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There’s nothing mysterious about the concept of collaborative BPM. Quite simply, the approach is based on enabling people to work together, often toward organizational transformation.

That wasn’t always the case. “It used to be that people in their ivory towers would come up with some new best practice and then impose it on the practitioners below, only to find out that it didn’t work because it had left out the customer requirements or something else,” says Jeff Wissink, a senior partner at Chicago-based consulting firm Navint Partners LLC. What makes collaborative BPM powerful now is the way it gets organizational buy-in, he says.

In fact, collaborative BPM is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that it is not an exotic undertaking and requires “mostly common sense,” says Nick Gall, a Gartner distinguished analyst. The bad news: To achieve success, you may need to keep a eye on scope and make sure—perhaps by using social tools—that your collaborative engagement is including enough of the right people and engaging them in a meaningful and productive way.

“One of the big challenges with collaborative BPM is building consensus,” says Forrester Senior Analyst Clay Richardson. He acknowledges that the collaborative approach is similar to the social one, but adds that collaboration’s goal is bringing together multiple voices, then driving toward a single outcome. “People have different points of view, and in collaborative, the point is empowering people to make decisions,” says Richardson.

He cites first-hand knowledge of one collaborative BPM project that ran into problems because some people assigned to participate lacked the necessary decision-making authority. “They would send people who [were available,] but not people who could actually make changes,” he recalls. “So they would have to go back and call the home office and ask whether they could change this or that and their manager would usually just say ‘no.’ So we would be back to where we started.”

Another necessary component for collaboration: Someone needs strong facilitation skills. “The person driving the conversation or collaboration has to be comfortable with the whole idea of evolutionary requirements or process changes evolving,” he says. That means understanding that consensus won’t always be unanimous. “In collaborative BPM, you sometimes have to say ‘90 percent agreement is good enough.’ You have to let it rest and let it evolve,” says Richardson.

Evaluation capability matters as well: “Those who succeed focus on [key performance indicators] and using process metrics to drive conversations,” says Richardson.

The right tools can also help with collaborative BPM, Richardson says. But he adds that, in general, those tools could stand some improvement. “We at Forrester are pushing the BPM suite vendors to provide better guardrails for BPM programs,” he says. “That means really embedding methodology into the tool, instead of forcing the client to engage professional services.” In fact, some vendors are starting to put those “guardrails” into their products.

Making collaborative BPM work requires achieving critical mass from either of two perspectives, says Nathaniel Palmer, executive director of the Workflow Management Coalition, an industry group. “Either it is so successful that it attracts participants, or it needs to tap into something that is already well adopted and widely used,” he says.

That’s why email is often the foundation for collaborative BPM (though a poor one, Palmer adds). “In either case, you need a compelling scenario where you can demonstrate that a successful collaboration can produce results,” he says. “Then you need to scale up. Until you have that proof it will never work on an enterprise basis.”

Relying on email is, at best, fall-back position, Palmer says: “You want to have some technology that will allow people to participate in a passive way.” Only a small percentage of participants may end up doing most of the work—but you still need ways to engage and involve the rest.

Gall, the Gartner analyst, agrees. “There is a strong trend toward getting team discussions out of email. It just gets lost in the inbox,” he says. A better alternative is what’s sometimes called “teamware,” he says: “There are tools and platforms for taking those interactions out of email and into productive, persistent and transparent environments, where everyone can see what has been discussed and choose how to participate.”

In terms of managing the human element, Palmer says it is vital to have someone to assist the process. But he emphasizes that the person filling that role should function as a facilitator, rather than as a dictator. “You will never achieve a situation where everyone is equal in the process, but you need someone to focus on democratizing it as much as possible,” he says.

BPM modeling tools can also be useful for understanding the impact of process changes before implementation, Wissink says. “They are like Visio on steroids in that you can draw a picture but also run sample transactions,” he says, referring to Microsoft’s diagramming tool.

However, of course, the ultimate goal isn’t complex flow charts or realistic models, but winning the hearts and minds of the participants in collaborative BPM—or any other form of collaboration. Says Wissink: “You need to be honest about the good and the bad and be prepared to include incentives, without becoming over-reliant on them. You need to show them how life can be better with a change.”

READER FEEDBACK: Has your organization successfully moved beyond email as a collaboration tool? What are you using instead of (or in addition to) email? ebizQ's editors would love to know. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Alan Earls, a journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business, is based in the Boston area.

More by Alan Earls, ebizQ Contributor



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