BPM, same as it ever was?

Scott Francis
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Every so often, someone makes the argument that essentially nothing has changed in the world of BPM.  Actually, this isn’t unique to BPM – it is a common refrain across all kinds of software categories. And it is tempting to buy into this, when you realize how durable a writeup like the history of BPM can be (this isn’t a bad writeup, by the way). But one has to remember that history *should* be a bit durable with the passage of time. Jon Pyke recently opined that no one in BPM has anything new to offer.  But the substance of his post is that the marketing isn’t differentiated, and the product positioning isn’t differentiated, and further, that the people who work at these companies don’t know what differentiates them. Having worked on both sides of the coin (on the software side and the consulting side), I have to disagree with some of Jon’s conclusions because the input data is more limited than he’s realized. For example:  of course the marketing messages are commoditized among BPM vendors, as is product positioning.  Sadly, it is perfectly easy to copy someone else’s marketing and positioning – it takes minutes, hours, or days at most to do so.  I think the tragedy in BPM is that all the vendors seem willing to implement “checkbox” versions of every feature that analysts care about, rather than go deep with the product in areas that produce real value for customers.  Unfortunately, vendors have been largely rewarded for such behavior with good product comparison reviews and chart placement – but their customers have not been similarly rewarded by this kind of investment. There are real differences in these products, but it requires a much more in-depth understanding of the products to appreciate it.  Can we be surprised that customers have a hard time achieving this level of product knowledge during the evaluation process?  I used to work with someone who was always telling me how “nothing had changed” in the last 5 years in BPM – at a time when, 5 years before, there was no BPMN – and at that time, BPMN was the de facto modeling standard for BPMS offerings. There has been quite a bit of innovation in the last 10 years in BPM, but some of the best ideas didn’t get enough investment to go from interesting to indispensable, and some of the best ideas really were commoditized – picked up by all the pure play vendors (and later, but the stack vendors).  I could argue that nothing much has changed since 1994, when I wrote a sales process application that leveraged Lotus Notes VIP to replicate sales data and manage workflow between Sales, Sales Engineering, Manufacturing, and R&D.  But that would be a bit disingenuous. I could write that solution in 1994, but I didn’t have a way to communicate the process to the business (BPMN), that accurately reflected the implementation so we could make sure we had it right.  And I didn’t have a standard data representation for analyzing the process data (for business process improvement).  I certainly couldn’t handle in a trivial way a process that required parallelism the way I can with executable BPMN models. Jon says:
That’s why, and I’ve said this many times before, BPM is far too important a topic to leave in the hands of product vendors – this is a Business thing – the clue is in the name BUSINESS PROCESS MANAGEMENT. […] They will talk about the presentation layer, the SOA integration support, analytics, modeling and what have you.
This is, unfortunately, true of a great many people in the BPM ecosystem.  However, it doesn’t sound like a few of the pure plays that have been acquired (take a gander at Phil Gilbert’s blog for several essays on the subject of business taking control back from IT), and it doesn’t sound like some of the new vendors (ActionBase as one example).  Whether these vendors are well-represented at Gartner conferences is another question entirely, but it is ironic that it is typically the small vendor that is more focused on business value. One of Jon’s last points:
Every vendor believes they are unique but the fact of the matter is many of the software metaphors used in these products were defined by pioneering workflow vendors such as Filenet, Staffware, Plexus and Wang
Well, honestly, software metaphors are meant to be re-used, so I’m not sure that that, in and of itself, is a point of criticism.  For example, some of the metaphors in older integration technologies like CORBA and DCOM are embodied in SOAP and WSDL – but not many would argue that web services weren’t a step forward. And if BPM functionality is truly commoditized – is that bad for the customer and the industry if it becomes more standard and more cheaply available? I know it is tempting to look at the glass as half-empty, but with so many BPM vendors performing so well in a challenging environment, its hard not to look at the glass as half-full. Call me an optimist.