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IT Directions

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Would you like Social BPM for Christmas?

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In the last few years the IT industry has woken up to the need to provide proper support for knowledge work - i.e., to go beyond email and MS Office, and provide a means to define, execute and manage knowledge work processes.

Processes are supposedly the domain of BPM vendors, whose initial attempt to respond was by extending their tools to support "human-centric" processes - Forrester's 2007 term for BPM applications that allowed humans to fill in online forms and submit online approvals.  This barely scratches the surface of knowledge work, of course, which encompasses anywhere that humans innovate solutions, especially if the work crosses boundaries: research, product/service development, marketing, complex sales, complex issue resolution, merger/acquisition, organizational change generally, management generally, and the bulk of activity in entire sectors such as healthcare, policing, defense, social services, law, education, incident response, the creative industries, ...

In 2009, Forrester recognized this and updated their approach, borrowing from Human Interaction Management the term "human-driven processes" (with a new meaning of their own) to describe BPM vendors' latest vision for knowledge work:

A 2009 Forrester Wave report ("Dynamic Case Management - An Old Idea Catches New Fire") contends that demand for case-based or "people-driven" BPM products is an outgrowth of the service sector's adoption of many of the Lean and Six Sigma approaches long used in industry.

The result has been the gradual elimination of many tasks through automation, outsourcing or process improvements. Analyst Craig LeClair, who wrote the Forrest Wave report, uses an insurance industry claim as an example. "Scanning in claims documents and entering data into a claims system is where traditional [document-centric] BPM would coordinate activity among the submission, underwriting, policy creation, claims and customer service," LeClair says. BPM would also traditionally extract metadata from core processes and make it available to better serve customers across all lines, he notes.

What's left, increasingly, is "exception management" - handling the more complex tasks that can't be fit into a preformed solution. In other words: case management. "Today's knowledge workers have a greater variety of tasks to deal with and they aren't locked down in one place, like the production workers traditionally served by document-centric BPM," LeClair says. The tasks left over are more diverse and require a broader level of information support and even analytical support.

What the new processes look like might be "snippets of structured functionality" as well as social technology to get access to expertise.

"Document-centric BPM and the emergence of case management"

Rather bizarre that after all these years, analysts are still trotting out the traditional insurance claim example to illustrate the benefits of BPM.  That aside, however, what is really being said here?

In essence, "Social BPM" is defined by Forrester as flowcharts ("snippets of structured functionality") plus Facebook, Twitter, et al ("social technology").  Is this going to provide the IT infrastructure necessary to define, execute and - critically - manage collaborative human work?

To see the answer, remember that Social BPM is aimed at different users than human-centric BPM.  Human-centric BPM is for the low-level clerical staff who answer customer service calls, process expense claims, reconcile timesheets, and so on.  Social BPM is aimed at you, reader.  Would you like to use a flowchart-based system to do your daily work, with your only recourse when that doesn't meet your needs being Twitter?


If you're not careful, you just might get Social BPM for Christmas - and this is a gift that could change your working life.  Into something really scary.

To avoid such a debacle, you may need to take action - in particular, look into the alternative, and recommend it to decision-makers in your organization.  The alternative, of course, is the Human Interaction Management System (HIMS), which complements mainstream BPM with Web software that directly addresses the true needs of knowledge workers, by providing them with the means to work together in evolutionary, negotiated processes.  As Keith Swenson (Chairman, Workflow Management Coalition Technical Committee) recently wrote in his blog, true support for knowledge work is more like collaborative planning than it is like BPM:

Enterprise Social Software (ESS) or Social Business Software (SBS) is about using social techniques in the workplace.  Work is called work because you need to produce something.  For that you need collaboration, coordination, planning (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

    * collaboration - the act of working with another or others on a joint project
    * coordination - harmonious combination or interaction, as of functions or parts.
    * planning - to arrange a method or scheme beforehand for (any work, enterprise, or proceeding)

No surprise, to accomplish the above, you need to be able to represent and track goals.  You need to be able to talk about what you want to do, how this is broken down into finer detailed goals, and to track progress against those goals.  You want to be able to ask others to do things, which when accepted form goals for those other people.  This is the essence of planning, which is an important part of any work.

Of course I could "tweet" what my goals are, but that does not amount to an ability to represent goals and track completion.  The measure should be a native ability to express something that represent a goal to be accomplished, and it should record whether or not it is accomplished yet.

Social Has No Future (Yet)

In the comment discussion, Keith Swenson "completely agrees" that "a HIMS is the top layer of a new IT stack, in which the Intranet provides access to the enterprise backbone (including ACM and BPM systems) via HIMS Plans", and goes on to describe HumanEdj (the reference implementation of a HIMS, available free) as follows:

"HumanEdj has a very powerful and flexible representation of goals, tasks, and tracking of such. It is very much the prototype of what I would like to see in all systems."
Would you rather attempt to do your work via flowcharts and Twitter, or via flexible, collaborative plans defined, executed and managed in a Web browser?

If the latter, visit rolemodellers.com and try it for yourself.  HumanEdj is not for software developers (like BPM), or for clerical staff (like human-centric BPM) - rather, it is for you.  Merry Christmas!

1 Comment

Good analysis of "social BPM" which really wouldn't anybody want for free without the buzzword marketing. Strangely enough that there is so little support for the adaptive & constantly negotiated tasks, activities & goals of knowledge workers who form the backbone of innovation in highly developed economies...but then again, designing for innovation is something that's eluding most of the vendors who only try to jump the analyst-driven bandwagons.

Keith Harrison-Broninski cuts through the hype in his hands-on guide to where enterprise IT is really going

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a researcher, writer, keynote speaker, software architect and consultant working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds.


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