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Has BPM Evolved To a Point Where Only Incremental Improvements Can Be Made?

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From a discussion on LinkedIn, has BPM evolved to a point where only incremental improvements can be made? Does innovation need to be re-introduced to process design?

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  • BPM is a long way from achieving its original goal, of allowing business people to analyze, design, deploy and continuously improve software solutions to common business problems. The next big step is wrestling the technology out of BPM, so that real people, rather than incredibly intelligent software developers, can put 'good-enough' processes in place, quickly.

    Every form of software currently lumped together with BPM, such as analytics, simulation, complex event processing, SOA, etc, etc, really misses the point in the 80% of business cases where there is no current process and IT does not have the time to focus on implementing one.

    Oh, now add CRM to the BPM mix (smart combination anyway, in my opinion), and things get more interesting from a platform standpoint, and incredibly complex from an implementation standpoint. BPM still has a long way to travel, with some monster steps rather than incremental improvements along the way.

    Phil Ayres

  • Absolutely not !

    What's happening here is the approach taken for the improvement, in these cases more often than not Six Sigma and Lean which fail to take into account the larger picture at work. They are too focused on making those smaller incremental steps towards a to-be goal but they are not good methods for those 'step back' moments that are needed when wanting to make radical changes and they are too slow a methodology to achieve this (I've seen this in practice recently)

    A good analogy is using an electron microscope to look at the Empire State Building when a helicopter is what you really need.

    Is the question really of injecting innovation back into BPM or re-examining what BPM is trying to achieve, which has always been about bigger wins AS WELL AS the smaller quick hits ?

    In terms of innovation, one of the comments in the LinkedIn discussion talked of 'shock to move forward'. Personally I see the evolution in BPM coming in the form of the Enterprise 2.0 and Social-Collaborative angles but what is needed is a vanguard of professionals, analysts and vendors to lead this charge in a consistent manner and not concentrate solely on the technology alone. I've written a few times about how the collaborative enterprise can blow away the cobwebs of organisational status quo, once again showing that BPM is about Business AND IT together.

  • Radical innovation comes with risk, and the question is: Do you have the appetite for it? For conservative organizations, incremental but continuous improvement can help maintain competitiveness, but it does not allow them to leapfrog the competition.

    Innovation happens at the fringes - when you shift the boundary between "your" part of the process and the customer, enabling customers or suppliers to control parts of the interaction that you had to manage for them in the past. Empowering workers to make decisions that had been centralized, providing information to those who need it (including data that is contextual to the current case), mixing case work and structured processes are all things from Hammer and Champy's BPR playbook.

    BPM (as in automating processes) is really about introducing discipline in the organization and elimination or drastically reducing non-value-added tasks (such as transport, routing, simple decisions). The LinkedIn discussion centered on as-is analysis - if you look at the current state, does that bias your solution space? I'm in the "do the as-is analysis" camp - only if you know what you have you can be sure that you're building something better. The trick is not to overanalyze it to the nth degree. And to keep asking "Why are we doing things this way?"

    I teach a course on Large-Scale Integration at Stevens Institute of Technology, and our students use creativity techniques such as Systematic Doubt to generate a portfolio of design alternatives for a given problem. The hardest part for them is to come up with truly alternative solutions - very often people run with the first thought that comes to mind, and when asked to provide alternatives they think about different ways to implement the first solution, as opposed to finding fundamentally different solutions.

    For example, if the problem statement is "travel from New York to Boston" people might come up with alternatives such as "fly, drive, take the train, walk (for those who like Bill Bryson)". But to come up with true alternatives you have to ask "why do you want to go to Boston?" If the answer is "to visit a client" the possible solutions might be (in addition to the ones above) "use videoconferencing, invite the client to New York, meet in the middle" and so on.

    So, in summary, BPM is not the problem, it's the lack of creativity on the part of those who use it.

  • I feel the answer is a strong no. However, for many platforms out there the answer is probably a strong yes. As Theo stated in his comment, we need to sometimes step back to move forward. I am a strong believer in BPM being used for the big picture, things such as lean dont really focus on the bigger picture for an organisation...I feel that BPM needs to step back a little before it can again move forward.

    Intelligent business maps is one way to get bigger wins, however I feel that BPM will radically change once more and more businesses embrace it within LOB applications. By having LOB applications that have internal rules and processing built around BPM we really do start to see the bigger gains and BPM delivering more and more. The issue is, many LOB applications are integrated with - rather being a part of....

  • I'll be the contrarian and say yes. The radical move is the move to BPM and to using a BPMS for automating business processes. If you are waiting for there to be some big new innovation before you adopt this approach, stop waiting. Yes there will be incremental improvements both to the approach and to the systems that support them, but nothing that is so fundamental that you need to wait for it before you decide to take advantage of the benefits of BPM.

  • If you means BPMS (the BPM suites) then I too would say yes. If you means BPM as a business discipline supported by various tools - then the answer is no.

    BPMS' requires rigorous models that describe the process - this means two things
    1. Only very technical people can use the tooling
    2. The process must be structured, and change is difficult

    Many (and I would claim most) processes in today;s knowledge worker environment aren't like that, I think we will see a new type of BPM technology (not BPMS) that will start addressing these issues - sort of BPM for real world knowledge work. Adaptive (or Dynamic) Case Management (ACM) is addressing those issues and seems to be getting a lot of interest. I think ACM will generate a lot of innovation around BPM for unstructured, ad-hoc processes.

  • I'm interpreting this in two ways:

    - Is it no longer possible to have the big leap improvements like the ones made popular by TQM, JIT, BPR...? And if yes, is it due to the way BPM has evolved or to the point it has reached?

    - Has the BPM technology/Discipline/Approach reached a point that it cannot make a big leap? Is incremental (not disruptive) innovation the only way forward?

    Answer to both is No.

    Process Improvement that can be done incrementally on shorter (and faster) spurts have been primarily enabled by BPM. The way the business has always been run it was always desirable to be able to make changes efficiently and not with huge costs and effort. Business Agility has always been valued. In the pre-BPM era the overheads associated were much higher, so a larger goal had to be often targeted to offset some of those big fixed and overhead costs to do with change. With BPM, came that ability to make incremental improvments, and businesses latched on to it.

    But that's not to say that the big leap improvements are not possible with BPM. I have seen big initiatives involving major turnaround in the processes - enabled at core by BPM. But those are rarely advertised and sold as huge initiatives - with the prying eyes everywhere in these Q-to-Q era. The larger goals are broken down into incremental improvement initiatives and we should be thankful for BPM to enable that. But, it doesn't mean that we cannot have big leap improvments with BPM (in past, at present, or in future), it's just that those might not be advertised as such.

    Second part regarding BPM itself is relatively easier to refute. We are at a point of time which is most conducive in recent few years for big leap innovation in BPM (as technology as well as discipline). Actually, I feel that major part of the last few years since the first few burst in BPM, technology vendors as well as approaches did not have major innovations. Variety of reasons: milking the initial investments, consolidating their positions, experimenting with caution due to lack of maturity, and as mundane as just sitting as acquisitions targets...!

    We're now in a time when a lot of those reasons are slowly making their way out. Consolidations are happening, and may continue but majority of the potential ones are out of the way. Positioning of BPM related technologies have gotten more stable in Enterprise Architecture. And one of the major aspect being that the converging lines are getting clearer (see my post http://wp.me/pN8i1-30). We see many supporting and converging factors (Emergence of Web 2.0, Collaboration, Social Networking, Unified Communication, CEP, Cloud Computing, advances in analytics) that will almost force such innovation upon BPM ecosystem.

    I'm sure such leaps are still possible, and actually will happen. And if Incremental Improvement is so much loved by business stakeholders, it's not because BPM cannot do otherwise, they just like it that way!

    - Ashish

  • I think that BPM (discipline + tools + your enterprise system) is an enabler for evolving the business at the business pace. In a properly architected BPM system, it is easy and cheap to introduce small improvements; also the risk of big changes can be mitigated by some simulation.

    I saw projects in which BPM was “eclipsing� a production system and I saw projects in which BPM is the core of a production system. The general conclusion is that the business and the IT (and sometimes a BPM vendor!) do not know yet how to use all power of BPM.


  • First, no i don't think we're at the point of incremental change in the BPM market. I'm not interested in further fragmenting that by excluding case management from the rest of BPM - I think the spirit of the question was clearly pointed at BPM and not a specific notion of what software constitutes BPM.

    Second, I'll point out that often an "incremental" change can have unexpectedly large consequences. Take as a case in point HTMl. The small change of adding some linking mark-up to documents so that you could get from one research paper to another among high energy physicists had wide ranging impacts over time... But I don't think there was any one change to HTML that I wouldn't call incremental, including its original creation, which was an incremental change to how people maintained bibliographies and references.

    Some very small changes in BPM will likely make it much more accessible and meaningful to a wider audience. The question is, which changes :)

  • I think the answer is it depends, there are certainly many best in class organizations that have fundamentally changed their functions, processes and activities to be more in line with the business.

    That said, I believe the majority of companies have not made the sacrifices necessary to change be it for cultural, regional or political reasons. The issue I believe falls on the office of the CFO, their mandate is to improve top line (sales) or bottom line (efficiency,) my experience shows that they operate in silos. Many analyze functional process costs against peer group and then work to improve one functional process at a time i.e. IT or Finance.

    In order for real process improvement to take place a holistic view of the interoperability of the functions is in order. Working on one-offs and then introducing and integrating the "streamlined process" into old habits may not induce the desired results.

    I like Andrew's idea of intelligent business maps, that's what we had in mind when we developed our SG&A taxonomy.
    I believe we can look at content gaps and lag time to find the processes and activities that are the culprits for functional inefficiency across the enterprise, then we can make the necessary changes from there.

    Seamus Walsh

  • No time to read all of the above - but here is my response to the point. It all comes down to the vision - if it is incremental in nature, only seeking small improvements, then that is all you will get. If on the other hand, you start from a different position, one where the you have a clear transformational goal - then you will get a different result.

    So the goal should be starting with the outcomes that your customer really cares about - not necessarily the existing mess that you think of as your "Business Processes".

    If you ask your business colleagues whether their processes are fit for purpose, they will often say that they are. On the other hand, if you ask them "how the (customer) outcomes your firm produces compare with those of competitors, and whether they could do with improvement?" ... then you will get an entirely different answer.

    So it is a question of vision - do you have one that takes the business beyond where it is today. Are you looking to transform the experience your customer gets, or are you looking for "better sameness".

    In the end, how you get the ongoing improvement becomes incremental - you need to iterate toward that goal. So it's not "either/or", it's "both/and".

  • BPM initiatives are about disruptive innovation and incremental implementation. They provide strategic vision and radical design, and create momentum for changing the organization's structure, culture and management system. But when turning the radical design into action, BPM initiatives must take incremental steps, to allow the organization to absorb the radical change.

  • Absolutely not.

    All of the comments, both pro and con, you have received are right on target, but the fact of the matter is that we have only begun to process of realizing the potential of BPM. The sad truth is that much like other major innovations, we are only using a small percentage of its capabilities. Real implementation, which requires close alignment between business strategy, operations and IT, is a long way (how long?) off.

  • user-pic

    Modelling services, with process work flow inherent, leading to automatic generation of operational software ; all independent of technology and proprietorial interest, but capable of melding with anything written with other systems such as BPMS.

  • There are two elements to this question, both of which warrant further analysis. The first presumption is that BPM has evolved, meaning that we as an industry have been able to continuously improve it in the past. That being said, were past improvements exponential or incremental? In transitioning BPM from a back-end process to something so granular, so easily applicable by its guardian - the business user - have we reached the perfect version of what BPM can be? Absolutely not. Sure, most of us would argue that we've made progress, but to say that only "incremental" improvements are possible from now on is to admit that we're not creative enough to do better than we've already done. That's a dangerous attitude, one that undermines the possibility that ten years from now, BPM will play an entirely different role in the enterprise, that there is still more success to be had.

    The second problematic element of the question is the idea of improvement itself being "incremental." That judgment is purely normative. Whichever direction in which we're capable of taking BPM - completely within the cloud or perhaps integrated with predictive analytics, for instance - is the direction that we'll associate with greater weight. Who is to determine if the future of BPM progresses incrementally or in leaps and bounds? We're not in a position to make that call, only our customers are.

  • Hmm, innovate BPM? Use BPM to innovate IT? BPM as an innovative form of managing the business?

    The basic premise of the discussion seems to be that there is already something there that could be improved on. Is there really?

    Start with the easy one, BPMS. Innovative? No, it's a commodity that readily available.
    BPM, well, some (though few) have come to understand the value of processes and like most things of value actively take care of them vs. simply administrating their existence.

    Process modelling? Ok, some tools provide the functionality to decipt ones own view of a process. Does that provide for any form of innovation? Vendors of course will say yes, but I have yet to see one example of how modelling capability and BPEL and BPMN and the like have led to better processes, improved process performance etc.

    Management of process operations? That's probably the one area in which real potential for improvement lies, though vendors and consultants have done their best to hide that area behind the promise of agility.

    Design? Certainly. Better design in the sense of creating a process that not only works but actually delivers is something we'd all like. Will it change the processes we currently run and operate? Not as much as one would think, but it would reduce all those failed process initiatives that start off with the grand idea, get watered down over time and through technical constraints and finally end up as just another one of 'those'projects employees have learned to ignore.

    Sorry for the rant, but failure to align processes to customer expectations and failure to manage them after spending vast sums on projects has very little to do with BPMS, BPEL, BPMN and the like.

    In a nutshell:
    * process automation is no replacement for management;
    * BPM is an intellectual challenge, not a technical one;
    * Companies spend on average 40% of their operating costs on their core processes, so what excuse could there possibly be not to manage them and to make the most of that year-in year-out investment? Any process woth having is a process worth managing (albeit with different methods, styles and possibly tools)

    Just my 2 cents worth

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