SOA Open Standards Landscape Around Architecture (direct PDF link).

As Kreger points out, there are differences between the different groups’ standards, but they’re not fatal. For example, both the Open Group and OASIS have SOA reference architectures; the Open Group one is more about implementation, but there’s nothing that’s completely contradictory about them. Similarly, there are SOA governance standards from both the Open Group and OASIS

They created a continuum of reference architectures, from the most abstract conceptual SOA reference architectures through generic reference architectures to SOA solution architectures.

The biggest difference in the standards is that of viewpoint: the standards are written based on what the author organizations are trying to do with them, but contain a lot of common concepts. For example, the Open Group tends to focus on how you build something within your own organization, whereas OASIS looks more at cross-organization orchestration. In some cases, specifications can be complementary (not complimentary as stated in the presentation 🙂 ), as we see with SoaML being used with any of the reference architectures.

Good summary, and I’ll take time to review the paper later.

BPM Acronyms

I had a request from a reader for a list explaining the various acronyms that I use in these blog posts, and around BPM in general. I’m sure that there are several lists like this, but I’ve pulled together a starting list and have opened it up by creating it in a Google spreadsheet that anyone can edit.

Please go ahead and edit the Google spreadsheet to add your own here, or to make any corrections to the list. I reserve the right to edit or delete any inappropriate entries.

Robert Shapiro on BPMN 2.0

Robert Shapiro spoke on a webinar today about BPMN 2.0, including some of the history of how BPMN got to this point, changes and new features from the previous version and the challenges that those may create, the need for portability and conformance, and an update on XPDL 2.2. The webinar was hosted by the Workflow Management Coalition, where Shapiro chairs the conformance working group.

He started out with how WPDL started as an interchange format in the mid-90’s, then became XPDL 1.0 around 2001, around the time that the BPMN 1.0 standard was being kicked off. For those of you not up on your standards, XPDL is an interchange format (i.e., the file format) and BPMN prior to version 2.0 is a notation format (i.e., the visual representation); since BPMN didn’t include an interchange format, XPDL was updated to provide serialization of all BPMN elements.

With BPMN 2.0, serialization is being added to the BPMN standard, as well as many other new components including formalization of execution semantics and the definition of choreography model. In particular, there are significant changes to conformance, swimlanes and pools, data objects, subprocesses, and events; Shapiro walked through each of these in detail. I like some of the changes to events, such as the distinction between boundary and regular intermediate events, as well as the concept of interrupting and non-interrupting events. This makes for a more complex set of events, but much more representative.

Bruce Silver, who has been involved in the development of BPMN 2.0, wrote recently on what he thinks is missing from BPMN 2.0; definitely worth a read for some of what might be coming up in future versions (if Bruce has his way).

One key thing that is emerging, both as part of the standard and in practice, is portability conformance: one of the main reasons for these standards is to be able to move process models from one modeling tool to another without loss of information. This led to a discussion about BPEL, and how BPMN is not just for BPEL, or even just for executable processes. BPEL doesn’t fully support BPMN: there are things that you can model in BPMN that will be lost if you serialize to BPEL, since BPEL is intended as a web service orchestration language. For business analysts modeling processes – especially non-executable processes – a more complete serialization is critical.

In case you’re wondering about BPDM, which was originally intended to be the serialization format for BPMN, it appears to have become too much of an academic exercise and not enough about solving the practical serialization problem at hand. Even as serialization is built into BPMN 2.0 and beyond, XPDL will likely remain a key interchange format because of the existing base of XPDL support by a number of BPM and BPA vendors. Nonetheless, XPDL will need to work at remaining relevant to the BPM market in the world of BPEL and BPMN, although it is likely to remain as a supported standard for years to come even if the BPMN 2.0 serialization standard is picked up by a majority of the vendors.

The webinar has about 60 attendees on it, including the imaginatively named “asdf” (check the left side of your keyboard) and several acquaintances from the BPM standards and vendor communities. The registration page for the webinar is here, and I imagine that that will eventually link to the replay of the webinar. The slides will also be available on the WfMC site.

If you want to read more about BPMN 2.0, don’t go searching on the OMG site: for some reason, they don’t want to share draft versions of the specification except to paid OMG members. Here’s a direct link to the 0.9 draft version from November 2008, but I also recommend tracking Bruce Silver’s blog for insightful commentary on BPMN.