The Rise of Social Business Process Management

Having been successful in addressing the needs of structured work, the process community is turning its focus on managing the social components of work.

By Jacob Ukelson, Chief Technology Officer, ActionBase

Work is (and has always been) a social activity: people interacting with other people, collaborating, negotiating, and conversing. Work is also made up of processes, an established (but flexible) set of procedures to convert inputs to outputs. These two descriptions of work seem at odds with each other. What is the connection between the social activity we call work and the processes that make up work?

Social business process management (BPM) and adaptive case management (ACM) are the business process community’s attempt to reconcile these two views. Before social BPM and ACM, most process technologies focused on supporting work comprised of routine, structured procedures and played down the roles of the humans involved, focusing on the automated part of the process. At best, the people involved were considered part of the process, but only as secondary agents. Now, as the process community has been successful in addressing the needs of structured work, the emphasis is starting to focus on managing the social components of work.

This new focus on knowledge work should come as no surprise; you really can’t do any interesting end-to-end business process without involving people. Even if you are doing straight-through processing (the minority of actual business processes), there are always some humans at the endpoints and usually quite a few humans in the middle. Also, most analysts are coming to the conclusion that about 75 percent of all work process are of the social kind, processes that emerge as the result of interactions between knowledge workers.

In fact, McKinsey & Company declared knowledge worker productivity as one of the five key global trends that will define the next era. Combine that with the fact that technology-based collaboration and project management (two key components in managing knowledge work) received the greatest share of venture capital investment in Q3 2010, and you have a pretty convincing argument that process management for unstructured, ad hoc processes is going to be the next big thing in process management tools.

The term social BPM has taken on two separate meanings. Scott Francis has written about this in his blog, Process for the People. The first meaning refers to a way to enable (and encourage) collaboration during the building of a process model. To support this, BPMS vendors have started to add social technologies to their platforms for the modeling community. This is useful, but only for the small segment of knowledge work associated with modeling processes.

The second meaning of social BPM is much more interesting and includes a wider range of knowledge work and workers. It acknowledges that most business tasks are people processes and that BPM enables the management of unstructured, unpredictable people processes. Managing people-intensive processes for knowledge workers is different than managing structured processes. The tools for managing knowledge worker processes must provide sufficient control to manage the work, but not so much as to strangle it. For knowledge workers, control is usually achieved through visibility, monitoring, and tracking, not through rigid definition and automated control of the procedures and process steps. If you try to dictate to knowledge workers exactly how to do their jobs, they will balk and you will lower productivity rather than raise it.

Adaptive case management (ACM) is a promising new approach to the second type of social BPM. It is an approach that assumes participants in the process should be in control of the flow, that discussions and conversations are an important part of the process, and that a process should provide participants with best practices and guidelines that they can choose to follow. It provides a framework to manage the hand-offs agreement between participants, assumes that documents of various types are central to the process, and provides a system of engagement or a repository of the process and the documents related to it. Documents are kept related to their process context, i.e., a record of which document instances are related to which process instances.

The goal of ACM is to provide a tool for knowledge workers that either augments or replaces e-mail and documents as the de-facto standards for executing knowledge work. Replacing e-mail won’t be easy; any number of contenders have tried and failed (such as Google Wave, Google’s failed attempt at the next generation of e-mail). Any tool that replaces e-mail will need to provide the same benefits to knowledge work:

  • Ease of use: E-mail processes require no developers, just participants. It is a well-known rule of thumb that people consider things they know easy to use, which puts e-mail high on the ease-of-use scale, even though it may not be the best tool for managing processes.
  • Boundary-less and participant control: E-mail is ubiquitous and flexible. Anyone can start a process immediately and can get almost anyone else involved (at least anyone with an e-mail address).
  • Process implementation speed and agility: Participants can get started immediately with no development or IT involvement needed.
  • Low cost: Everyone already has e-mail, and usually there is no incremental extra cost for using it more.
  • No vendor lock-in.

These benefits are just the ante to get in the game. To actually solve the problems with e-mail, ACM will need to add process capabilities missing in e-mail:

  • A process warehouse, system of record, or system of engagement: These are ten-dollar words for a way to capture knowledge worker process as they emerge or to model by doing, instead of doing by model.
  • An audit trail of the process, and visibility into the process as it executes (managed through access control mechanisms).
  • A mechanism for learning-enabled process guidelines: Not just “how it should be done,” but “how other people actually do it around here.”

Social BPM and ACM are just starting to form, but we will see a surge in interest during 2011. Early adoption will come from two directions. The first includes companies that implemented process management tools and have become successful in managing their structured, routine processes through BPM tools and methodologies. Those companies will want to extend their process management capabilities to include management of unstructured knowledge work. The second adoption pattern will be from companies that couldn’t use standard process management tools because their processes were too unpredictable and unstructured, and they want to start a process management initiative.

When shopping for a social BPM or ACM tool, opt for simplicity rather than complexity; make sure you are providing a tool that your knowledge workers will embrace, not one that they avoid. It needs to be lightweight (so they use it every day) and under their control (so they don’t need to involve IT every time they want to enhance or change a process), and provide value to them, not just to the organization. Otherwise, workers will just revert back to good, old e-mail.

Jacob Ukelson is chief technology officer of ActionBase, a company that provides human process management and action tracking solutions that enable organizations to manage business-critical processes. You can contact the author at