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Chances are that you’ve heard something about both social BPM and collaborative BPM. And chances are equally good that you’re wondering about the difference between the two approaches.

You’re not alone. They’re often mentioned in the same breath and do share some similarities, so it can be challenging for business and IT professionals to assess which is best for their BPM efforts—especially when one of them (typically social) may be viewed as a rising trend.

The truth, expert say, is that both approaches are on the same spectrum and both have roles to play. Deciding which to pursue depends on your organization’s capabilities and its BPM goals.

The roots of current interest in the approaches date back to the 1990s, when groupware was often viewed as the solution for what ailed organizations, says Nathaniel Palmer, executive director of the Workflow Management Coalition, an industry organization.

Today, in Gartner Inc.’s view, the social/collaborative divide in BPM is part of a larger phenomenon, says Nick Gall, a Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst. “We talk about social media as a technology platform that is separate from the style of engagement,” he says. “We further distinguish between community and mass collaboration.”

When the end state, or the path to the end, isn’t obvious, a social approach can help. As an example, Gall cites a Gartner study of Cemex, a giant Mexican concrete producer. “They had a mandate to implement green technologies and alternatives fuels,” he explains. “By using a social process, they were able to identify and engage outliers who had already begun to pioneer these steps and were able to then help foster change in the wider organization.”

For Forrester Research Senior Analyst Clay Richardson, the difference between social and collaborative boils down to a matter of scale: “When you look at social BPM and collaborative BPM, both allow you to bring more voices into the conversation compared to traditional BPM,” he says. In his view, “old-school BPM” involved a few people getting together with senior management and deciding which processes needed to be changed. Typically, the resulting decisions got pushed down into the organization.

That approach often failed because nobody consulted the people who were actually doing the work, Richardson says. As a result, employees tended to return doing things the same way they’d always done them. Both the social and collaborative approaches address that problem because both allow for bringing work participants online and into the conversation.

Richardson further characterizes collaborative BPM as typically involving a group of people small enough to fit in a single room. Members of these groups tend to be those actually managing the processes—often also known as subject-matter experts. In such arrangements, “you might have collaborative tools that let you do collaborative discovery so you can project things on a whiteboard and people can do modeling and provide feedback,” he says.

Social BPM, in Richardson’s view, occurs when you bring in all the voices. It’s about the network. It’s about being able to open up a dialog so everyone in the organization can see everything and provide feedback. “It makes the assumption that the knowledge and innovation is in the business and that you want to get everyone engaged,” he says. And because of the tools, everyone can be engaged. Even people who might miss specific meetings can see what’s being changed or suggested and post comments in the style of a Facebook feed.

Palmer sees a similar division. In most organizations today, collaborative BPM can be viewed as involving groups large enough to fill a conference room, while social BPM might extend to dozens or hundreds of participants. At the far end of that scale, social BPM can potentially engage more internal and external stakeholders in even larger numbers.

In practice, however, social BPM is having some trouble getting off the ground because there’s currently no widely accepted corporate equivalent of Facebook, Palmer says. He adds that attempts at creating corporate social media have usually faltered, often garnering participation levels below 20 percent—too low to achieve meaningful BPM results. “The only really universal tool is email, but that doesn’t provide the right kind of engagement,” he says.

Andrew Schrage, a former hedge-fund analyst with a focus on BPM, has a more optimistic view of social BPM. “The only disadvantage that I see [to social BPM] is that, to date, the concept is not fully understood and therefore, many business owners are hesitant to get on board to even try the concept,” says Schrage, who more recently co-founded and oversees the Money Crashers personal-finance website. For many companies, he says, using a combination of the social and collaborative approaches could well boost both efficiency and productivity.

READER FEEDBACK: Are you using social BPM? Collaborative BPM? Both? Neither? ebizQ’s editors hope to learn more about just how widely used the approaches are—and just how well they’re working in practice. Please let us 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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