A few weeks back I had the privilege to attend two BPM conferences pretty much back to back: bpmNEXT—which describes itself as “an annual conference showcasing the latest innovations in BPM and related technology”, and takes place in a rural retreat on the California coast; and IQPC PEX Process Transformation Week—which describes itself as “a cross industry showcase of some of the most forward thinking programmes and case studies in process excellence and transformation”, and takes place in central London.
As you might already guess, at first sight these two conferences where about as different from each other as they could be, while still operating in broadly the same field of interest and practice. Whereas bpmNEXT is all about software tool innovation to support BPM initiatives, and the speakers are all vendors’ research and product management personnel, Process Transformation Week is all about the practice of business process change in all its various guises, and the majority of the speakers are practitioners.
Nevertheless, I came away from having attended both conferences with a strong sense of a common theme: that we’re reaching a stage in business process practice maturity where it’s becoming widely understood and accepted that there is no one approach that is going to yield improvement in every situation.
At the bpmNEXT event this came through in the diversity of design and modelling concepts and ideas being developed by the vendors. I got a very clear sense that the BPM software community at large is finally becoming comfortable about admitting something that many of us already knew—that BPMN is not and can never be the ‘only game in town’. As a business process model and notation standard it has a lot of value for one fairly common set of use cases; but it’s not a silver bullet—it plays one role and one role only. If you think about BPMN’s role as an ingredient of a ‘vertical stack’ of application design concerns it has nothing to say about work distribution management, for example, or data management, or business rules, or user interfaces, or many other things. And if you think of its role as a notation for describing how work needs to be co-ordinated, it has only partial application in scenarios where you can’t or don’t want to specify all work structure up-front (what we call exploratory work scenarios).
At bpmNEXT we saw demos of technologies that extended or replaced traditional flow modelling approaches—focused on goal-oriented planning and execution (Whitestein), precondition-based specification and scheduling (BP Logix), ad hoc activity modelling (IBM), work management (TIBCO), data management (W4), decision management (Decision Management Solutions), and more.
At Process Transformation Week this same observation came through in a multitude of sessions and discussions describing how organisations have driven business process improvements. While there were still sessions very firmly focused on the application of particular approaches (e.g. a Nike session on Lean), I encountered much more thinking about how organisations can and should employ different tools and methods for different situations—and also got the distinct sense of an audience hungry to find out how to re-position themselves and their teams more as potential enablers of innovation and differentiation, and not just as sources of efficiency.
While we’re clearly at a stage in this field now where many organisations are mature enough to recognise the futility of doggedly pursuing one approach no matter the problem or opportunity, it’s also important to say that I’m still seeing a significant disconnect between the technology-centred community (the bpmNEXT crowd, if you like) and the method-centred community (the Process Transformation Week crowd). There’s still a very large part of this latter crowd that sees the use of software systems to co-ordinate work as being out of their scope of concern—“someone else’s problem”.
To me, the emergence and evolution of the Digital Enterprise is just the most recent reason why this attitude is dangerous. It’s time to really get these crowds working together on a bigger scale than they are doing today. Part of the challenge is the messy reality of complexity and fragmentation in the business process practice field that I’ve just started to outline here. As Tom Peters famously said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention”.
This is why I’m just as energised by working in this field as I always have been: there’s still so much opportunity, and so much confusion to help people work through! I’m hoping to attend both conferences again next year, and continue to be on the lookout for groups of practitioners coming together to accelerate their success.
As a PS: if you’re interested in finding out more about the detail of bpmNEXT this year I’d encourage you to visit Sandy Kemsley’s almost-live-blogs of the sessions here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here…