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Bottom Up vs. Top Down Process Understanding, or Another Difference between BPM and HPM

September 16th, 2008 by Jacob Ukelson

I was at the Gartner BPM conference last week. Walking around the vendor showcase, one thing that struck me was how similar all of the vendors offerings seemed to me (with a few exceptions). Sure some were traditional enterprise software, some were SaaS, some vendors stressed one set of features, while another stressed a different set - but to me all the vendors in certain BPM space (document centric vs. integration centric) all looked pretty similar. I am guessing most people interested in a BPMS feel the same way.

What interested me was how they proscribed the process for creating a BPMS based application to implement an existing  business process. For most, the first step is to create a model describing the process - using a BPMN modeling tool. The model is usually created by a business analyst (usually someone in the IT department) that understands the process.  This model is a high level description of the business process which is used to bridge the gap between the business (they understand the process) and IT (they understand implementation and data). What struck me was how much the methodology reminded me a of the “traditional” top down ways of creating software .  Since it very difficult to automatically create the actual complete, executable production system from the BPMN model - the model serves as a requirement definition for the development phase - which is handled by IT. Any end-user iteration and understanding is around the BPMN - which is a very abstract description of the process to be implemented.  This is then handed to the IT folks for implementation - with the standard lag of months between requirements and actual system. This will work fine for processes that are rigorously defined, unchanging and complete, it may work for processes that are rigorously defined with a small number of exceptions - and will completely breakdown for ad-hoc, unstructured Human Processes. The reason is that these ad-hoc human processes are not well defined, and exceptions are the rule. The only way to approach this is same way you approach building human intensive software  - iteratively, working intensely with customers on working prototypes - either low-fidelity or high-fidelity. John Gould and Stephen Boies taught me long ago that iterating on the spec (i.e. requirements or model) just doesn’t work.  I also learned that if you are implementing an existing process - you want to keep it as familiar as possible to the users, which means let users continue to use whatever they are used to (or feels natural to them) whenever possible.

This is why I think that existing BPMS vendors won’t do well in the ad-hoc, unstructured Human Process space. It will require a much lighter weight, flexible (or bottoms up) environment where processes can be easily created, modified and tested in the field - with the turnaround between versions (including the initial version) is measured in days (or hours) instead of weeks or months. I personally believe that the more Human Process Management Systems let users remain within familiar user environments (currently eMail and MS Office tools, Wikis and other tools in the future), the easier it will be to get these systems accepted by the organization and end users.

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