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Phil Wainewright

The Social Crisis of Enterprise BPM

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Delivering the opening keynote at the Gartner BPM Summit in London last week, analyst Janelle Hill delivered Gartner's vision for a rebirth of BPM that is as comfortable with unstructured activities as it is with structured processes. As one enthused delegate blogged afterwards:

"BPM, Gartner-style, is no longer focussed on the 20 percent of the enterprise that is structured work and automating the routine. It's just as much about 80 percent that is the unstructured, dynamic, social operational reality ... Most interestingly perhaps, it's about an empowerment mindset: 'Take a chance on your workforce, trust the creativity of your people to deliver'. But all of course within an appropriate governance framework."

Despite this clarion call at the opening, other speakers during the day were from more of a classic BPM mold. Established BPM professionals tend to have a 'Yes, but ...' response to concepts of unstructured, social processes. They know they have to make positive noises about the social buzzword, but they're not sure how they can make it fit without thoroughly disrupting their familiar world.

The original notion of BPM was to be able to model processes more effectively and thus roll out efficiency and agility across the organization, all the while enforcing and reusing best practice. Trouble is, the system depended on a highly centralized model, where all the skills, the process design, the planning and the objectives were set by an inner clique, whether of management or of BPM experts. It had little space for user-generated processes, and no framework for devolving process design in a sufficiently loose and forgiving manner to accommodate rapid process innovation at the periphery.

The result has been a wave of user dissatisfaction, exacerbated by people's perceptions of greater freedoms in other areas of IT. As Forrester Research analyst Clay Richardson put it last year in conversation with Joe McKendrick:

"What we're seeing in the process world is this idea of process populism ... Last year, when I would speak with process pros or business stakeholders, they almost sounded frustrated, almost sounded like they had pitchforks in their hands. They're going to IT and saying 'we want more control.' We're starting to see more demand from business, instead of relying on IT."

I know this is not a flattering analogy, but I can't help being reminded of the situation of various despots currently facing civil unrest across the Middle East and North Africa. After being in control for so long, they have no mechanism in place for letting go of power, while the protestors have no robust structure that allows them to take over. The establishment can either choose to accuse the upstarts of being anarchists with no respect for process and attempt to ride out the storm. Or they can promise reform and a transfer of power.

Coming back to BPM, Gartner's vision does indeed promise change and empowerment for the dissatisfied populace of business users. But that doesn't solve the crisis of how you go about building out the infrastructure to allow for dynamic, distributed automation of business process innovation and improvement. Nor does it answer how the users are going to learn the skills they'll need to exercise those capabilities successfully. Enterprise BPM faces a social crisis, and although the revolution may have begun, we're far too early in the transition to say how the new power structures are going to play out.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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