Why Work-Shy? BPM Is All About Work. That's How To Define It And How To Sell It.

You'd expect the BPM-savvy practitioners and evangelists such as found on LinkedIn's "BP Group" to be able to easily come up with a good definition of BPM   .  A specific and actionable definition.  You'd be wrong.

In a BP Group forum discussion entitled "Can Anyone Make One Sentence Describing BPM", most of the answers were generic and non-actionable and often sounded like mission statements -- the kind of feel-good mission statements that are ridiculed by cynical business writers -- or worse the statements were self-referential ("BPM is about improving your processes").  In fairness. participants shared many worthwhile insights.  It's just that the there was a general and disappointing failure to answer the question in a useful way.

Let's look at what would be a good top-level definition of business process management -- and then why a good definition is important.

On the forum, Kenneth Beard came the closest to a good description of BPM with his "scientific management of work activity to enable informed decision-making", although I would make the case that final phrase in this definition is outside the scope of a definition of BPM.

Your host proposed the that BPM can be simply defined as "the modelling and management of repetitive work", which is certainly not original, but this concise definition emphasizes a fundamental concept, specifically the centrality of the question of work to the definition of BPM.

This definition is built starting with the idea that "BPM is a management discipline covering certain kinds of work."  Process is about work, and in terms of being a subset of the domain of work, process is specifically about repetitive, repeatable work. As to how BPM and software technology is related to that work, BPM technology is first of all about modelling that repeatable work reality.  BPM models of reality are used in support of the construction of technological artifacts, which in turn assist in the execution of that work. (ACM or adaptive case management is a new, closely related and very interesting way of looking at the same thing.  And going even further, the developing technology of ontological engineering, which is suitable as a foundation for advanced BPM/ACM modelling of work, is now reaching maturity and over the next few years is likely to find its way into commercial and open source products )

Seeing as we could use a complete set of definitions, it's also worth defining work: "Work is purposive activity".  "Purposive" captures both means and the ends, which is to a "kind of activity" which for "desired results". And the desired result or objective is the change in state of some system or object. Notice that a change in state could be a change from "non-existence" to existence, thus formally defining the manufacture of a new object or the creation of a new system.  Also "who" or "what" is performing the work is left implicit; it could be human or machine.  Also implicit is that any activity must be supported by inputs.

So why is a good definition of BPM important?  Is a list of BPM-related definitions"practical or relevant"?

If you want to be successful in selling and executing more BPM projects, the answer is yes.  It is your host's belief that the slow rate of adoption of BPM technologies stem in part from a lack of common agreement between technologists and business executives on exactly what BPM is all about. You can't sell technology and best practices if the whole domain is only fuzzily defined.

So, all this said, here is a candidate definition of BPM in one sentence: "the modelling and management of repetitive work". Or how about "the ability to capture in software a vision of reality you can use to drive the work of your business!", which is the same thing in more "salesly" language.

Work, work, work! That's the kind of focus that gets the attention of senior executives!

Can you imagine the following dialogue between a BPM champion and a CEO? 

CEO: "So, why BPM?"

BPM Champion: "Let's look at how we can execute better.  And ramp up new business models faster."

CEO: "Sounds great, but it's a little generic don't you think.  Like work faster or work smarter?"

BPM Champion: "BPM is all about work.  Really it's the first technology that's really all about work.  So, maybe it's not a cliche."

CEO: "Well, we can have all the strategies and theories and financing and incentives and processes and HR and manufacturing and whatever we want, but ultimately, at that final moment where it counts -- we hand the whole thing off to a black box, a black box of employee work."

BPM Champion:  "And then we pray."

CEO: "And pay... I'd rather someone get down in the weeds and take control."

BPM Champion:  "OK then, let's look at what BPM can do for us. I'm looking at a pilot project already."

By the way, this analysis of work and work-management technology is the same analysis that's been offered for a 100 years by OR (Operations Research), except that until the last generation, OR never had the ability to go beyond paper forms.  The fact that OR, especially as defined by Taylorism, has many flaws, does not obviate the objective.

BPM does not describe all work. And BPM/ACM software is only beginning to be useful. So evangelism is nice, "but slowly". Another great comment in the BP Group was offered by Keith Swenson, to wit "it is not the scholars who are frustrated, but the students."

The road to BPM will take time and will require the development of a culture and the tools associated with making theory practical.  Already we see enough success to know that the journey will be worth it.  But as we start on this journey, let's really know what BPM is and why it can be so powerful.  BPM provides the tools for the job.  How you use those tools to "be excellent" or to "achieve higher levels of customer alignment" is up to you.

  Version 1.4 January 2014

Terminology Note

In casual discussion, the many of BPM-associated terms are almost synonymous.  However in the definition proposed here, the terms are distinct.  Here are some of the key terms; the terms are reasonably compatible with systems theory.

  1. Object: A thing in some space, of interest to readers of these definitions.  Objects may be at rest in a space, or moving, and may have various possible states.
  2. Activity: The movement in some space of an object, governed by the laws of motion in that space, including laws of interaction with other objects.  An activity consumes energy and/or other inputs, according to the laws of that space.  A key aspect of activity where interactions with other objects, entities or systems are concerned, is that those things will change state, accordingn to the rules of the space.  In business, an example of an activity would be the act of typing on a keyboard.  No purpose for this activity is defined.  The result of typing may be the specification and storage of a character of the alphabet.  Activity may be considered "atomic", i.e. the basic building block of the system described here.  ("Activity" is not exactly the same as "task".)
  3. Flow:  A compound activity. How one activity is connected to another, in multiiple dimensions of activity space.  Activity connections can typically be physical or informational.
  4. Actor: An entity in a system capable of forming intention and directing activity in pursuit of that intention.  Actors can be human, machine or virtual (i.e. an organization).
  5. Work:  A flow specified and executed with intention, by an actor.  The result of work is the desired creation or state change in objects.  Outputs are objectives; the desired goal is the defined change in state. 
  6. Model:  An abstraction of some domain system.
  7. Pattern:  A standard model, possibly industry- or association-specified or in a library.  Possibly specified at the task, flow, work or process level.  Patterns can be categorized as "fixed" (i.e. STP or "straight-through process") or containing specified conditional branches.
  8. Project Plan:  A model of a desired system state and a model of the work required to achieve that state.  
  9. Project: Single instance of the management of work; defined from two points of view, the set of activities, organized as a flow, which comprise the work, and the result.
  10. Process Model:  Same as a project plan, although with the additional semantics and tools that make it repeatable.  A process model does not imply technology or software; a process model or process plan can be done on paper.  An example of this can be found in the mostly now defunct the traditional paper forms business.
  11. Process: Management of repeated work projects, according to a pattern.  As such a project is just a specialized case of process and visa versa, distinguished by repetition.
  12. Project or Process Planning: Any kind of work will include varying degrees of known and unknown future steps.  A key challenge of management is to cost-effectively minimize these unknowns, uncertainties and any resulting risk.  Software technology can assist in modeling process or project work for the purpose of predicting results.
  13. Objectives: Outputs of work projects or processes.
  14. Goals: Desired system states.
  15. Organization: A group of humans organized for the purpose of achieving objectives; characterized by task specialization, which by definition are executed repeatedly. 
  16. Business: An organization with the purpose of creating profits.
  17. Business Process:  The name given to the repeatedly executed, specialized tasks, which are a defining characteristic of business operations.
  18. Business Process Automation:  The application of technology as a force multiplier for organzational actors, enabling faster, less expensive task execution.  Automation until the 1970's included such things as punch card sorters, specialized accounting devices, and type-writers.
  19. Business Process Management System: A specific software product that enables business process modeling and the controlled execution of process instances.  A specific BPMS will be limited by the mathematics and technology which supports the modeling/executable relationship.
  20. Business Process Management:  The art and science of organizing repeated work projects, according to a pattern.

Draft Version 0.0 -- Note: How does "CASE" fit into the above model?  How does a "business case for BPM" fit into the above model?

Supply Chain Insight: Processes Define Organizational Work

From ebizQ

"A process is a way that a company gets work done. Processes define what an organization does," explains Joel Wisner, professor of supply chain management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

John Jeston On Lego, BPM And Work

John Jeston of Management By Process (January 2013, in a BPTrends column) has a very nice analysis of BPM as a technology supporting various work patterns.

What do BPM and Lego have in common?

BPM Is THE Technology Concerning The Work Of Business

Since the original posting last year, your host has pushed the definition further.  Consider this positioning of business process technology:

Business process technology is the technology which is directly and explicitly concerned with the "work of business".

And considering that "the work of business" is business, that makes business process technology centrally important.  

Getting domain and definition correct for technology sales is not trivial or triviality.  The slow pace of BPM technology adoption is very signficantly about a failure to sell.  But you may ask "a failure to sell 'what'?"  And that gets to the the sales and marketing challenge for any technology.  A focus on bits and bytes and interfaces ensures that the technology is seen as a cost, not a solution.  The phrase "if you are not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" comes to mind.  In other words, selling BPM technology requires making the business case.  And the business case, always domain-specific, will be about work.

IBM Redbook BPM Definition of "Process as Work"

The following definition of process is found in an IBM Redbook entitled "Scaling BPM Adoption".

"A process describes a sequence or flow of activities in an organization with the objective of carrying out work." (Emphasis added.)