Suites versus best of breed

I found this post about BPM suites versus best of breed to be an interesting take, although misguided. The blog is written by a Fuego systems engineer and as expected, his blog entry espouses the corporate party line of “BPM suites good, best of breed bad”. Every suites vendor will tell you exactly the same thing, and they’re all a bit right and a bit wrong. Yes, there are benefits to having an end-to-end integrated solution: typically, information flows more easily between components, and there’s no finger-pointing when an interface doesn’t work as expected. However, if the suites vendor’s components don’t give you all the functionality that you require, then you really should be looking elsewhere for the specific components.

Apparently an analyst told one of his customers that no BPM suite does it all, and to consider separate modelling, execution and BAM vendors. Good advice, as far as I’m concerned. Personally, I don’t interpret this to mean that the suites vendor should be excluded from the evaluation of all components, it just means that other vendors should be included. It also doesn’t mean that business is yielding their role in the design and management of processes to IT by choosing multiple tools, just that they use different (and equally competent) tools to participate.

Process modelling is a great example. Most BPMS modelling tools don’t allow for the modelling of manual steps, that is, steps that have nothing to do with the automated process, such as opening mail; they also don’t allow for modelling in the larger context of enterprise architecture. Any business that is serious about documenting enterprise architecture and improving their processes has probably already started modelling their processes using something like IDS Scheer’s ARIS Business Architect or Proforma’s ProVision. For a BPMS vendor to assume that a) process is the only thing to be modelled in the enterprise and b) only steps that touch their product are important, is being a bit unrealistic about where BPM fits into enterprise architecture. I’m the first person to step up and state that process is a key part of any organization, but I would never imagine that it’s the only part.

BAM is another example. Again, BPM suites include enough BAM to monitor and report on the processes that are controlled by their execution engine, but have no vision of the larger performance management landscape that exists within an organization. Execution stats from a BPMS are only one source of data that can feed into a broader performance management system: a company does not manage by process alone.

As a final note on the blog post that started my train of thought, I find it interesting (yet unsurprising) that the only component that he doesn’t recommend buying from the BPM suites vendor, a rules engine, is one that Fuego doesn’t sell.

Peeking at Fuego

When I was at BPM 2005 in London back in May, Fuego was one of the exhibitors (there were only about 10 so it was easy to see them all), and I heard independently from a few attendees that they were looking at or using Fuego. I dropped by the booth and talked to their Director of Marketing, who promised that if I applied online to evaluate their product, he’d make sure that I was approved promptly. He knew that I was headed off for vacation in May/June, but emailed me after I returned and asked when I was going to take a look at it, so I finally got around to downloading the Fuego Process Orchestration Studio and I’m trying it out over the next couple of weeks.

My first thought is that this is an independent contractor’s (you know how I hate the “consultant” word) dream: Fuego bundled all the design and development tools — including Tomcat to serve the end-user portal and the Cloudscape database for RDBMS components and directory services — plus a mini runtime engine into the Studio package, which means that I don’t need to source and install a compatible web server and database independently. Furthermore, the minimum system requirement on Windows is 512MB of memory, and it runs quite well on my 3-year-old 1GHz laptop with its 576MB of memory. This allows me to do anything that I would need to do with a Fuego customer in terms of designing a process or custom development, including full runtime testing, as long as I had access to (or could emulate) any external components that are called by the process, using a mid-range mobile machine instead of a handfull of servers. In fact, I spent my first few hours working with it — on battery power! — at my local Starbucks, not something that I could do with most other BPM products that are inching into (or are already in) Gartners’s top-right quadrant.

I don’t intend to make comparisons with other BPM products; I’ve spent a bit of time with lots of products, and a lot of time with a couple of products, and they all have their pros and cons. For example, addressing the mobililty issue, I love the fact that FileNet (which I know very well) makes all their modules web-based so that there’s no explicit installation required at a workstation, you just go anywhere on your network, decide that you want to design, adminster or participate in a process, and you’re good to go as long as you have appropriate security levels. However, if you’re not on the network, you’re pretty unlikely to have the minimum system requirements on your mobile platform to run any of their stuff standalone. I’m not picking on FileNet specifically here, I’m just pointing out that most of the “industrial strength” BPMS don’t let you “snap off” a design/development environment to be used by independents like me that aren’t supported by a big IT department, which means that these vendors have shifted their target designer and developer community to become either people within the customer organization itself, or the large SIs. I’ve posted my thoughts before about how a small organization can provide significantly better quality of work than the big boys for certain types of work, which puts me in mind of this article on McDonald’s versus the Naked Chef, which opens with the line “Mystery: why is it that some of the biggest IT consulting companies in the world do the worst work?” Keep in mind that there was a time in almost every BPMS vendor’s past when they embraced and catered to small SIs and indepedent consultants while still courting the big SIs; I just hope that this is a phase that Fuego will never grow out of.

Anyway, getting back to product stuff, I’m not going to talk much about technical details (in spite of my inner geeky engineering desire to do so) since I think that’s covered sufficiently elsewhere and in Fuego’s white papers; instead, I want to give a perspective on what it’s like to use as a designer. Suffice it to say, however, that it’s a pure Java implementation and should run on any environment that supports JVM 1.4 or higher, but is certified only on several Windows versions and two flavours of Linux. And it supports Firefox (as well as IE and Netscape), which makes me very happy.

There’s a pretty complete tutorial included (as a PDF) that I’m working through as a quick test drive before taking it out on the open road. It’s even funny, in a dark humour sort of way: the first example application is an “idea evaluation” process where employees create processes by submitting an idea, and evaluators participate in the process to check the idea. At the end of the brief process overview, the tutorial states “Just like in the real world, the ideas submitted are never really implemented so after the evaluator checks the idea, the idea just goes to the end of the process.” A bit of a sad business commentary but made me laugh out loud.

More to come when I get a chance to work on it.

TIBCO’s lack of integration

I don’t like to dwell on a vendor’s hardships, but I have to shake my head over an update on the ongoing lawsuits by TIBCO’s shareholders against the company in eWeek‘s current edition. The key issue is apparently that as of the end of last year, TIBCO hadn’t yet integrated Staffware’s “leadership, operations or sales force”, which has resulted in stagnating European sales.

Considering that the former Staffware CTO has gone off and started his own company based on a competitor’s BPM software, I already assumed that there have been a few glitches along the way, but even an EVP at TIBCO admits that the problems are, in part, cultural due to the whole U.S.-U.K. thing. Another case of an organization assuming that the cultures are similar because they all speak the same language?

Davenport article in HBR

If you missed Tom Davenport’s excellent article “The Coming Commoditization of Processes” in last month’s Harvard Business Review, they’ve published an excerpt to entice you to buy the full reprint. Mr. Davenport, as always, has brilliant insights:

“Despite the trend toward outsourcing, however, most companies have remained in do-it-yourself mode for most processes… Because of a paucity of process standards, it would be risky to do otherwise…

However, a new world is coming, and it will lead to dramatic changes in the shape and structure of corporations. A broad set of process standards will soon make it easy to determine whether a business capability can be improved by outsourcing it. Such standards will also make it easier to compare service providers and evaluate the costs versus the benefits of outsourcing. Eventually these costs and benefits will be so visible to buyers that outsourced processes will become a commodity, and prices will fall dramatically. The low costs and low risk of outsourcing will accelerate the flow of jobs offshore, force companies to look differently at their strategies, and change the basis of competition. These changes are already happening in some process domains, and there are many indications that they will spread across virtually all commonly performed processes.”

The full article contains a lot more detail than the excerpt, including using CMM as a great example of a standardized process that has enabled software development outsourcing. Less technical business processes are quickly following.

I’ve been mulling over thoughts about business process outsourcing (BPO) for some time, collecting ideas for an article (or even just a blog post), and this has really started me thinking about outsourcing. One of my recent customers provides BPO services for financial transaction processing (as do several other less-recent customers), so Mr. Davenport’s final words apply directly to them:

If your organization provides process services, you may have mixed feelings about the development of process standards. Standards will lead to commoditization, more competitors, and lower prices for the services you offer. However, the move to process standards makes so much economic sense that it is probably inexorable — whether or not your company gets involved. It’s better to help shape a standard than to be put out of business by it.

BPMI and OMG merge BPM interests

A press release from BPMI and OMG announced recently that they’re merging their BPM standards activities:

The combined activities will continue BPMI’s and OMG’s ground-breaking work and focus on all aspects of Business Process Management, including:

  • Refinement and promotion of BPMI’s Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) as the basis for business modeling,
  • Delivery of BPMI’s Business Process Definition Metamodel (BPDM), Business language, vocabulary, and rules,
  • BIM (Business Information Management),
  • EAI (Enterprise Application Integration),
  • B2B (Business to Business collaboration),
  • Web Services Information and Processes,
  • Security Policy and Management, and
  • Refinement, promotion and education of the principles, approaches and tenets of Business Process Management within the broader business community.

OMG will continue its tradition of innovation by integrating and reusing complementary business integration and web services standards such as WS-BPEL from OASIS, WSDL and XML Schema from W3C.

BPM standards just became one degree less confusing.

Process Orchestration 101

Today’s Integration 101 webinar talked about why it’s important to integrate applications. Basically, if you don’t, then you probably have the following problems in your business processes:

  • No real-time visibility into the process
  • Long cycle time due to manual data gathering and other non-automated tasks

In other words, your customer drops their information into a black hole and nothing happens for a long time, so there is a higher risk that they take their business elsewhere. Not only is the process inefficient (and therefore costs you more to operate), but it results in lost revenue.

When you use BPM for your large scale processes where several internal and external applications are integrated, you’re moving into the area of process orchestration: the BPMS is invoking, controlling and tracking what goes on in all of the applications. Add in a business rules engine to automate decision-making in the process, and BAM to publish a real-time view of what’s going on, and not only are things more efficient due to fewer manual steps in the process, but your customer can see what’s going on at each step of the process.

Realistically, the only way to do this level of enterprise application integration such that it’s maintainable, flexible, extensible and reusable, is to use a service oriented architecture to expose the applications’ functionality as services to be called by the BPMS. Otherwise, you’ll be right back in a spaghetti mess with the same (or competing) business logic embedded in multiple applications.

Enabling the Agile Enterprise

An interesting post on Rambling Thoughts about enabling the agile enterprise, particularly the benefits:

Through improved, more accurate, and timely reporting mechanisms an agile enterprise will be able to perceive the potential impact of events quicker. Alternate strategies can be rapidly assessed as relevant data will be more easily accessed. Agile enterprises can then react by implementing the required operational processes and IT systems with equal speed and ease. This will allow the results to be realized sooner and with less reduction in enterprise performance.

However, I disagree with his statement that “In contrast to pure workflow tools, that simply model existing business processes, BPM tools provide an execution environment for these workflows.” We’ve been executing business processes for many years with “workflow” tools; maybe he’s thinking of business modelling tools? He exhibits a bit of confusion about the definitions of workflow, BPM and EAI, but then considering the state of the marketplace, that’s not unusual.