BPM Is a Verb. Workflow Was a Noun.

I have been wondering about this trending in the BPM marketplace: the increasing emphasis on using business process management tools in a manner that’s more suggestive of a predictive and strategic planning role than a workflow or process tool. Along with that, we’ve all seen the rapid disappearance of the traditionally known pure-play business intelligence vendors in a series of acquisition/take-overs. (Whoosh! What was that, mate? That was the BI market. Is it coming back? I don’t think so...)

I asked a few people in the know, such as Laura Mooney, senior director, corporate and product marketing at Metastorm, whether "BPM is the New BI?" "That’s certainly a debate worth having," says Laura. "I certainly hope so!"

The reason there’s a debate at all has everything to do with the maturity of the marketplace, marked by the fact that much of the low-hanging "fixed-process" fruit has long ago been picked. Transactional workflows are deeply engrained into the DNA of most organizations of any significant size. The various departments already have their hard-earned methods of getting information from point A to point B, and by and large, they work pretty darn well, as far as that goes. But they represent only brain-stem functions—the autonomic respiration and blood flow that continue to pound away in the daily existence of the organism.

But—excuse me while I completely beat this metaphor to death—what do you do about the immediate, real-time response to environmental stimuli? The observation, reflexes and response to the changing influences that come at you from all directions? For that you need higher brain functions—you need sight, hearing and touch to protect the body corpus from the elements. Bringing it back to the subject, you need BPM.

"Businesses have evolved in their understanding of how much more agile they can become using BPM technology." Brett Stineman is product marketing manager at EMC. He thinks today’s organizations have moved beyond the basic nuts-and-bolts of process automation into a higher understanding. "The realization has set in that organizations can build and evolve applications very rapidly with fewer resources required, and at the same time have a better organizational understanding of what’s going on. Vendors (and the press) have been talking about this for a while, but it was ‘going over the heads’ of many customers. Conversations we’re having with customers are now starting around process improvement and agility. It’s sunken in, customers are embracing it, and they’re looking for a way to enable it. That’s where BPM comes in," says Brett.

"The scope of BPM has definitely expanded over the past four years," agrees Laura Mooney. "It started out as transactional workflow. Then the pure BPM vendors came around and focused on human-centric activities and multidimensional processes. Now the BPM suites are pulling in business intelligence and adding upfront process modeling, business optimization and even enterprise architecture. Now customers can understand their businesses as a ‘whole,’ and how their processes interact with one another, rather than being simply a series of automated, point-in-time processes with no understanding of the impact of those processes on the rest of the business."

Laura echoes Brett when it comes to her estimation of the market’s basic grasp, at least, of the fundamental theory. "End-user organizations clearly understand what BPM is (wish I could say I did!). We don’t have to explain it. They understand the importance of it, I should say. They’re still trying to budget for it and put organizational structure in place to support it." Like what kind of structure? "Things like process centers-of-excellence, which are hybrid groups of business and IT people who come together to ensure consistency," explains Laura.

Ray Massie, VP product strategy at SunGard EXP (the ECM and BPM division), adds some more perspective from a historical viewpoint. "I think around the time of the ‘Third Wave’ book (Business Process Management: The Third Wave, by Howard Smith and Peter Fingar, published in 2002), we saw a fusion of enterprise application integration (EAI) and workflow. Workflow brought the human interaction part to the explicit process management part. Fusing the two seemed intuitively obvious at the time, but the bigger nut to crack—and still not finished—is that it is a change in management philosophy...a paradigm shift that is still resonating through the ranks."

So that’s a blanket generalization about the entire business world, is it? "No. There are buyers who are either very clued into what BPM can do for them...or they’re clueless, for the lack of a better way to say it. Our customers fall into one of the two camps. Either they understand what BPM is—they might not have a complete notion, but at least they know what it is—or they don’t understand, or care, or they don’t want to make a shift...they just want to focus on the business solution, and that’s fair, too."

That’s a familiar situation for Laura, also. "Once they get their hands on the automation tool, they say ‘That’s nice...we’re just going to keep doing this. We’ve invested a lot of money, and so we’re going to use it hard for a while.’ And in a lot of cases, they’ve already bought the necessary technology to take the next step. They have the full suite already, everything they need to go to the next level, but they just don’t get around to that piece."

I had to ask: since the "buy" is in place, the check is cashed and the customer is relatively happy...why do you care if they don’t take full advantage of their investment? It’s cash-and-carry, right? "We DO care," insists Laura, "because it validates our vision. Don’t get me wrong, we DO have plenty of customers who use the full potential. But for others it’s hard. They have limited resources; it’s very easy from a project perspective to justify process automation, because you can measure the results very easily. And companies have lots of those processes; they have lots of low-hanging fruit to go through. It takes a while just to do that," she says.

Brett agrees that the adoption curve has a low end and a high end. "This is one place where the major analysts have gotten it pretty spot-on—the process maturity model. Most companies ARE still looking at tactical process improvement. A much smaller number is looking at closed-loop optimization, predictive optimization...that will be the next wave," says Brett. "They understand the story; we’re just trying to get them to buy the vision. It’s not a matter of size or industry, either. There are visionaries in every industry. The way to get customers to adopt the whole vision is through example. Show them other customers they can relate to and promote those customers who are doing the job. The best example is always someone who is doing it, who gets it and can articulate it."

"There are champions within organizations who ‘get it,’" adds Laura. "It might be only one or two people, but if they are in senior-enough positions, they can make it happen in a kind of subtle way. We have a fellow at a customer who likens it to an artist painting a painting. Only he has the end-vision of what the painting is going to look like. People are participating in each of the brushstrokes, but they aren’t necessarily aware of what the end picture will be. But by placing each brushstroke in the right place at the right time, the painting comes together. In the end they achieve great things that they didn’t really understand to begin with."

People Versus Machine
When you’re talking about BPM, it’s hard to find the hard-and-fast boundary between what is process, and what is product. In other words, how much of BPM has to do with management principles and human interactivity with the business activity, and how much of it is technology-driven and merely a matter of automation.

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