BPM Milan: From a social wiki to a social workflow system

Selim Erol of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration presented the first paper of the afternoon, co-authored with Gustaf Neumann, on using wikis in an organizational context, in terms of which aspects may have influence on the success of the implementation. They have also developed a prototype of wiki-based editor for workflow definitions, including enacting a web-based workflow based on the workflow definitions.

He gave a summary of wikis — again, likely unnecessary to an audience of academics who are all presenting papers on BPM and social software — and used Wikipedia as an example of how placing content authoring in an open space (public) ensures critical mass of community, which in turn ensures critical mass of content and artifacts; and how mutual control enables content negotiation and self-healing.

He summarized the characteristics of BPM, then looked at applying wiki characteristics to BPM, particularly in process (and rules) design. He sees a number of aspects that determine the degree to which collective intelligence can be used in a wiki environment:

  • Size of crowd/community participating
  • Level of crowd/community organization
  • Degree of objects’ structuredness/specificity
  • Degree of objects’ completeness

The risks of wiki application are much different in public and enterprise applications, however: in a public domain such as Wikipedia, there are issues such as edit wars and vandalism, whereas in an enterprise environment, the issues are more of lack of subjectivity, domination based on corporate rank, and desertion by the community due to smaller size and more politicized environment.

He gave a brief demonstration of the XoWiki-based workflow system that they have created, providing a wiki environment for specifying process flow collaboratively. It’s still a bit of a code-like interface, although also provides a graphical representation, but it’s great to be seeing process modeling done in a more generalized wiki context. I think that there needs to be more crossover between academia and the vendor world, however: he stated one key differentiator as being that it’s web-based, but a number of BPMS vendors have web-based process modelers now.

BPM Milan: Digital Identity

Ben Jennings of University College London presented a paper on Digital Identity and Reputation in the Context of a Bounded Social Ecosystem, co-authored by Anthony Finkelstein.

He started with a discussion about digital identity that reminded me briefly of Dick Hardt’s Identity 2.0 presentation: using himself as an example, showing how he appears in different contexts on the web, such as Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. We all have this same problem of the reconciliation of multiple digital identities: we all have to maintain multiple profiles and multiple social graphs on multiple social networks.

Within some sort of bounded social ecosystem — where we have common goals, such as within an enterprise — the digital identity concept changes: your identity is at least partially pre-created (e.g., through your local network credentials), but this isn’t enough in a large organization where everyone doesn’t know everyone personally and where there may be multiple systems that don’t share credentials. There are still issues of disambiguating and unifying identities between the systems in use within the bounded social context, especially if it’s not a closed enterprise: there must be some fairly complex pattern recognition even to match up email addresses, which can be specified in a number of different formats.

Once you’ve established digital identity, then you can start on the larger issue of trust and reputation; so far, the research has only reached the stage of automating the recognition of digital identity, but will be expanded to (for example) selecting the most appropriate person for a specific task in a process, based on their reputation as derived from their contributions to many other systems.

BPM Milan: Automating Knowledge Transfer

Michael Granitzer of Know-Centre Graz presented a paper on Automating Knowledge Transfer and Creation in Knowledge Intensive Business Processes, co-authored by Gisela Granitzer, Stefanie Lindstaedt, Andreas Rath also of Know-Center, Klaus Tochtermann of Graz Univeristy of Tecnology, and Wolfgang Groiss of m2n consulting (I know that I’m committing a big faux pas by rearranging the order of the authors, but it seems more logical for me to group them by organization).

The key issue is that the wealth of information about processes and best practices amongst users of systems is often never captured and used to feed back into process documentation or process improvement. Although it’s possible to use wikis and other social software to attempt to collect this information, the authors have devised automated mechanisms for gathering this information through detecting and documenting user interactions and tasks in a knowledge base, which can then be mined and analyzed by a process designer in order to feed back into the global process and its documentation.

The system captures the end-user’s activities (content and context) automatically by detecting events, grouping them into blocks, then into tasks. The task recognition itself is important, since it uses automated predictive classification techniques for recognizing tasks based on the events (now I’m in 1983 in a pattern recognition course 😉 ), and they’re achieving around 75% accuracy in their recognition rates. Note that these are not events and tasks executed in the context of a structured business process in a BPMS, but rather the use of any application available to the user in order to do their work: the web, MS-Office tools, etc. The classification methods were trained, in part, by a period of the users manually tagging their events as specific tasks.

On the mining and analysis side, they looked at process mining techniques such as the ProM framework, and explorative analysis techniques, but I have the sense that they haven’t been quite as successful in automating that side of things.

There are a number of concepts derived from this research, including that of tagging resources with tags, that is, being able to capture knowledge of which users perform which tasks.

They plan to continue on with the research, which will include fine tuning of task detection, and enhancing the classification methods to allow grouping of task groups into processes.

BPM Milan: Social Software for Modeling Business Processes

Agnes Koschmider of the Institute of Applied Informatics and Formal Description Methods (Universitat Karlsruhe) presented the next paper on Social Software for Modeling Business Processes, co-authored by Minseok Song and Hajo Reijers of Eindhoven University.

I’m transported back to 1981, sitting in a graph theory lecture in university: this is a graph theory approach to social networks in order to provide recommendations during process modeling. The technique is for recommending process fragments from a process repository to someone during modeling (where the differences between the process fragments are the people who perform them, not the structure of the process itself): suggesting the performers to assign to a specific process fragment based on the past interactions between those people and the ones already assigned to tasks in the model.

In order to do this, it’s first necessary to derive the social network (graph) between users: how they’re connected based on their past history in process instances, through transfer of work as part of a structure process flow, subcontracting (delegation) of work, and cooperation (how often two performers do the same activity in a process). It’s also possible to derive the social network based on recommendation history. Once the metrics of the social network connectivity are gathered, the distance between each set of performers can be measured using a measurement such as Hamming or Minkowski distance.

Although the underlying mathematics are complex, the idea is to reduce the complexity for the process modeler by providing recommendations on which process fragment in a repository would help to create the most effective process.

Aside from the setting and content, the humor at academic conferences is much different as well: when the use of Petri Nets as a modeling paradigm at one particular university was described as a “political issue”, it got the biggest laugh of the day. 🙂

BPM Milan: BPM with Social Software Systems

The first paper of the day was presented by Petia Wohed of the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences in Stockholm (a joint department between the University of Stockholm and the Royal Institute of Technology), also authored by Paul Johannesson and Birger Andersson, entitled “Business Process Management with Social Software Systems – a New Paradigm for Work Organisation”.

She covered some concepts of social software, and pointed out that a lot of social software allows for interaction and information gathering without specific goals, but that there’s also social software targeted at social production through voluntary contributions by peers in networks, where there are specific goals and artifacts. Although she uses the example of Wikipedia, I think that we need a different example for discussing social production in business: although it’s an accurate model of what we want to create within enterprises, many people don’t consider it a credible resource precisely because it is crowdsourced. Of course, we also need to get many organizations past the concept that knowledge creation has to be dictated from an authority rather than voluntary grass-roots participation; both management and front-line workers are complicit in maintaining this culture. I’m off on a tangent here — something that I probably shouldn’t do extemporaneously while I’m live-blogging a session — but I still see a major issue between capability and culture: social software tools exist to make all this possible, but corporate culture often hinders it.

She discussed the nature of management, and the activities involved in it, then how the mechanism of both BPMS and social software can be used to support management activities. She had a very interesting table showing this alignment, as a lead-in to discussing how social software can be used to complement BPMS (which include new design paradigms for BPM):

  • Design processes with a minimum of control flow: process flow becomes ad hoc, decided on by the knowledge worker responsible for a process instance
  • Embed processes in a social context: show the larger context of the process in terms of other participants and historical process instances
  • Design for low activity threshold: make process tasks fine-grained so that individuals are encouraged to complete them [this seems somewhat counter to the first point, however]
  • Use honor points for rewards: encourage voluntary participation

The whole point of this is moving from an assembly line view of BPM to a work station view, where a knowledge worker takes responsibility for a particular process instance, and decides if and when they need to bring someone else into the process in order to complete it. I believe that the key issues are identifying which processes — or tasks within processes — can most benefit from this new paradigm (some processes, especially those with many automated steps or specific compliance requirements, may be more suited to a more structured process flow), and whether many organizations are ready to adopt these methods.

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.

Upcoming conferences

I’ve been sticking close to home for the summer, but my fall lineup is about to begin. So far, I’m definitely attending the following:

  • Business Objects Influencer Summit and SAP SME Day, August 12-13, Boston. This is an analyst/press event, not a public conference, but I’ll be blogging from there.
  • International Conference on BPM, September 1-4, Milan. I’m very excited to be attending this conference since it represents a lot of the academic research going on in BPM, not just what the vendors and analysts have to show. There are some great workshops lined up, such as BPM and social software; interesting sessions; and demos from some of the universities and research labs. You can find last year’s proceedings here.
  • The Appian user conference, September 8-10, Washington DC. This is the first time that I’ve attended an Appian conference, and I’m looking forward to seeing what all those new marketing dollars are buying.
  • The Gartner BPM summit, September 10-12, Washington DC. I’ve been to enough of these lately that I don’t need to attend the whole summit, but since I’m in DC that week for Appian’s conference, I’m adding one more day for Gartner. I think that it’s pretty clever for Appian to schedule like this: it should drive up attendance at their conference, since Appian customers/partners flying in for Gartner will figure that it’s only a couple of extra days to do both.
  • OMG BPM Think Tank, October 6-7, Chicago. I’m on the program committee, and will be leading a roundtable on achieving collaboration between business and IT in BPM on the first day.
  • Business Rules Forum, October 26-30, Orlando. I’ll be giving a presentation on mixing rules and process.
  • SAP BPM, November 17-19, Las Vegas. I’m giving a Jumpstart pre-conference session, an introduction to BPM, on the 16th.

Given that I fly everywhere on Star Alliance, this will bump me over the 35,000 miles for the year that gives me Aeroplan Elite status for 2009, without which I really don’t want to fly.

From a disclosure standpoint, my expenses are being paid for the Appian conference, the Business Rules Forum, and two SAP events; for the latter SAP event, I’m also being paid to deliver the half-day training session.