Archive for the ‘unstructured processes’ Category

3 Hot Technologies Trends that Don’t Matter to BPM (and one that does)

July 26, 2011


Cloud computing is all the rage now, and it will have enormous impact on how applications are delivered and IT is managed. On the other hand, it will have very little impact on BPM. Putting your BPMS in the cloud makes access and management a bit easier for the IT department – but so what? They will still need to create the models and interfaces needed to make the business process being implemented work. 

There is no personal value provided by a BPMS until it is populated by models that the organization uses, and enough users on board to enable the process to run. That is as opposed to (the poster child of cloud applications) – where people could derive personal value from the system before the organization adopted it – in many cases forcing a bottom up adoption paradigm, especially in SMB. Given the startup overhead for BPM – that just won’t happen.


Anywhere access to your data is the promise of mobile. You could imagine that being expanded to anywhere access to your processes. The promise combines two paradigm shifts – the first is access, the second is usability and ease of use in a mobile form factor.

Access is nice, but since so many BPM implementations fall down on the ease of use part, mobile access won’t make that big a difference – unless process designers start giving a lot of thought to usability and GUI design in general (which they don’t) and then specifically for a mobile form factor.  Until that happens – the ability to use a web front end (which has been around for a while) is just as useful.

Big Data

Big data is another trend everyone is talking about – all the reams of structured data (created by sensors and such), but especially all the unstructured data created by us humans (text, images, sounds, video). The existence of all that data doesn’t matter much to BPM – since how much of it is related to the world’s business processes? BPM data for any organization usually “small” data – just the stuff related to their structured processes.

Big data will have a larger impact on case management – since cases will tend to have much more unstructured data associated with them – but for any given organization it won’t grow into the realm that is being called “big data”


This is also related to data, but not necessarily big data. It addresses the central problem of how to analyze data to create information. This will be a big deal for BPM (or as I see it BPM+ACM) since the ability to do a true analysis of how the business executes is invaluable.

But you can only do that if enough of your processes are actually executed using business processes tools. If you want to handle most of world’s business processes – you’ll need a system that will replace GoeM (Good ole eMail) since most business processes are unstructured, unpredictable (but I digress) and done using email, documents, conversations and meetings. If you had real data on how people actually do their business processes – then being able to analyze it would be invaluable.

This is different then what most people do with data analytics today – since it requires that you take into account temporal constraints and path analysis. It is an interesting area, but still needs a lot of work.


Idealized Processes vs. Real World Processes

May 19, 2011

I was reading a Gartner report on “Predicts 2011: PPM Goes From Managing Projects to
Managing Value and Change” (PPM is project and portfolio management – never eactly sure why it is considered separate from BPM, but that is another issue. Maybe we should try to understand why people don’t use BPM for PPM…).

It had a chart about the certainty of requirements – which led me to think about BPM projects and the certainty of requirements. In many BPM engagements, discovering the model of existing process is a large part of the project. Once the model exists, that is when the rest of a BPM suite is brought to bear. So in many ways the BPMN (or other notation) is the equivalent of requirements. That led me to the following chart (the way I believe most BPM suites view the world):

Idealized BPM

I believe that most real world processes actually look like:

real world BPM

Real world process requirements (especially in today’s modern economy) are lot more uncertain than BPMS vendors would like people to think.

BPM (Business Process Management) or BPM (Business Politics Management)

May 15, 2011

I think the BPM (or Business Process management) has been around long enough, and used widely enough  to claim that it has made a real difference in the managing of well defined, predictable, routine processes. Now that that the issues with routine process management are pretty well understood, the next big thing in BPM is the management of unstructured, unpredictable processes. The problem is that the approach to those types of processes is very different than the approach needed for structured processes. Knowledge workers, and the work they do is not a subset (or extension) of the type of structured processes handled by BPM – but rather something quite different. Keith Swenson took a stab at using a different name “Adaptive Case Management” to signify that these processes are different – but I am not sure that was radical enough to get people to switch the way they think about unstructured business processes.

I suggest that we should have a separate branch of BPM that is Business Politics Management – it is the cousin of regular BPM, but for knowledge worker tasks. These tasks are very heavily dependent on collaboration, meetings, discussions, negotiation – and yes politics (in the sense that all interactions between humans involves politics). I think using the word “politics” would cause enough of an uproar that we could actually start understanding how the two BPMs actually are different.

So how are they different? Even if you look at the adoption process of “Business Process Management” – almost every consultant would explain that you really need to get all the parties involved (especially management) on the same page, and you need to select the right process. Now if traditional BPM was really good at managing unstructured processes – it would make sense for the first BPM process to be implemented would be the process of getting management on board with BPM and selecting the process (I know that is sort of a recursive statement, but still true).

But realistically that is a job more suited to Business Politics Management, since it requires the kind of knowledge work that involves collaboration, meetings, discussion and negotiations – and yes, politics.

So no matter what your business process – BPM is for you (just make sure you chose the right BPM).

Workflow from a User Perspective

May 7, 2011

One of theme I constantly return to is that once you assume that you are building a solution for users, there are lot of issues you need to consider – even for workflow. Most BPM tools completely ignore these aspects – and many BPMS tools require that you get into relatively low level programming to do this kind of work.

That is why I am always happy to find simple best practices about usability that can easily be applied to applications built using a BPMS (or of course ACM). Jacob Nielsen wrote a good post on “Workflow Expectations: Presenting Steps at the Right Time” – it is about how to plan for user expectations when creating a workflow for users – in this case  it mostly about steps for a single user, but the thought process is applicable for workflow between users too.

Process Duality

April 30, 2011

I was reading Sandy Kemsley’s post on “The Great Case Management Debate” from the 2011 Gartner conference. One of her comments was that Gartner saw process as a continuum from structured to unstructured.

To me there are two reasons to try and classify business processes this way – one is to help people to understand where their process is on the continuum, and use that understanding to choose the right tools for the task. Another is to use that understanding to create an ultimate process tool that can handle the complete continuum. The problem is that in the real world that just like with wave particle duality  – there is a duality of process. Every real world process is a mix of both structured and unstructured activities and tasks – it is just a matter of degree, and you’ll tend to see what you are looking for – which means that for real world processes you won’t be able to categorize them in neat silos within the continuum. Real world end-to-end processes are both structured and unstructured at the same time!

Personally I also think that there is distinction between what works for the structured part of a process, and what works for the unstructured part – both from a technology and methodology perspective.  Not that underlying technologies from structured processes can’t be applied to the unstructured processes – but not in a simplistic way.

At ActionBase we made the conscious decision to focus only on unstructured processes, which led us down a path complementary to, yet very different from the BPMS path taken by structured process vendors. We often get dinged for our lack of traditional support for structured processes – which is understandable if you look at business process from a structured process perspective. For example, we don’t enforce a workflow or do straight through processing.

But if you look at the world from a unstructured business process perspective – then you understand that structured process tools as they currently exist just can’t do unstructured, unpredictable ad-hoc human intensive processes (at least not in a way that anyone would use), but an unstructured tool can be used to execute structured process (though not without losing a benefits that a structured process tool can provide).

At ActionBase we feel we have taken the first step to bridge that duality –not by claiming that people should use our tool for structured process, but rather by enabling structured process tools a way to truly support unstructured processes in a usable way. We do that not by enforcing a structure on unstructured processes, but rather giving users a tool based on email and documents that provides manageability, monitoring and tracking that can use in conjunction with a structured process tool; without enforcing an inappropriate structure on the process and its participants.

Aren’t Business Processes Always Social Processes?

November 3, 2010

I get asked quite often about Social BPM, probably because of all the hype around it at the moment. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw Keith’s post  “Anti-Social BPM”, and I decided to chime in with my two cents.

Work is (and has always been) a social activity – you really can’t do any interesting end-to-end business process without people being involved. Even if you are doing straight through processing (the minority of actual business processes) – there are always some humans at the endpoints – and usually quite a few humans in the middle. So why is Social Business Process Management the new buzzword du’jour? Mainly because most BPM technologies (or BPMS’s) played down the roles of the humans involved and focused on the automatable part of the process. At best the humans were part of the process as secondary agents (I know that is a bit harsh, but for the most part true). BPMS technology ignored (and continues to ignore) the basic constructs of any real end-to-end business process – conversation and negotiation (Max wrote a post on this a while back – Process is Conversation, or ‘Did you hear the PIN drop?’ ). So if every business process is social – why are we only hearing now about social BPM and what does it mean?

Social BPM seems to have taken on two separate meanings (Scott has posted on this too – Process for the People ) – the first as a way to enable (and encourage) collaboration during the process of building the model of a process . BPMS vendors have started to add social technologies as part of their platform for the modeling community. This is useful, but not interesting. The reason I claim that it is not interesting – is that the process modeling process effects very few people in the organization, and it seems to be missing the point – why not enable the unstructured social aspects for every process? What makes process modeling unique?

The second meaning of social BPM makes more sense to me – acknowledging that most business processes are people processes, and enabling the management of those unstructured, unpredictable people processes. I don’t think anyone would be surprised that this is how we see the world at ActionBase – but would be surprised at how hard it is for mainstream BPMS vendors to accept this view. In discussing this with one large BPMS vendor they told me that it makes sense, but it really isn’t something they can do since it requires selling to the business, instead of IT (something that they don’t how to do).  Another reaction I get from “standard” BPMS vendors is a blank stare – since the notion of an ad-hoc, unstructured process just doesn’t fit with their notion of a business process.

So social business process (management) isn’t new – it is how business really gets done. Social BPM is new – only because BPM has become synonymous with BPMS technology and lost its true meaning of “business process management”.

Is BPM for Process Management, ACM for Best Practice Management?

September 17, 2010

We had a great panel on Adaptive Case Management at the BPM2010 conference. About 35-40 attendees – and they participated, making it more of a group discussion than a panel. It was great – and it shows that there is a lot of interest in the BPM community about ACM.

One participant (I didn’t get his name) summarized the conversation by the intriguing statement”So BPM is for processes, ACM is for best practices” – from earlier comments he made it was clear he was a management consultant.

I think his statement is a good way of looking at ACM – especially if you come from a management consulting background. According to wikipedia “A best practice is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive, or reward which conventional wisdom regards as more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. when applied to a particular condition or circumstance.” also “A given best practice is only applicable to particular condition or circumstance and may have to be modified or adapted for similar circumstances. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered”.

For business process the wikipedia entry states “A business process or business method is a collection of related, structured activities or tasks that produce a specific service or product (serve a particular goal) for a particular customer or customers. It often can be visualized with a flowchart as a sequence of activities”

They way I read that is that best practices are guidelines about how certain types of human work should get done (or at least a codification of successful ways the work was done in the past) – but it remain a flexible, high-level framework under the control of the participants, not a step by step structured guide (as would be defined in a BPMN model). On the other hand process (though I don’t completely agree with wikipedia)  is always structured (and so perhaps “unstructured process” and “unpredictable process” are oxymorons).

So given those definitions he is certainly right “ACM is for best practices, BPM for process”. The “good news” is then we have BPM (Business Process Management) and bpm (best practice management  🙂

If you are interested I have a previous post on best practices (and how checklists are possibly the right level of modeling for ACM) at “Guidelines, Best Practices and Checklists – the Process Model for Unstructured Processes?“.

Is Adaptive Case Management EQ while Business Process Management IQ?

August 30, 2010

I started to think about this while reading an article in the Harvard Business Review about “When Emotional Reasoning Trumps IQ“. When I think of BPM, I think of processes that have been analyzed and modeled – i.e. smart people have gotten togther to analyze, understand and model a process using their IQ.  When I think about dynamic or adaptive case management (ACM) I think about processes that evolve as part of the negotiation, interaction and collaboration between the participants of the process as they strive toward a goal – of course IQ is involved, but so is a lot of EQ.

This aspect of ACM  vs. BPM isn’t mentioned much. Maybe because most of the people in the discussion are from a techical background. From my experience, when people collaborate – they negotiate, which is natural part of the give and take of getting the job done. Negotiation and discussion may be the most important part of the whole process – and certainly key to understanding why the flow of a specific instance of unpredictable process emerged as it did. Emergent processes emerge just as much by EQ as by IQ.

A key aspect of ACM is managing and supporting negotiation. How does ACM link the negotiations and discussions back to the goals of case? Negotiation and discussion are a first class part of any knowledge process, and need to be supported, managed and integrated into the process flow. 

ACM needs to support EQ just as much as IQ .

SG and A and Adaptive Case Management

July 7, 2010

I read an interesting article in the McKinsey Quarterly (free registration is required) on “Five ways CFOs can make cost cuts stick“. From my perspective most interesting part is the graph that shows that while cost of goods sold (COGS) has gone down 2.7% over the last decade, sales, general and administrative (SG&A) costs haven’t budged.

A lot of things go into SG&A (like travel and offices), but for most companies the bulk of SG&A is in compensation, or people costs. I think that explains the lack of progress in the area – most SG&A type work is knowledge work (or call it it office work if you like) and there have been very few effective widespread productivity enhancers for this type of work in the last decade.

I believe that to bring real, widespread productivity gains to this type of work – we will need a combined process+collaboration perspective focused on knowledge worker productivity. The key will be to bring transparency to knowledge work – and just enough control to manage the process, but no such much as to strangle it. The article alludes to the need for transparency in the article and Jim McGee has an excellent post on the need for transparency – “Managing the visibility of knowledge work“. Solving the problem also needs collaboration within the process context as John Tropea discusses in his latest blog on “Have we been doing Enterprise 2.0 in reverse : Socialising processes and Adaptive Case Management” .

I am hoping that Adaptive Case Management will be the begining a real focus on this issue. Maybe this can be the decade that we really start lowering SG&A cost by enhancing knowledge worker productivity.

A reminder – we will be having a tweetjam on Adaptive Case Management on July 15 at 12pm EDT, to find out more click here.

Wicked BPM

May 24, 2010

I was reading a Gartner report on on “wicked problems” in business transformation (or as it is actually called “Introducing Hybrid Thinking for Transformation, Innovation and Strategy”). They define wicked problems as “those that defy conventional approaches to understanding, planning, design, implementation and execution because:

  • The stakeholder interests are so diverse and divisive.
  • Interdependencies are so complex and so little understood.
  • Behaviors are so dynamic and chaotic (unpredictable).

Leaders who do recognize wicked problems typically don’t speak in terms of “solving the problem,” because wicked problems involve such fundamental trade-offs that they don’t have a “solution.” Instead, they speak of “taking on” a wicked problem to produce a “successful outcome,” which merely means that the outcome of the effort leaves the organization sufficiently better off that it was worth the effort.”

I think a lot of the issues faced by today’s knowledge worker fall into that category (though not necessarily on the same scale). Knowledge workers deal with wicked problems “in the small” everyday. These aren’t the kind of problems that a standard BPMS is designed for (though it seems like the modeling part of a BPMS implementation is itself a “wicked problem”).

I believe that adaptive case management (ACM) could become the “process” toolset  for supporting the management of the processes used to bring wicked problems to a successful outcome. Some maybe we should call it wicked BPM?