It’s now been over a decade since the BPM system was born. Of course, process modeling has been around for much longer in formats such as workflow diagrams. BPMN was created at just the right time to solve a specific problem that workflow diagramming could not solve. It’s the fact that workflow in the Internet era rarely involved paper processes with no automation, and often involved many people in a large organization. In other words, the process had to be centered around the organization, not just the sequence of work.
BPMN introduced the concepts of swimlanes and pools. While this was actually borrowed from UML and possibly other diagramming styles, it was the inclusion of just the right set of shapes to solve the problem of the era that made BPMN a smashing success. The evolution of BPMN 2.0 was a reflection of human-system interactions becoming more complex by 2008. Coincidentally, this is the same time period of the worldwide economic crisis.
Economic crisis tends to cause business leader to rethink their core strategies. There are two possible approaches. One is to cut cost by cutting the workforce, or making existing workers more efficient. The other strategy is to shift their core strategy to new opportunities that could be more lucrative. In the United States the economic crisis started in 2008. By 2009, us in the BPM business saw a lot of clients creating employee off-boarding processes. In other words, how to more efficiently fire people. In contrast, in 2004 the primary use case for BPM systems was employee on-boarding (how to hire people efficiently).
Out of the ashes of the economic crisis emerged several important technologies that changed the course of BPM and process modeling forever.
- The Apple iPad. Just at the time when the world was nearly standardized on HTML, along comes a new device that we all have to have, and by the way, doesn’t support Flash. Furthermore the lower resolution screen and smaller format requires websites to be totally redesigned. Processes have to be redesigned as well, because now the worker is even more mobile.
- 4G Wireless, and WiFi everywhere. Just at the time when the iPad is coming out, both land-based and cellular-based mobile Internet speeds surpassed that of typical DSL land lines from just a few years earlier.
- Social Media. Now one person has a voice that everyone in the world can hear in just a few milliseconds. In the past, by the time you took the time to write an angry note you probably would have cooled down a bit. But now you can share you anger and make it a permanent, negative mark on a company’s or persons’ reputation in just seconds.
- The Cloud. Infinite storage and computing power for a tiny fraction of the cost of just a few years earlier. Suddenly nobody wants to actually own software, or even rent it. It should all be free, right? Then if I want certain features I’ll subscribe for just a few dollars per month.
- Big Data. Now that we have 100’s of devices generating huge amounts of data on social networks and GPS streams tracking people’s whereabouts, where do you put it? In The Cloud, of course. Oh, and we should monitor it with nice charts, graphs and put a dashboard on it, right? Sounds like the old BPM BAM use case but let’s call it “Analytics” instead because it sounds sexier. 😉
When you add these things together, suddenly the use case for the BPM system (and much of the BPMN spec) doesn’t look as compelling as what it used to. The process patterns evolving from this new cloud and big data environment are far different than the HR and back-office processes that started BPM back in 2002. Those process patterns still exist. However, they are no longer the strategic focus of major corporations. There are three possible reasons I would like to point out:
- The focus has shifted towards new business opportunities, and not necessarily cutting cost or making workers more efficient. With the economy in recovery mode the focus will be on putting workers on new projects, which will probably use new software, that has many BPM concepts already built-in.
- Much of the value proposition for BPM systems has been absorbed into industry-vertical systems such as insurance, manufacturing, etc. In other words, most aspects of BPM software have become a commodity.
- We who live in the Cloud era now believe that business applications should be free or cheap, and I should be able to download an app in minutes. Who has time to build it? (I have so much social networking to catch up on)
This is not to say that BPM will die. But I am saying that BPM is no longer a strategic IT initiative as it was 5 years ago. At this point it is well known that less than 15% of all business processes can be automated via a BPM system. The other 85% is being filled by something else.
In theory you should still be able to model these processes, even though they are not on a BPM system. BPMN is supposed to enable you to do this, right? Well, I say not anymore. BPMN is still valid if it matches the use cases for what it was intended. However, there are new use cases emerging that BPMN cannot solve. One could argue that BPMN 3.0 might be a possible cure to the problem. But from my point of view, I disagree.
The problems we are facing in the era of 2013 – 2018 will be far more complex than what can be modeled in something like BPMN. The inclusion of business rules, logic and events will become standard practice in all process modeling. Otherwise, the only value you can capture in BPMN is the top level super-blocks and not show any sequence of things actually getting done. This is because a process is defined as “a pre-determined sequence of events”. If you cannot pre-determine the events, you don’t really have a process. And if you have all of your participants running around fully mobile and socializing directly and indirectly through hundreds of cloud applications, it’s pretty hard to pre-determine any process path. Instead, you have a bunch of micro-processes that somehow interact with each other in an intelligent way, yet are governed by a loose, semi-structured process. That doesn’t sound like what BPMN was designed to do. You could get really creative and build huge diagrams in BPMN that accurately depict social behavior, but good luck with that. Nobody will be able to read it because it’s far too complex.
So what’s the next innovation in process modeling? Stay tuned. In future posts I will begin to describe the problem space and the solution.