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Anne Stuart’s BPM in Action

Dennis Byron

BPM VIEWPOINT: The Opportunity in Unstructured Business Process Management

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I had an interesting discussion on January 20 with Jacob Ukelson, CTO of ActionBase, which--according to its PR material--says it provides "human process management" software as specifically opposed to business process management (BPM) software.

I'll blog about ActionBase, and its plans to expand into Europe and North America from its home base in Israel at some other time. But my first question to Jacob was, "So why do you want to talk to me? I'm a BPM guy."

ActionBase uses the term human process vs. business process because its reason for being is to help manage activities he and I ended up calling "unstructured processes." I understood what he was doing better that way because I could align it with my understanding that there is much more unstructured data floating around the information technology (IT) world than structured (e.g., relational data base) data.

Which lead to a light bulb over the cartoon character (me): Are there ten times as many unstructured processes in the world as structured processes just as there is ten times as much unstructured data as structured data? That's per research by Sue Feldman at IDC, which I am pretty sure she has made public. If so, what an IT/enterprise need and what a software supplier opportunity.

Turns out that I am late to the party I guess. McKinsey has been calling them tacit processes or interactions for some time. It and others theorize about tasks in which there is very little consistency of flow and that tend to get done using email, documents, and even--heaven forbid--meetings. They're careful to call them tasks and not processes. They are the purview of the knowledge worker, not everyone.

That's where the theory starts to lose me because BPM is about helping all workers including knowledge workers. As I said, thinking in terms of unstructured processes helped me understand the ActionBase concept better but I am not convinced that managing less structured processes is something different than BPM or something BPM is not good at. It turns out John Seeley Brown called them "loosely coupled business processes" five years ago. Others tell me he writes about the equivalent of human processes too in his voluminous work but I couldn't find a citation. What do you think?

And even if you think that what ActionBase is doing is BPM, I'm sure they'll still be glad to help you.


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You might want to look into an area called "Human Interaction Management", focused on supporting dynamic, collaborative processes.

In my opinion, when companies will adopt BPM and BPM technology, they will need to realize (and will encounter) the fact that current BPM thinking and supporting technology is primarily focused on structured and predictable processes. Some support more dynamic processes with concepts such as case management.

But for supporting adhoc, dynamic processes with various collaborations (ever tried to model a meeting in BPMN?) for the modern knowledge worker, we will need to find new approaches and technology, to extend BPM.


Roeland Loggen

Thanks for the comment Roeland--I consider human interaction management one end of the BPM spectrum but I agree with your comments about the continuing divide between the two extremes (the other being straight through processing)-- Dennis


I would be interested in hearing what you believe to be the categories or types of business processes that lie in the middle between STP and HIM. The broad term often given to this middle ground, by some vendors, is "human-centric" processes. Case management is sometimes distinguished as a sub-category of human-centric that's closer to HIM, but still quite different (although it's not fully clear exactly how).
The reason for asking is that it's germane to some investigations we're doing here that depend, in part, upon a more robust classification scheme that relies on a set of attributes whose values define and distinguish among these different types.

I am finding that the economic challenges on today's companies are resulting in a new wave of "dynamic" needs of existing processes and new processes alike. Specifically:

- companies have reduced work staff, but still the same amount of work
- existing staff are wearing multiple hats and are involved in processes that they were not involved in before
- intra-company communication (both formal and informal) is as extremely important as ever to ensure work is successfully and correctly completed

These challenges are resulting in the need for companies to optimize their processes to ensure they are efficient for today's work staff. But in many cases, companies do have the time and money to spend to perform this formal optimization effort (everyone in the company is doing everything they can to maintain today’s level of business). As such, the live processes in today's companies have to be flexible and dynamic to support both the structured and unstructured ways of executing work. Examples I am seeing of unstructured work inside business processes are:

- ability to assign work to any number of people in the company (not just the defined step recipient)
- ability to route work to any step in a process (different than the defined or default path)
- ability to share task lists with peers (essentially sharing work load)
- ability to define informal and temporary "work groups" and have those work groups dynamically involved in processes for a finite amount of time

No one likes to reinvent or reconstruct processes that are already defined (the argument of driving a car looking through the windshield, and not the rear-view mirror). Having said that, process artifacts (step recipients, rules, forms, organizational structures) must have the ability to be defined separately from the processes themselves. With extrapolated process artifacts, companies can optimize, adjust, and modify core business process functionality without having to formally rebuild business processes because of changing economic times.

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Business process management and optimization -- philosophies, policies, practices, and punditry.

Anne Stuart

I am the editor of ebizQ.

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