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Is Multi-Person Collaborative Editing of a BPMN Model Important?

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As collaboration was covered in yesterday's Forum, I thought it would be a good time to run Keith Swenson's question: Is multi-person collaborative editing of a BPMN model important? Or is it sufficient for one person to edit, while other review and comment?

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  • I think its important, but its also not terribly technically difficult. If you go to the trouble of enabling multi-person review/commenting, it isn't that much extra work to allow multi-person-editing.

    However, the hard part, is to allow multi-person editing with a true safety net underneath - meaning a *very* robust and transparent versioning mechanism (no one modeling should ever have to say the words "versioning system" if it works right), so that each change can be singled out and backed out if necessary, and it must be easy to identify who made those changes. Google Docs do a great job of showing how this should look for spreadsheets, for example. I think Lombardi does a good job of this with blueprint (with room for improvement in terms of what parts of BPMN you can use).

  • One more thought - my comment above about really needing transparent versioning to support truly good multi-person-editing is a great supporting point to the blog I wrote yesterday about the emerging primacy of *design* in BPM software: http://www.bp-3.com/blogs/2010/02/for-the-second-decade-of-bpm-design-matters/

    And in Jaisundar's response:

    The point being - multi-edit without versioning could look good. It could look fantastic in the UI. But the "design" of a product is more than skin deep - it is understanding the implications of the feature you are introducing it and taking it to as low a level as you need to, in order to make the user experience of multi-user-process-editing "just do the right thing". (and, even dating back to the 90's, Steve Jobs' disciples would often show you a bit of code, then show you how it was used, and say "and it just does the right thing" :)

  • If you are asking this question from a business requirements perspective, then I would say that enabling a multi-user collaborative environment from within a tool has little utilization, in my experience.

    This is because I generally work in groups where the business process modeler is sole-owner of the actual model and designing the processes.

    Now, that analyst / modeler will likely see high value in having a platform for virtual collaboration around ideas, requirements, brainstorming, etc.

    But as for the actual model itself? I don't really see it ...

  • Let's step back from the fervour being created by socio-collaborative process management right now. BPM has always been an involving discipline, parties coming together to understand how a process works. Whereas IT and vendors have been fickle partners in the past here we have a situation where the winds of change are making them an enabling friend.

    What I see as a new transition is the ability to collaborate simultaneously from wherever the user is, location is no longer an issue. There will always be a driver but they'll relinquish the reins as soon as they're done and someone else can take over, but it will happen there and then, the switch seamless, not clunky and formalised version control as Scott eludes to. Even ARISAlign allows this (see my pre-launch review http://bit.ly/cTIIUE) and recognises that user conflicts will occur (in an product sense, although I reckon user conflicts of another sort will ALWAYS occur when people come together LOL)

    I'm working on something at the moment, it takes the collaboration angle to a larger scale for workshop environments. Imagine a small group of people around a wall-sized interactive screen, modeling together, and with networked abilities, a similar group in another location watching it unfold and taking control to amend aspects on the fly....

    Multi-party editing is going to be a small piece in the overall collaboration puzzle soon.

  • The idea of simultaneously editing a model is such a compelling one, that even respected analysts are distinguishing products that include it. While attractive, this capability is not as useful as it seems.

    When Fujitsu launched i-Flow in 2000, it included a full graphical modeling tool, implemented as a Java applet that ran in a web browsers with zero install required. Multiple people could view the same model simultaneously, and each view was kept proactively up to date with any change made by anyone.

    In my experience with hundreds of customer cases, I never saw this capability being used for simultaneous editing of the model. It was not a technical limitation.

    The reason is clear if you think about it the difference between writing (drawing, or otherwise producing content) and brainstorming. Brainstorming is best done with "loose" connections. I have had some good experience with "mind map" style brainstorming sessions. Brainstorming collaboration on a model is very different than the modeling activity itself.

    A process model is never about loose connections. A process model is a strict formal representation of a process, and there is more to the process than simply the visual aspects. There are many assumptions and resolutions "built into" the model, which can not be expressed or exposed directly by the model itself. Modeling is still a specialist occupation.

    In this situation it is extremely unlikely that the model will have more than one author. Generally, there is a single author, and then multiple reviewers. Each reviewer returns comments to the author, but never directly edits the model, because it is impossible to know if those edits are consistent with previous agreements around the model. Instead, simply viewing the results of editing done by the owner is what is required to enable collaboration.

    The idea that you need multi-user editing of models is simply an attractive idea without real value.

  • An interesting twist in this multi-person scenario is when the BPMN is executable and round-tripping is applied. In that situation, changes made to the executable version of the process by the programmers is fed back into the original BPMN model. At that point who is in charge of finalizing the changes to the original model? The analysts who created the original model, or the programmers who fed back the executable changes?

  • If you broaden the diagramming from not just BPMN but other models that feed BPMN, you do see this collaboration more often.

    For example, blueprint has a process "mapping" view that is more like an outline view or a six-sigma style process map - no connections, just lists and nested lists. If your process map (useful for brainstorming) is connected to your BPMN diagram (more refinement, less brainstorming), you need multi-user-edits to "just work". I've seen it several times before in my use of blueprint, but granted, we're fairly advanced users!


  • I think a distinction needs to be made between collaborative editing and collaborative review. In several projects I've seen the benefit of collaborative capabilities in the design environment for reviewing purposes. This is particularly evident in geographically distributed teams, working across timezones etc. Simultaneous editing is - as others have said above - very rare, but realtime chat about a model, annotation of model elements and so on is very common, and in reviews I critical of systems that don't provide this functionality or don't have it on their roadmap. I think the SAP Gravity prototype (BPMN editor in Google Wave) is a good example to what extremes you can take this, but others (Signavio, Vitria, Blueprint etc.) are offering good examples of how you to make conversations about a process model persistent.

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