The Evolution of Unified BPM

How BPM suites have evolved and how you can take control of BPM initiatives and apply them to your mission-critical projects.

By Manoj Das

The explosion of social and collaboration tools is fundamentally changing the nature of work, and this is particularly the case for knowledge workers. This is shaping the expectations customers have for their process management solutions and has heightened and broadened the need for process management to bring some order into the chaos. What enterprises need to be effective in this environment today is a comprehensive process management solution that can bring together people, documents, business data, and business policies in a social and collaborative fashion in both structured processes as well as more dynamic case-processing applications.

This article will look at the evolution of BPM tools and the areas IT departments should consider when evaluating the unification capabilities of a BPM solution. It will examine the shifting scope of BPM projects, answer questions about unified BPM solutions, and explain how unified BPM solutions can be effectively used in the enterprise.

In the last few years, the business process management (BPM) market has undergone rapid consolidation. Generally, this has been great news for customers because it has led to more comprehensive and unified BPM suites that address more of the end-to-end process needs - in particular, spanning people, systems, and business rules and policies. This march toward complete and unified suites is still an evolving story, and leaders in this space are rapidly unifying structured and unstructured data, as well as rich process analytics, into their BPM suites.

This evolution, combined with technology's increasing maturity, has resulted in BPM initiatives going mainstream within organizations. They are moving from the realm of "process black belts" and efficiency zealots to a much broader community of business analysts and business stakeholders. For a majority of IT departments, it is no longer a question of whether to allow business control over the process life cycle but how best to do so; which methodologies would facilitate this; and which governance processes would be needed.

Another sign of this maturity is in the kinds of projects for which BPM is being used. Increasingly, customers are looking at BPM as an agile technology for process improvement and workflow projects as well as a core enabling platform for application extension and application development.

Further, in recent years, social technologies have undergone a rapid transformation driven by the convergence of three factors: faster and cheaper infrastructures, new business models (including cloud computing), and ubiquitous delivery channels. Management of business processes is a collaborative and knowledge intensive discipline and is a natural target for application of social technologies. The convergence of social technologies with business process management, called social BPM holds the potential to dramatically simplify and enhance process discovery and management as well as improve the process of collaboration itself.

In this article, we trace the evolution of the BPM market and technology along these dimensions and highlight how this evolution presents new opportunities for IT departments and their business counterparts, and how to leverage the opportunities presented.

From Workflow to Unified BPM

The early 1980s saw growth in workflow products for human-facing processes, such as the approval flow for a large purchase order. Integration between enterprise applications and these workflow processes had to be custom-built, so they were typically expensive and inflexible. Even then, these workflow products had a very significant impact. In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman identified workflow as the number three driver for the new flat world by enabling a "crude foundation of a whole new global platform for collaboration."

During the same period, enterprise application integration (EAI) products emerged to improve system-to-system communications so that the data in one system could automatically appear in another without the need for a human to re-type it. Although there was some cross pollination of features and functions between the two, the two sets of products continued to evolve independently. Even as recently as 2007, leading industry analysts were segmenting the business process management market into human-centric, system-centric, and document-centric. Pure-play BPM vendors—those who had evolved from the workflow heritage—addressed the human-centric space, middleware and integration vendors addressed the system-centric market, and content management vendors addressed the document-centric market.

This fragmentation was sub-optimal for customers who found that as process initiatives mature they rarely fit within the bounds of one of the silos. Therefore, in many cases, the initial selection was an inhibitor in a broader rollout of the project. Also, this meant that most customers had three or four products with stakeholders vested in each, bringing in unnecessary people and political considerations into decision-making. The result was that BPM was primarily limited to departmental deployments. A BEA market maturity survey completed by nearly 1,200 business and IT professionals throughout 2007 showed that just 18 percent of companies were currently deploying enterprise-wide BPM.

Fortunately for customers, this situation rapidly transformed. In 2008, Oracle acquired BEA, and later IBM acquired Lombardi. There was other consolidation in this market, too. This consolidation moved the discussion of BPM's business appeal overlaid on a robust enterprise grade SOA platform from the realm of a theoretical architecture to real product offerings. This offered customers three primary benefits:

  • The ability to integrate their processes with any application or system it needed to integrate with, using standards-based robust and secure integration technologies

  • The assurance that the process would scale to any performance and volume requirements and that the technology could be used for mission-critical processes

  • Enterprise-grade management, administration, and monitoring tools

Prior to this unification, BPM and business rules engine were different product categories. BPM has an inherent need for business rules and most pure-play BPM vendors addressed this with scripting, usually putting a business-friendly veneer on top. Another benefit of this unification was the coming together of BPM and business rules—with the leading vendors providing integration at run time and a completely unified experience spanning modeling, execution, and management.

The Changing Role of Business

From the beginning, workflow and BPM vendors were rightly focused on the business user experience. They designed the modeling experience to be business user friendly and dazzled the business user with features such as simulation (the ability to do "what if" analysis on process models). However, there were three fundamental issues that plagued the BPM tools from this perspective:

  • The separation of modeling capabilities into two distinct segments: (1) commonly known as business process analysis tools, targeted at high-level process modeling but confined to process Six Sigma and black belts; and (2) tools targeted at operational (or executable) process models.

  • The lack of well-defined semantics for the executable process models. Most tools would heavily rely on scripting under a business-appealing picture model. This severely constrained business' participation.

  • The lack of business analysts with the necessary skill set.

Fortunately, in January 2011, the Object Management Group (OMG) published the Business Process Modeling Notation 2.0 (BPMN 2.0) standard. Although BPMN 1.1 had been in existence for some time and was quite well accepted, BPMN 2.0 was ground breaking. In addition to providing a standardized save format, BPMN 2.0 specified the exact semantics of the different notations. No longer was scripting needed to make the process executable, and leading vendors could execute the process as modeled. This enabled businesses to specify the model and to own it throughout its life cycle with the assurance that it would not be translated or generated into something else. This made it truly possible for businesses to take the driver's seat, and leading organizations are designing their methodologies and governance processes to enable this -- leveraging business targeted, Web-based tooling from vendors.

BPMN 2.0 also addresses the skills issue. Today, many books and training courses are available on BPMN 2.0. Skills are generally transferable across different vendors' implementations. Among other things, this increases the ROI for individuals to become skilled and we can expect to see BPMN 2.0 incorporated into the curriculum at educational institutions.

Business user empowerment is an ongoing area of investment for most vendors and among other things, we can expect to see:

  • Continued simplification of the modeling experience. We can expect vendors to provide simpler visualizations of the BPMN models while preserving the standard semantics.

  • Continued blurring of the lines between BPA and BPM tools. We can expect BPM tools to incorporate the more commonly used notations from BPA tools, such as value chain diagrams and capabilities modeling. Business users will not only be able to specify the process model but also the entire context around it and be able to explain the model in the context of organizational strategies.

Enabling Knowledge Work

Historically, the BPM market has also been fragmented between structured and unstructured processes, as well as between processes that deal with structured and unstructured data. These boundaries are also being rapidly obliterated. Leading vendors have started providing integration with content management products to deal with unstructured data. The more unified BPM suites may even include content management as a component. More important, BPM vendors are adding more capabilities for dealing with unstructured and ad hoc processes, particularly processes driven by the knowledge that the process participants bring to bear. This evolution is commonly being branded as adaptive case management.

Unleashing the Power of Collaboration

As we mentioned, BPM is an intrinsically collaborative endeavor. Any development is collaborative. However, in the case of BPM, collaboration becomes even more important because there are multiple stakeholders involved: business owners, business analysts, and developers. Most leading BPM vendors provide collaboration technologies that enable the process modeling stakeholders to better share, discuss, track, and stay informed about process requirements, feedback, and changes.

Social technologies have an equally important impact during the process execution.

Business users are doing more from their mobile devices and increasingly expect applications tailored to their mobile environment. Accessing a general-purpose application within the mobile browser is not sufficient. Although vendors will provide such mobile applications tailored to mobile use cases, organizations will want to develop custom mobile applications to meet their specific requirements. Therefore, we should expect vendors to provide REST interfaces and other frameworks needed to easily build custom mobile applications.

Summary

In this article, we outlined the evolution of unified and complete BPM suites and how this evolution enables:

  • BPM to be applied to enterprise-grade mission-critical projects
  • Business to take control of the BPM initiatives
  • Application of BPM to high-value, knowledge worker-driven processes

These trends also have a secondary impact. Leading IT organizations are beginning to apply BPM technologies beyond traditional BPM projects to application extension and application building projects. This is driven by the desire to keep extensions outside of applications and to leverage the agility and business visibility that is enabled by standards-based business friendly BPM tools. This is a strategy that Gartner advocates and calls "pace-layered application strategy".

Finally, as an indicator of the maturity of offerings in this space, we can expect BPM vendors to increasingly provide process accelerators that will deliver time-to-value with starting point processes, component libraries, frameworks, and packaged best practices.

Manoj Das is senior director of product management at Oracle, responsible for Oracle's BPM suite of products. He plays a leadership role setting BPM and SOA industry standards, especially in BPMN 2.0, BPEL, and business rules. He has held senior product management, development management, and product development positions at Oracle, Siebel, Mentor Graphics, and others. Manoj has a BS in Computer Science from IIT Kanpur and MBA from UC Berkeley. You can contact the author at manoj.das@oracle.com.
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