Breakthrough Process Design

August 3, 2009

We find ourselves presented with situations where our clients are looking for “Breakthrough Performance” rather than mere “Process Improvement”. In her guest post on Jim Sinur’s blog, Elise Olding points out that many rush headlong into implementation looking for an elusive Magic Bullet (there aren’t any, but you could describe BPM initiatives as a Golden Gun). She quickly alluded to the need for a number of techniques including “Process Walkthroughs” (following the work item), through Sticky Notes or PostIt Sessions, down to and including sitting with the users and observing what they do.

While all these techniques are useful and interesting, they don’t go far enough to deliver the breakthrough improvements that customers seek. In business today, generally what is needed is not “Better Sameness” but “Transformation”. But existing processes usually focus on the needs of the company – delivering stronger management control, and reinforcing functional priorities.  

However, we believe that the best practice to deliver breakthroughs is quite different from any of these approaches. We start from a different place – the “Customer Experience” – a stance that is all about building competitive advantage. 

Process breakthroughs come from thinking about everything we do in terms of how what we do can assist in delivering a Great Customer Experience. This dynamic lens is dramatically different from the traditional process improvement approach. It has the effect of inspiring completely different insights and generating new ways of doing things (rather than paving the cow paths). Once you are standing in the shoes of the customer, you no longer see the functional bias that reinforces existing behaviors.

In the early 90s the CEO of Sony pointed out that, every manufacturer had all the parts needed for a Sony Walkman sitting on their shelves – but only Sony asked the customer what they wanted. As a result, they transformed the way we listen to music (even if they did miss the disruptive innovation of hard disk based players).

In the end, we believe that you have to build a “Transformational Vision” around what the customer values – be it an internal customer, supplier customer, partner customer or end consumer. So we will continue to use the “Customer Experience” lens as the best route to achieving breakthroughs in process performance.


Cases Managed The World Over

June 21, 2009

A recent spate of interest in Case Management is good to see (I always called it Case Handling but the concepts are the same). The OMG is about to vote on an RFP (Request for Proposal for a new standard) on Case Management. As some of my regular readers will realize, I have a special interest in the subject of Case Management.

Some of us have been talking about the problems of dealing with Cases for a number of years (e.g. this post in 2007). My own experience started with the development of what would today be called Case Management systems starting in the mid-80s and culminating in an Oracle-based object oriented repository in the early 90s – way too clever by half for that era so I canned it in 1992 and became an Analyst looking at other peoples products, writing white papers, etc. Since then I put together a number of white papers specifically talking about the issues of Case Management:

  • In 1996 a paper called “The Business Case for Case Handling” and although the vendors I referenced at the time have since disappeared (bought out), the issues are just as relevant today.
  • Over the last few years, I published a couple of papers that start to explore some of the related issues (these papers are available on BPM Focus with registration). In particular, these two papers address many of core concepts of Case Management.
    • “Process Innovation and Corporate Agility – Balancing Efficiency and Adaptability in a Knowledge-Centric World”
    • “Business Processes and Customers – Difficult Domains to Integrate”

So with this post, I am having my own stab at defining the issue. I have been invited several times by those in the OMG to take part in this particular enquiry, but hesitate to get involved as these things can act as an enormous time sink. So first let me point you at some other perspectives. In recent months, we have seen several bloggers discussing some of these ideas (touching on the need for adaptability and agility):

  • Jim Sinur of Gartner talks of “… Agile processes that are tapped into emerging events and contexts driven by organizational and community goals … the need for creating and managing unstructured processes. This kind of environment requires organizations and vendors to master goal driven processes.” In another post he said “Today most processes are Flow directed, but the future will likely require goal direction for at least a portion of the process. This is what we call unstructured processes that are composed of process snippets that are flow directed and portions that are completely dynamic. A combo looks to be the way forward.” See here, here and here.
  • Neeli Basanth Kumar (of Cordys) talks of Process Patterns in Adopting Case Based Solutions (he even uses one of my diagrams from a 97 paper – The Workware Evaluation Framework … where I tried to highlight the role of Case Management).
  • A discussion paper put out by Dennis Byron at ebizQ provides a sort of summary of some of the thinking of the vendors that replied to his request for information (originally it contained references to my thoughts and some of my graphics but that content was pulled after I pointed out the provenance). 
  • Bruce Silver commented on the RFP discussion going on at the OMG and postulated what he sees as the difference between “traditional BPM” and “Case Management”.

For me, it all comes back to the continuum of Process. On the one hand, we have the image of the organization as machine, with mechanistic “Procedures” used to control the work of the resources available. Most BPM initiatives are still stuck at this level, seeking to automate things and remove (human) resources from the equation. If Productivity = Value / Resources, this reductionist approach is all about reducing the resources involved in the deliver of a given value.

At the other end of the spectrum, we could consider processes as more like evolving “Practices.”  Think of what you do personally and see if this concept makes sense – some parts of what you do are defined in Standard Operating Procedures, other parts you interpret and apply your judgment. The more leeway you have to make decisions (in your job), the more knowledge you exercise in carrying out your job. Most knowledge workers are goal oriented, regarding procedures as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Managers tend to be goal oriented.

We could think of high level processes as being about a “Purpose” – and how that Purpose is interpreted will inevitably be somewhere on that spectrum Procedure and Practice. Indeed, one finds that most business problems need a combination of both – hence the approach that has become know as Case Management. Now we’ve got this concept established, from a process perspective you could think of Case Management as applying to the Practices end of the spectrum. Workers here are goal oriented, and typically apply processes to achieve those goals.

Case Management is a very important “Design Pattern” for supporting flexible work Practices instead of more rigorous Procedures (where no adaptability or run time flexibility is needed). Different products take vastly different approaches to Case Management, all with the aim of providing flexibility and adaptability to the user, yet still providing support for the organizational objectives (processing more work, more efficiently and providing traceability).

Case Management proffers a way of mixing overarching support for that Purpose – normally through a high-level, outline procedure, which is then supported by a library of process fragments that can be bound into the parent as determined by the user. In some cases, the user has complete control of what should happen next; in others, the ability to progress from one phase of that high-level outline to the next is constrained in some way. Some products leave it very loosey goosey, others are all about constraining the user. Depending on how strong the need for adaptability is (in the target domain) the user may even have the ability to develop new process fragments to support a given need (imagine a Software Engineering project … it’s not always possible to predict every possible permutation). In others (say a Bank for example), it might be good enough to have the user select from a library of available sub-processes to bind to the parent. Indeed, in a Bank or Insurance company, it is unlikely that the run time adaptability would be allowed (the last thing you need is a clerk getting creative with a bank draft).

With careful architectural design, it is possible to create a Case Management environment out of many different BPMS products. But that implies that the end-user organization already have a clear idea of how such environments are constructed. In a sense, they create an application layer above the BPM Suite. 

My concern with the OMG RFP is that it is trying to standardize something that is poorly understood (as evidenced by the varying perspectives given in the OMG BMI mailing list). 

While the rest of this document goes on to outline my own views on Case Management, I believe that developing a standard in this area at this point would only result in hampering innovation. Having said that – there is a definite need for much more discussion and exploration of the domain of Case Management.

I believe that the approach proffered by Cordys represents just one way of approaching Case Management. There are others, and I do not believe that tying everyone down to one interpretation of Case Management at this point will be a good thing in the industry. Other vendors with Case Management approaches include:

  • Singularity
  • Cordys
  • Global 360
  • Sword (was Graham Technology)
  • Itensil
  • TIBCO
  • EMC Documentum
  • IBM (FileNet)
  • BizAgi
  • Pallas Athena
  • Pega
  • Polymita
  • HandySoft

All these vendors have some sort of capability that could be described as Case Management (and I am sure there are plenty of others that would put themselves on the list).

Finally those in the Process technology world are starting to see that a pure “one sized fits all approach” to the standardization of process definitions is entirely inappropriate when it comes to the needs of humans and knowledge workers. Moreover, Case Management approaches provide all sorts of benefits to companies in that they enable a far more flexible response to the needs of customers.

As different vendors struggle to work out the best approach, the last thing they need is to be tied down to a “standard” approach. In the end, it will be the Darwinian process of selection that will see the best products win out; not some imagined need for standardization and interoperation between wholly different approaches to the problem. 

Notes

Most BPM efforts could be characterized by their incessant focus on process standardization. They are predicated on the assumption that overall business effectiveness improves through better control. And while this is true for procedural, back-office problems, the reality is that customer facing and knowledge work processes are extremely difficult to standardize (if not impossible).

This is a real problem for long term BPM adoption. Ask yourself how many organizations you know in the BPM arena that have more than 5 or 10 processes “under management” (i.e. using a BPM Suite to ensure that things don’t fall through the cracks). And then think about how many spreadsheet are used in those same organizations to coordinate work.

In the paper “Customers and Business Processes – Difficult Domains to Integrate” I suggested that there were several different types of Case Management (Case Handling). These range from the traditional BPM Suite (which struggles to support the necessary adaptability), through what I called “Design Time Case Handling” on to “Run Time Case Handling”.

Case Management and BPM

Case Management and BPM

The vast majority of BPM Suites and Workflow tools assume that all activities/tasks/steps (and the potential paths through them), are modeled a priori (beforehand). Putting that another way, they focus on driving work between employees based on a model that maintains the status of a work item. The process model must exist up front, which presents the first hurdle of process discovery—i.e. ensuring those models are “correct.”

Further, in most products, all work of a given type share a common process description (rather than copying the model to support each work item). In such situations, the engine will normally allow the end-user little or no choice but to follow the pre-defined procedure.

Of course, the challenge is then for process modelers to predict all possible permutations in advance—something that is virtually impossible to achieve in customer facing situations. To get around show stopping scenarios, a few products incorporate features that provide the ability to bypass, redo, and rollback steps, while most rely on re-assignment of work to the supervisor (who must then step outside the system to resolve the problem). It does not take long before the supervisor becomes the bottleneck as cases mount up (those that do not follow the “happy path”).

Change is only possible through re-development of the common process model. New items of work then follow the modified process description (most products incorporate some form of version control). Change to an individual work item normally requires the deletion of all threads of work and the work item is then recreated under the new model (compromising any future audit). Alternatively, mechanisms must are needed to move an existing case to the new model.

These adaptability issues are not constrained to customer facing scenarios. For example, as government regulations change, the firm needs to revamp its process models to handle that change. There might be thousands of cases in the system, the vast majority of which will complete before the new regulations come into force. But imagine that there are still 100 cases outstanding at the point the new regulation comes into effect. For most products, it would simply be impossible for them to handle this problem in any sort of constructive fashion. Each of those work items would have to be manually stopped, and then restarted (somehow) under the new process definition that met the new government regulations. The only viable way of approaching the problem is to incorporate mechanisms to migrate individual instances to the new model.

For Case Handling support, the key differentiating factor (of the BPM Suite) is the ability to link multiple processes to a given case of work—the primacy is with the case of work, rather than the processes that are used to support it. Each case is usually “managed” by a relatively loose (high-level) parent procedure, but the worker can then add new procedural fragments to handle each different requirement of the work in hand. Effectively, the user is binding new procedural fragments to the case at run time; either by selecting them from a library, or by developing new ones.

Of course, this sort of approach is reliant on a BPMS that can facilitate such modifications to work in flight. For most products, it will also require great care in the design of the process architecture itself, and may involve the development of an external application.

(Some of these thoughts have been culled from my past White Papers on the subject of Case Handling)


Process Portfolio Analysis Webinar – in 2 hours

February 3, 2009

I have been ignoring the blog while I have been trying to get the book finished. What a struggle – somewhat akin to passing yourself and all your works through the eye of a needle. But it is getting there.

Anyway, I shoudl have posted here the details of the upcoming webinar we are staging with the Value Chain Group.

Managing The Roadmap – Process Portfolio Analysis

Register here


BPM – Is it a Software Engineering Tool? A Technology? or a Management Discipline?

November 30, 2008

In his excellent posting, Keith Swenson makesmany good points. He points to the range of interpretations of BPM, and particularly highlights the issues associated with its interpretation by software engineers as just another piece of hype on the road to good programs. But I think there is another, perhaps more important strand that is buried in there. As Ketih points out, BPM is about the Management of Business Processes.

As we all know, everyone’s interpretation of the term Business Process is different. In my training (whether that be BPMN, or higher level training on BPM Methods), it is one of the first things I get people to write down (inside the first 5 mins), and not surprise, every definition is entirely different. And when those people are senior managers in a ciompany, their interpretation of the term is invariably what I call “Process as Purpose“. The point is that they see Processes as being more about the purpose than the constraint implied by sequencing of steps. They are there (at the training), because they see the importance of “Managing” their processes. Indeed that concept (Managing Business Processes) as central to the success of their companies.

[[ I am still down in Brazil, and I am really struck by the process sophistication of the people I am meeting. They all get it. I was more than surprised to find two “Business Owners” (people who own significant businesses), giving up 3 days of their time to come on a course around how to structure and run BPM programs. They were cherry picking from the broad range of techniques we covered, but ask yourself whether you could imagine the CEO or COO deciding that they should attend a public training course. That’s what I am getting at about the sophistication of the Brazilian business climate. ]]

Coming back to Keith’s post, he describes a spectrum of BPM interpretation – from pure Software Engineering (where the SW Eng tries to reflect the needs of the business person’s Business Process); through Business Processes being modeled by a business person, then tossed over the fence to a Software Engineer to finish them off; to the Business Process as modeled by the business person, then being directly executed (what he called “Pure BPM”). I am not quite sure I agree with the Pure BPM bit, but I do know what he is pointing to … where the processes of the firm are driven by models (without translation to some intermediate executable format (like say BPEL).

One of the comments on Keith’s post points to the challenges of getting business people to model their own processes and make the resulting collection of stuff useful. He described the usually resulting mess as an “expensive disaster”. And the reason for this is that business people dont usually have the sophistication to understand their business problem as a set of inter-releated processes that between them deliver on the “Process as Purpose” concept I referred to earlier.

Invariably, process modelers (whether IT or business) tend to see a process problem as a single process. They interpret the high level Purpose as a single implementation process (which invariably it is not). They make all sorts of mistakes such as mixing up the “Handle an Instance” with the “Manage the Flow of instances”; they switch from batch mode to handling a single instance; they dont think about the interfaces between processes (handing information from one to another), etc. What they do is try and connect up everything that sounds like an Activity into one convoluted process.

Now software engineers are usually more adept at the necessary abstract thinking, but that doesn’t mean to say that business people cannot wrap their pretty heads around the notions. It is merely a reflection of the fact that they have not had adequate training. What is missing (across this entire industry) is better learning around “Process Architecture” – what “chunks” do you need and why. Poor chunking leads to unnecessary complexity (and even “expensive disasters”).

We are still stuck with decomposition as the prevailing mind set – where sub-processes are always contained within the parent. SOA concepts seek to get around this, but there is also a higher level “Business Services Oriented Architecture”. Processes should not be regarded as some sort of static hierarchy, they are more accurately regarded as a network of interacting instances. Think more jigsaw puzzle than org chart.

When I gave a “Power Breakfast” at the last Gartner BPM Summit on BPM and Process Architecture I had a packed room (it was starting at 7:30 in the morning so these people were keen). I described a set of methods that you could use to go from “What Business Are You In” to what “Processes Do You Need” right down to the SOA components if that is what you wanted to do (I would recommend looking at a BPM Suite first rather than going straight to the SOA software engineers paradise). I only saw one person out of the 90 or so get up and leave, and nearly everyone else gave me their card at the end of it. The room really was comprised of mostly Enterprise Architecture folks from the IT community, all of whom struggle with this transition.

Switching tacks – the vendors BPM Suites are unconciously making this architecture problem worse. With only a few exceptions (Pega, Itensil, BizAgi … I am sure there are others in this category too, these are the ones that spring to mind), vendors interpret the business process problem as being entirely seperate from the data and artifacts associated with the process (business people see them as intertwined). They regard the process relevant data as a set of named value pairs … the information required by Process A is declared on Process A, and must be recreated on Process B and then mapped from one to the other (if the processes need to communicate with each other). That means that there is an extra (unnecessary) layer of complexity for business people trying to reflect their business problem. Moreover, if you change one process, then you need to refactor all the interfaces. This is “software engineering” oriented thinking.

The other approach is to define your data structures (perhaps as an “Entity” defined as an exstensible set of XML artifacts) and then describe the views on those artifacts at the level of the data structure. Then it is merely a matter of associating your processes with the Data Entity, and all the different views become available. Process interfaces become an order of magnitude more accessible (to the business user), you can use any number of processes to support a single case of work, and again it helps move away from the software engineering mindset we find in so many BPM tools (which were often created to solve the problem of Enterprise Applicatin Integration … hence their association with Software Engineering).


Gartner BPM Summit Report

September 14, 2008

Well the book (BPMN Modeling and Reference Guide) is out, and we sold out at the Gartner BPM Sumit last week (we launched the book there). People would come up, thumb through it, think about it perhaps but then buy a copy. Several of them came back an hour or so later and bought more copies … with phrases like “this is actually designed for people to read …”, “the rest of my team need to read this …” and “I must get my boss a copy of this.” And then some of the vendors popped their heads above the parapet – one of the larger names in this space is now talking about buying 2000 copies (one for each member of staff I guess), and two others walked off with half a dozen copies for their colleagues. So all up, we were pretty pleased.

My “BPM and Modeling” track session was well attended (a couple of hundred delegates), and only 3 people fell asleep. Of course, it was directly after lunch, and modeling is not exactly the most rivetting of topics, although I did try to make it as interactive as possible (given the situation). I reiterated a central tenet of my approach to process modeling – in the early stages of a BPM initiative it is important to contrast modeling approaches to drive understanding (rather than slavishly following just one technique such as BPMN). The key point is that you need to be able to change your perspective … to see things differently if you want to really understand the process. Of course, when it comes to implementing a process using on a BPM Suite, then you need to resort to BPMN to get clarity into the execution model.

On Friday morning, I filled the (relatively small) room at the “BPM and Process Architecture” power breakfast, which was always going to be a difficult task given that the night before was the vendor parties (free booze). Anyway, several people complemented on an interesting session afterward. I had tried to communicate the set of methods we use to move from thinking about Strategy to through to implementation. This session included an overview of techniques to support the clarification and definition of:

  • What business are you really in, and what business services you need to support that vision.
  • From that, what is an effective Process Architecture -i.e. what processes do you need to support those business services and how do they communicate with each other, etc. (referencing the RIVA Process Architecture method).
  • And from there, how do you get to the SOA-based IT Services that are needed to support those business processes (i.e. how they are implemented). What service interfaces are required for each component, etc.

The problem is that, when it comes to process architecture there are very few reliable approaches … certainly functional decomposition falls down a hole here. Most rely on what I call the “black art” approach. They make the mistake of linking Process Architecture to the current mechanisms for apportioning blame (the organizational chat) – i.e. the Process Architecture should be independent of the organizational structure. If you change the way the departments and business units are structured, this shouldn’t force a refactoring of the processes.

I ended the session with a short overview of Case Handling approaches … an area that I feel is poorly understood (especially by vendors who have little incentive to change the status quo). Case Handling is really a design pattern enabling a balance between control and adaptation (efficiency and flexibility), where users are left in control, yet the organization can still provide support for the vagaries of customer interaction (see “Customers and Business Processes – Difficult Domains to Integrate” on page 2 of the papers available on the BPM Focus web site for more detail there).

I attended a few other sessions, but found new insights a bit few and far between (for me that is, too educated I guess). I only caught the last third of the opening keynote (I was told I didnt miss much earlier), and found myself taking notes (as much as anything on the language used and the phraseology for concepts). I sat through an entire session on Customer Interaction and BPM (which I felt missed the mark entirely … but still managed to salvage a few points here and there). I enjoyed Dan Roam’s session (keynote on day 2) on modeling on the back of a napkin (using simple rich pictures to communicate). I felt that the session on BPM and SaaS (Michelle Cantara) didn’t go far enough (stopping well short of talking about the implications of the cloud on the way work will happen in the future). But there were other sessions on that (competed with my modeling session), so no doubt they got more into that aspect then.

The Vendor Showroom floor was the usual zoo – with people wandering on and off stands or generally ignoring the vendors while they consumed their deserts or coffee. This format just doesnt work for either the vendors or the delegates who want information on what the products really do. Contrast that with the BPM Technology Showcase we are running on October 14-16 in DC. The last one of those in Nashville was a roaring success as people got up close and personal with what the technology can really do for you.

Otherwise, I seemed to be either signing books or getting button-holed by folks in the hallway.


Busy Busy Busy … Books On The Way

July 31, 2008

Another litany of excuses. Anyone who has looked at this blog over the last year or so will see the very poor track record I have established in terms of keeping it up to date. The reason – just not enough hours in the day. But that is probably true of all bloggers, but I wonder how many of them have been pushing the development of two books, along side a full schedule of training and consulting activities. Right now I am supposed to be outside on holiday with my family, but instead I am deep into the last push to finalize the content for the forthcoming BPMN Modeling and Reference Guide.

This has been a mamoth effort over the last few months involving detailed collaboration with Stephen White, the main author of the BPMN specification. We have done our best to make it as readable and accessible as possible, separating out the detailed reference section from a piece about modeling in general (everything from history of BPMN, why/how to model, etc).

There is also an extended scenario based introduction to BPMN functionality, bringing in new BPMN functionality in the context of an easily understood business problem. Throughout the section, the business scenario is elaborated upon and the corresponding models and BPMN functionality explained. Through our training courses, we have found that people learn far better this way.

Of course, there is a detailed explanation of all BPMN functionality. And for most, who are actively involved in modeling, this reference material is sorely needed. For the layman, the specification is somewhat hard to follow (and that is being kind). In the book, we explore each area of functionality and provide a detailed explanation for its use, and behavior.

The BPMN Modeling and Reference Guide will be launched at the Gartner BPM Summit in Washington DC.I am doing a session on BPM and Modeling and another on Developing Appropriate Process Architecures. Neither of these sessions are designed for beginners (although the modeling session should be pretty acessible.

Incidentally, I notice that I am the only non-Gartner BPM Analyst/Comentator presenting at the conference this time around – seems that the same old, same old’s have finally been found out ;-).

Book 2

My other book, that has been in devleopment for the last 5 years or so is in the later stages of finalization. Mastering BPM has been an evolving piece that will probably hit the presses in a similar time frame. I still have a chapter to write, but it is just about there.

Of course, all of this book development work takes cycles out of the day and impacts the ability to execute on other things. Anyway … I hope to get into a more regular pattern of blog postings and updates by the end of next month.


BPM and Knowledge Work – Looking for Proof of Concept Partners

June 24, 2008

I am looking to prove that Business Process Management technology can really change team productivity, especially for teams that span diverse organizations. We will choose a half a dozen knowledge-centric organizations, and then build out a proof of concept or initial application for each of them that they can then take forward, deriving long term value and changing the rules of competition in their industry.

This will appeal to organizations in the following situations:

  • A consulting group looking to package and deliver their expertise via a robust, service-based model that creates a leave-behind environment and an extended client engagement.
  • Start-ups developing a knowledge-based product offering, seeking a comprehensive Proof of Concept to close the first round of customers.
  • Corporate teams focused on Project delivery or Product Launch, needing to capture their project/product artifacts and support evolving business practices.

A Short History

Business Process Management has been taking great strides—moving from the highly structured transactional procedures into the realms of ever more human-centric, evolving and adapting processes. Instead of limiting processes to the confines of IT (as the BPEL guys are trying to do), some vendors have been exploring providing better support for the roughly repeatable business practices—rather than always following a standard pattern, processes unfold and many fragments of process might come together to support an evolving business scenario.

But achieving a balance between the explicit world of processes with an effective collaboration and knowledge capture environment is no easy feat either. And all the while, ensuring the user interface is accessible to the average goal-focused knowledge worker.

Now, I believe I have found such an environment, one that can enable efficiency and effectiveness in knowledge work – all delivered as a service online (i.e., no hardware or software charges).

What You’ll Get

The organizations I select will receive a ready to deploy (internally or for resale), process-based web application. You will need to have your own IP (method) and some of the supporting documentation. I will personally lead the development, working with your organization to really capture and make explicit the processes and areas for evolution. I will build out the initial data structures and a set of processes that support a reasonable application. This should take just a few weeks (30 days at most) and it will include a full year of hosted service with a generous number of seats—and all of this for what you would pay for typical BPM product evaluation.

In the short term, please respond to me directly (miers at bpmfocus.org). Tell me a little bit about your company and what you are looking to achieve and we can start a dialogue as to whether you fit into my research initiative. Following up our work, I will expect to develop a set of short case studies, so please be prepared for a bit of blatant promotion of your concept going afterward.


Itensil Dynamic Process Platform

April 15, 2008

Clearly I have been quiet for some time – busy organizing conferences and events and also spending more and more time exploring the world of Software as a Service (SaaS) as it applies to BPM. Some are talking about this conjunction as really a Platform as a Service (PaaS). Over the last 6 months or so I have been playing in the SaaS-BPM space – initially developing the process modeling training material for Appian, and more recently experimenting with a relative newcomer – Itensil.

A while back, I talked quite a bit about the Appian experience – a powerful application building environment that is now delivered On Demand. However, in common with virtually all BPM Suites, it suffered from an overdose of complexity – its just not really accessible to the common person.

Over recent months, I have been experimenting with Itensil as a vehicle to deliver both on demand BPM Training, and also to provide a robust collaboration support environment for BPM Projects. I have also used it to support the preparation of the two major events I have been involved in putting on – the BPM Technology Showcase and BPM Lisbon 2008. I think you would agree, this is not your run of the mill problem that we find in use around BPM, yet sharing many characteristics with difficult problems found in many businesses. With this series of postings I will explore what I have found out about Itensil.

Introduction

If you are reading this, then you are probably already fairly knowledgeable about Business Process and will understand that I have spent most of the last 20 years focusing almost exclusively in that domain. Initially this was developing a product called Office Engine (I killed that off in 1992 – was not a good time to have the greatest thing since sliced bread), and since then I’ve been crawling all over, and teasing apart just about every major product out there concerned with Business Process – my main interest is in using business processes to drive the way that work happens.

Now if you are like me, you are probably more than just a little frustrated with the rigid and inflexible nature of most workflow systems. What I am getting at is the lack of adaptability inherent in most workflow and BPM systems – you are stuck with whatever process was described at the time it was built. Now while that might be a good thing for a big insurance company or bank wanting to make sure that a clerk doesn’t get creative with a bank draft, it is a cumbersome problem for the rest of us. It smacks of control for controls own sake. Even for the smallest change, you have to refer your application back to at least a business analyst (or worse, the IT department) and then wait for them to get around to understanding what you want, before they reflect that in the next rev that is rolled out some time in the future. Not much use to you as you try to deal with some unique customer situation that has just emerged in the middle of your major bid process; or the customer who says to the architect – I know we are halfway through building this hotel, but can I have a swimming pool on the 10th floor (the point being that the architect cannot throw away all the work to date and start with a new version of the process).

I am referring to a class of processes and applications that most Workflow/BPM Suites just can’t get anywhere near – collaborative knowledge worker processes, where individuals continually interpret the case in hand and make decisions accordingly. I have already mentioned architecture and bid management, but the examples here are endless – from emergency response management, to how an advertising agency operates, through to consultancy, medical investigations (indeed all sorts of investigations and research) … right through to what you do.

Adaptability is also an issue if you are building out applications – it’s just that now you have to blend adaptability and collaboration with more rigorous procedures – all of which somehow need to live together. I think this is the sweet spot for BPM and SaaS delivery. It is not the highly rigorous, slowly changing transactional procedures that you use to record and support your sales transactions, or issue credit cards. Those sorts of processes are what traditional BPM Suites are designed for (and are good at). But what they cannot handle are scenarios where change and adaptability are at the core – where change is part of domain.

Itensil Dynamic Process Platform (DPP)

The Itensil Dynamic Process Platform is really quite a different architecture from every other BPM Suite I have looked at. The developers have combined the ease of use and adaptability of a wiki, with the mechanics of Process. Every object in the system, whether it be a Process, a Document, an Entity or even the home page has a sort of Wiki style history feature. You can roll back to it at any time (make the previous version active).

Processes development has some real wow factors associated with it (see Instant Wows below). Each Process design can then be instantiated into individual Process Activities (each of which can be adapted by the end user on the fly if needed). There is also an instant, ad hoc team collaboration environment, which can be endlessly adapted and added to (really a special use of the process functionality that is embedded into a tool called “Meeting”). Any number of instances of a Process (and Meetings) can be rolled up into a “Project,” which has its own Wiki home page. A Process instance might belong to several different Projects. There’s a lot more than this, but I will get to that later.

This is the core environment that delivers an end-user accessible process support environment. Itensil describe the processes that they designed the product to support as “roughly repeatable,” where each instance of a process is subtly different from all that went before. It really is a nuanced blend of what I call “Practice” and “Procedure.”

At the heart of the system is a sophisticated document management and content repository that is all served up out of a LAMP stack – actually most end-users won’t care what operating system or application server platform it sits on, it is delivered On Demand over the Internet (although an On Premise version is also available for those who must have it).

But its not just an end-user tool set – you could think of the Itensil DPP as Process Platform as a Service (PPaaS), where an application developer or third party can embed their own IP and application know-how into a robust application and blend that with an accessible and tightly integrated user interface that is entirely delivered through AJAX in a Browser.

Collaboration+Process≠Workflow+Document Management    

While all BPM Suite vendors are trying to work out how to graft collaboration onto their existing workflow tooling, Itensil have taken another approach. From the ground up, they have added business process support to a rich collaboration environment. Rather than design-time ease of use (i.e. for the Business Analyst and Professional Developer), they have sought to deliver run-time ease of use and adaptability for the knowledge worker (i.e. designed for people like you and me). In Itensil, all processes are developed in the environment itself using the outline editor and/or the process modeling canvas. Each one is, in its own way pretty special (see below).

Itensil’s Organizing Principle is Adaptability @ The User Level

Instant Wows

Outline to Process – When initially envisaging a process, the user merely outlines the steps in a wiki editor (perhaps cutting and pasting from somewhere on the web or other office document such as Word, PDF, Excel or a Mindmap outline). They can also insert markers (associated file attributes) to create dropzones for any outputs that are produced, and specify  team roles, along with review loops and due dates if desired). The Process itself is generated automatically. Each step has an attached Wiki page that serves as the user interface for that step.

Instant Mode Switching – The user can immediately switch between “Run” mode (instantiating the process); “Status” view providing an overview of the steps and also provides mechanisms to re-assign tasks to team members, set due dates, jump to steps, etc.); and the “Design” view which will take you to a drag and drop modeling canvas and the outline editor.

On the Fly Process Change – When Processes are run an instance is referred to as an Activity, each of which is adaptable at run-time (as required by the end-user). Alternatively, the user might decide to save the changes to the default process model (affecting all future Activities).

Run Time Binding – At the Task level, the user could decide to bind a separate (stand alone) Process to a Task to further elaborate on how the work should be done (perhaps involving other roles). The user interface presents an interface that allows the standalone sub-process to be viewed discretely, dragging the artifacts from one process level to another (and thereby avoiding the need for complex mapping). 

WebDav – Itensil supports a network file system that is delivered via the Internet (while HTTP gives you read access, WebDAV gives you write access). Essentially, it acts like virtual file system, allowing users to edit files in situ (saving the new version automatically). It provides a network drive that is available at the Project, Process, or Meeting levels (indeed any level). In this way, Itensil can more easily support the virtual enterprise as users up and down the value chain collaborate in a safe and secure environment.

Object History – all objects in the domain receive the wiki treatment; each file, each page, each process, everything … has a history associated with it. Suitably authorized users can roll back to a previous version (making the older version active but still keeping the new edits). Even a process can be undone step-by-step to recover from errors or facilitate a change to the process. Of course, all objects in the system have a robust security model associated with them (setting up the system it is possible to control the default permissions on different classes of objects). 

Look Ma, No Forms – given that all steps in a process are presented to the user via a WYSIWYG wiki page, the system provides a natural canvas for presenting information. Users can create Process Attributes at any point, and simply drag them onto the wiki canvas in edit mode. Placement is just a question of where the cursor was at the time. In fact what is happening is a tiny Xform is created automatically to support that attribute. So if you decide that this process needs a “Budget” field, all you need to do is drop into Design Mode, select the step where it is set, open the Attributes panel, click the new attribute link, give it a name, say what sort (say Currency) and then drag it onto the canvas where you want it. The user will then be prompted to provide the Budget at the right point (which might then be reused at a later step).

These points have massive implications for adoption, design and usability of BPM – rather than having to predict all processes in advance, the user can decide how to interpret the task in hand and apply an appropriate personal template. The net result, better adoption by the end-users themselves (they are in control) and a more agile adaptable organization. The outline to process functionality provides a real step up in accessibility, putting it in reach of the average knowledge worker or manager – if you can work with a PowerPoint outline, you can work with Itensil.  

Itensil Power Features

So while all of this might sound really interesting but not quite appropriate for your complex business problems, the latest set of features delivered by Itensil change all of that. These facilities are primarily designed for the professional developer or business analyst; they provide the tooling to help build out Itensil into vertical industry domains and deliver discrete, knowledge-intensive applications. Further, I understand that the whole environment is configurable including the look and feel and the brand image delivered (meaning that OEM partners can embed the entire environment into their own offering). 

Entities – Itensil now incorporates a mechanism to flesh out your Line of Business (LOB) data structure, and establish the relationships between those Entities. Once the established, the system can then automatically walk the meta-data structure, automatically finding related Entities and presenting the correct information to the user at run-time. 

This is in contrast to the usual approach taken by most BPM vendors who rely on Process level variables (i.e. named value pairs) to represent LOB data. This traditional approach introduces significant complexity to the end user trying to work on developing a process (they must always worry about the mapping of attributes from one process to another and over time the sets of variables can easily become fragmented, further driving the complexity and cost of ownership). In Itensil, this is all done automatically.

Each Entity can have a number of XForms associated with it. Since the Entity relationships are already known, the XForms environment can also display the related Form at the same time as the primary Entity. So a Person form might also include the Address as a sub-form. When designing a Process, an Entity Relationship is easily established that can then automatically make use of this form – say you know that the user should enter a new person called a “Target,” then it is as simple as saying a New Entity Relationship of type Person is required, which is referred to as a Target. When you drag the resulting widget onto the work zone wiki page, the system will ask which Form is to be used (as there might be several different views), and hey presto, you have a sophisticated XForm delivered to the user (based on a robust data model). Of course, the professional developer can also resort to specialist tools for creating sophisticated Xforms instead of using the out-of-the-box functionality.

Integrated Rule Builder – Of course, developers might want even greater sophistication to create rule driven XForms that embed some special behavior. Say for example, if you want to display a different section of the Form based on whether the Customer is based in the US (the tax calculation might then be different on a state by state basis), or if the Customer was in the UK, then the form should include provisions for VAT (a wholly different regime). The point is that these form-related rules are executing on the fly in the browser of the user, yet still pointing back to the Entities and Process Attributes (speeding up the user experience and removing latency in the connection).  On the other hand, say for example you want the rule to run on the server to govern process logic, then that same rule or a new one could be applied to the process. All of this functionality is supported with a drag and drop rules builder that knows all about the associated entities and attributes (i.e. it is tightly integrated with the LOB modeled earlier).

Partner/Customer Mode – this interface enables partners and customers to take part in the process, yet doesn’t provide them with access to the rest of the environment. For example, if your application is designed to support the RFP process in putting on a conference, each hotel representative can be provided with this sort of guest access to upload their response and later respond to queries.

Organizational Hierarchy – the new version introduces a more sophisticated modeler, allowing the system to reflect any number of complex organizational forms. For example, this now supports a user changing department in the organization and the supervisor role is automatically updated. similar ssignmnets  meemversnymoerves as the have any additional questions or information that will make our call more usefulf a

Courseware Now this might sound a bit strange for a BPM Suite, but when you consider that this is a knowledge-centric environment (heads-up process support, as against heads-down process control), it is important that you have a way of training people and unlocking areas of the system once they are qualified. It is also a better way of ensuring compliance (in the sense that only qualified people are given relevant work to do). So Itensil have released a Courseware builder – where the course itself is a process – the wiki page is the user interface for delivery. It will handle embedded graphics, all your advice notes and any attachments (whether they be PDFs or bits of embedded Flash).

Training can then be delivered in-situ, as required at the coalface. The new Quiz Builder supports the user as she develops the process-driven courseware, generating multi-choice quizzes to test a users understanding before moving on to the next section or opening up access to some specific process or feature capability (you have to supply the questions and answers). People taking a course don’t get access to the process that controls it, but from the perspective of a professional training developer this sort of functionality is really game-changing. Quite apart from changing the rules of the game in Distance Learning delivery (better than endlessly regenerating Flash courseware), it is also a way of ensuring that applications and features are sufficiently understood.

Now I am sure it could do with improvement, and as I write this I am already thinking of areas where I would like to see changes, but once you grok the implications of this it is quite literally mind-blowing.

Excel Interface – Itensil now supports the capability to Import and Export form content to an Excel spreadsheet leveraging the XML format of Excel. While you could use the cut and paste method (as in Paste to Outline feature of Process building interface), in certain applications it is necessary to export LOB data into Excel for offline and disconnected working (or even just to take a snapshot of a case in order to lock down the data as an evidential artifact).

So in these ways, Itensil allows the developer to deliver structured LOB information and applications alongside the knowledge worker collaborative environment that distinguishes it from the competition.

The Big Idea

It really is all about leveraging the power of process to knowledge workers in a rich collaborative space in the cloud. Personally, I think Itensil have really brought something fundamentally new to the market. The reality is that this sort of end-user accessibility really does change the game. Knowledge workers can now do it for themselves, seamlessly transitioning from the freeform collaboration environment of a wiki to the structured work that some of their processes demand. At the same time, Itensil have delivered an evolving work environment that is under the control of the users who most need it – the knowledge workers themselves. As a result, the cost of ownership for an application is dramatically lower – instead of always having to refer back to a Business Analyst or IT developer.

For the industry, I think we are going to see Itensil define a new segment in the BPMS market that is currently massively underserved. Knowledge workers are poorly served – they quickly revert to email as most BPM Suites fail to deliver the necessary adaptability. And we shouldn’t forget that all of this is delivered On Demand, in a multi-tenant platform (i.e. all you need is a web browser and an Internet connection). The Itensil combination of Web 2.0 + Collaboration + BPM is quite literally showing the way forward and I think, starting to beat up the competition.


BPM Technology Showcase and Awards – An Opportunity to Save Hundreds of Hours and Thousands Of Dollars

February 12, 2008

Well after a lot of hard work the event is now fully fleshed out. Of course there are a million and one things to get done to organize a major event – and I am still getting through them.

But we have a full program of really interesting vendors (IMNSHO). They cover a range of different themes that regular readers will recognize. This is a real opportunity for people involved in BPM projects to save hundreds of hours and many thousands of dollars by assessing all the best vendors in one place, picking up on the best practices, pitfalls and other implementation wrinkles.

In no particular order they are:

BPM and SaaS – Appian, Integrify, Itensil, Lombardi (Blueprint) … I am not sure whether I should put Cordys, and Fujitsu in that category (since apparently they can do this combination but haven’t made a big noise about it).

Case Handling – Cordys, Graham Technology, Itensil, Pallas Athena, Pega

Complex Customer Interaction – Graham Technology, Pega

Knowledge Workers – Appian, HandySoft and Itensil

Microsoft and .NET – Ascentn, Bluespring Software and BizAgi

BPM-SOA Stack – BEA, Fujitsu and TIBCO

Unified Data Model – BizAgi, Pega

They all have something special about them – they are all becoming more and more “model driven” (some are better than others), they all feature mechanisms to monitor and track work. Here is the complete list along with links to their web sites.

AppianAscentnBEABizAgiBluespring SoftwareCordysGraham TechnologyHandySoftIntegrify ItensilFujitsuLombardiPallas AthenaPegaTIBCO

That’s 15 vendors, each delivering 4 sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon on each of the core showcase days (Tuesday and Wednesday). The Showcase itself is capped off with a simulated product bake-off where each vendor demonstrates how they have built out one or other of the two core scenarios we will provide them with.

I intend to create short 5-minute videos of each vendor, featuring their best points and place them on YouTube with links to their product profile – which I will endeavor to get up on the BPMF site within a few weeks of the event (but I am traveling for the month of March so it might not be till mid-April before that happens.

Oh – and lets not forget the Monday when you will hear a keynote from Connie Moore (of Forrester), followed by three new case studies (the best submissions from the Awards program – Wells Fargo, Geisinger Health and Louisiana Supreme Court), the three inclusive ½ day training courses:

  • Ensuring BPM Project Success – from me
  • Modeling in BPMN – from Stephen White of IBM (the main author of the BPMN specification)
  • BPM Overview from the WfMC

And all of this is available for the killer price of just $395 (up until close of business this Friday … after that it reverts to $595). Just to put that price in perspective, that’s less than you would pay a traditional conference for their pre-conference workshop !! We have deliberately kept the prices low so that you can bring the team – to form a shared understanding of the issues and the way ahead (and it’s impossible to get around all 15 vendors in the 12 sessions that you will have time to attend).
You can get directly to the registration page here

Download the brochure here


BPM Awards and Technology Showcase

January 16, 2008

The BPM Awards and Technology Showcase is taking shape and it’s promising to be quite an interesting affair. Located at the Sheraton in Downtown Nashville, it is easy (and cheap) for the whole US to get there, it will take place in late February – 25th through the 27th.

In my opinion, participation by any organisation with a BPM project(s) on its plate (current or planned), will save hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars – through the stunning case studies, through exploration of what the vendors have to offer in one concentrated educational program; and through the all inclusive workshops focusing on implementation best practices. Although it has run successfully in Europe over several years, this format is relatively new for the BPM market in the US.

In the contrast to the traditional conference+trade show model – where you will find a mix of hypothetical talks and vendor marketing – this is event is focus on providing pragmatic and actionable information specifically about BPM technology and its implementation. Rather than trying to glean scraps of insight in the chaos of an exhibition showroom floor, this event is primarily based around structured sessions that focus on how products are used and deployed (and the best practices, challenges and pitfalls along the way).

Of course it is much more than that:

On the Monday (Feb 25th) we have a “BPM in Practice” day where you’ll get the big picture in a Keynote from Connie Moore of Forrester. We then segue immediately into a selection of the top North American case studies from the 2007 Global Excellence Awards in BPM and Workflow (I think the best ones). This is where we have the real 24 Carat Gold – three brand new case studies from Wells Fargo, Louisiana Supreme Court and Geisinger Health – all focused on the reality of modern BPM implementation. These case studies are delivered by the business and IT people themselves talking about their experiences – setting the scene for what is to follow over the next 2 days.

Then, over a Gala lunch, we have the Awards Ceremony itself (where the shiny stuff get handed out to the winners). This is quickly followed by a joint presentation from Nathaniel Palmer and I – where we discuss the Technology Assessment Framework (everybody will have copies of all the product reports by this time).

We then all go to a choice of 3 workshops – I will be running a concentrated form of our “Developing A Structured Approach for BPM Project Success” course, and if Steve White gets the permission to come from his masters at IBM, he will run a shortened version of the BPM Process Modeling Fundamentals (focused on BPMN). In parallel the leading lights at the WfMC will run their own session, taking a more general view of BPM (I expect they will also talk about the role of XPDL). Its worth noting that these workshops are usually delivered as conference add-ons – the difference with this event is that they are all included in the very cheap price of attendance ($295 if you get in quickly).

On Tuesday and Wednesday (26th and 27th) we have the Showcase itself. On each day we start with a short plenary (who’s on when, showing what); then we immediately split into 5 tracks. On each track there are six sessions during the day (three different vendors giving two sessions each on each track). The delegates self select the sessions that or interest to them. Each session is 40-45 minutes, with a 5 minute break to get to the next session (we do let you have breaks for coffee and lunch).

But the real difference here is that there is no exhibition, just concentrated truth telling from the vendors as they explain and demonstrate how their products are used for real. These are up close and personal sessions where the 25-30 people in the audience can pop any question they like.

And as you’ll discover (assuming you come), the whole thing quickly becomes very interactive.  Everyone realizes it is OK to ask questions and very soon we are all learning from each other. This opportunity to interact is further bolstered by the birds of a feather lunch tables and Round Table discussions on the Tuesday (where each table will explore a particular area).

Moreover, the format ensures it is a level playing field for all (rather than who can afford the biggest stand). Vendors range from the relatively small innovation leaders such as Ascent, BizAgi and Itensil, through the established pure-play BPM vendors (such as Lombardi and Appian) then into the big guys like TIBCO, and we anticipate BEA/Oracle will also have a presence.

To cap it all – we end on the Tuesday with two different vendor shoot-out scenarios, where participating vendors show how their tool was used to build out a specific example. We will have two different flavors here – one aimed at the more traditional transactional example (human & system centric), the other describing a knowledge worker scenario (human collaboration oriented).

So if you are interested – check out the Event Brochure here. The early-bird registration ends on Friday (currently at just $295) and can be accessed directly here. We still have a couple of slots left open for vendors to participate, so if you are interested, contact me directly.