Why We Need Pure Play BPM Consulting Firms

Scott Francis
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Preamble

With the thinning of the herd of Pure Play BPM software vendors, and with the energies of firms like Oracle and IBM behind BPM, I think two predictions we can reasonably make are:
  1. BPM software will be pervasive (or pervasively available).  IBM, Oracle, Pega, Progress, Software AG – they’re all going to move a lot of BPM software.  And of course it looks like open source offerings are going to be more prevalent as well.
  2. BPM software is going to get better – either because the big stack vendors invest in the new products they’ve acquired, or because the remaining pure play vendors continue to innovate at a faster pace and grow, or because open source solutions will lift the bar for the minimum requirements that all the BPM software suites have to match.

Why Pure Play BPM Consulting?

But the other prediction we can make, is that there is a growing need for specialty BPM consulting firms – or, dare we say it, “pure play” BPM firms.  These BPM consulting firms are all about BPM – and not about being all things to all people. Nearly all of the points I’ll make about BPM pure play service firms likely apply to pure play services firms in other market segments.  The advantages:
  • They really “get it” with BPM – and they’re willing to explain it to customers, they even evangelize to people who might never be customers.
  • They’re really invested in understanding the BPM space – which pays dividends over time. Their staff don’t go from BPM project to integration project to database architecture project – they’re transitioning from BPM project to BPM project. It takes time and patience to develop a deep practice in BPM, and it takes time to develop a deep bench in any services business.
  • The right methodology and tactics to get BPM projects successfully deployed. And after all, success is what we’re after…
  • Really deep expertise on at least one BPM software suite – every product suite has its own strengths and weaknesses and you want staff that knows what those are before they start your project.
  • Process improvement staff, that understands how to marry improvement methodology to BPM Software.
  • They are “high touch” – high quality, long-term relationships with customers are more important than chasing the next shiny deal, because they’re not selling software…
  • Experience, quality, focus, and vision. Not volume.
Pure Play BPM consulting firms also fill the void left by pure play BPM software companies being purchased by the Big Software companies of our day – previously these pure play firms had staff focused on BPM alone, but now that they’re part of a bigger machine, focus will be diluted within a much much bigger team. It’s hard to imagine the big guys matching this focus – not that they can’t afford to, but just because they have so many customers, and so many products, and so many people, that they’ll always depend on specialists (pure plays, if you will) to augment their teams of business and technology generalists.  These general purpose consulting, outsourcing, and off-shoring firms just don’t bring the BPM-specific focus to the table.  As such, customers will continue to need pure play service providers to bring that depth of experience and focus to the table.

Requirements Risk

The BPM Pure Play consulting firms know that you can’t throw requirements over the wall to 50 guys offshore to build the software to meet those requirements.  That’s very old-school separation of responsibilities, but it is based on a lack of trust between the parties – requirements have to be thoroughly specified before anyone can start working – and all the work has to be exactingly matching the requirements or it isn’t accepted.  Keep in mind that the biggest risk to any project is that the requirements are wrong; any methodology that puts off finding out the bad news is going to increase risk. As my friend and colleague John Reynolds pointed out in the comments on my previous post, so much of this is about Trust.  The pure play firms understand how to build that trust with the business by building the solution in the same room, and doing frequent playbacks of the results of their labor.  Iterations and Accountability are the watch-words of these engagements. It doesn’t take 50 people to get the process right, it takes just a few of the right people in the room, and they have to be brave enough to hear the feedback of the business on a daily or weekly basis, and then course-adjust.

Prioritizing

Another issue: the big firms don’t know what they are not.  They’re trying to provide any service their customer needs. Pure play BPM services firms don’t need to increase their own footprint on the project by capturing non-BPM work, because the universe of BPM consulting work is already so much bigger than their ability to capture that business.  Sure, an increased budget will be good for the bottom line of any services company.  But a pure play services firm can be relied upon to turn down work that isn’t in their sweet spot – or at least to advise you that you are asking the firm to take on work that isn’t their strong suit.  Pure play services firms (not just in the BPM ecosystem) can afford to turn down work because they know what they are, and more importantly, what they are not.

Where did we get these crazy ideas?

These aren’t revolutionary ideas – they’re well known and understood and tested in industry as best practice (and not just for BPM projects).  But the general firms just can’t adjust from a world of 100+ person projects to a world of smaller, independently motivated teams engaging in highly value-added projects that act independently – it just isn’t part of their business model. The BPM Pure Play service firms are the tips of the spears in a sense – the vanguard of experts that increase your odds as a customer of punching through the inertia and hitting the target of success we’re all aiming for.  The BPM ecosystem needs that ability to cut through the noise and focus on what matters most.
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  • philayres

    Nice discussion Scott. I've seen this recently with a wannabe Accenture. When I discussed with this firm what they did around process improvement for clients, they basically told me they delivered a strategy document advising the client where they should concentrate their efforts and how they might go about doing it. Probably in the timeframe it would take you or I to deliver a fully working solution on our BPM solution of choice.

    Pure-play anything can be the best approach, if a company already knows what it needs!

  • sfrancis

    Nice example :)
    I've also seen them come in and say “hand us your requirements and we'll send them to our offshore team to build your new process”… big red warning lights should be flashing when someone tells you this with respect to your process. Getting a process right takes iterations and feedback loops…

  • Nice post.
    I think that pure play BPM consulting firms, must develop and implement their own a BPM methodology, must be revolutionary, not evolutionary and try do excel in more than one BPM system.

    But more than that, pure play BPM consulting firms are the ones capable to inject a BPM culture inside it's costumers organizational culture in a way that costumers become autonomous the way they manage it's business processes.

  • sfrancis

    In particular I agree w/ your take on pure play firms being better capable of helping with culture change. More thoughts on culture change and a couple of quotes from Derek Miers.

    http://www.bp-3.com/blogs/2009/10/getting-your-

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  • Nice <del>post</del> <del>discussion</del> manifest, Scott!

    Could you please clarify your position towards software vendors? Deep expertise in a product implies a partnership with the vendor. Now if you have more than one product in the toolbox, would it impact vendors' williness to cooperate? E.g. would Oracle be happy to partnership with some BPM consultancy company knowing that they are Lobardi/IBM Blueworks shop?

    We occupy the same niche and this is an issue for us. The product-specific competence is important but it's only about 1/4 of BPM consultant expertise. The remaining 3/4 may be very well reused with other products but I'm afraid most vendors would not applause to this approach.

    Another issue is selling/not selling the software. Consultancy income is a function of the headcount; software sales my give a push to the company. But it also may lead to addiction to easy money and the initial focus may be lost. And again selling the software of one vendor will not make others happy.

  • sfrancis

    Anatoly – thank you, sir, a compliment from you means something – I enjoy reading your blog immensely. I should start by saying that the “pure play” in this post references “BPM” rather than a “single BPM product”. However, you point out a key challenge for boutique consulting firms – how do you work with more than one software vendor without alienating one or more of them?

    As a software vendor, they have to expect that you, as a consulting partner, can work with other software firms (either inside or outside the BPM space). If they want a “captive” partner, they should make this clear and compensate for it. That doesn't mean that it won't cause friction – and you'll have to manage the relationship carefully, and reassure them that you have common economic interests to pursue together, despite you both having *other* economic interests to pursue elsewhere.

    As a consulting firm, expect to use different personnel for different software vendor projects. For one, to develop this deep expertise in a product may take time and experience on one product at the exclusion of others for some time. However, some of the skills around running BPM projects (method), improving processes, and eliciting good requirements are not product-specific and consulting firms will want to use anyone with the right skills to perform these functions. As a consulting firm, you have to expect some friction with your software partners over this. But they will understand the business drivers that cause you to do this: diversifying your risks and revenues, mainly, and being opportunistic, secondarily. After all, the software vendors have no trouble putting multiple consulting partners to work – even if a single partner could supply all the staff they need for their projects.

    As to your last issue: this comes down to business model. I believe if you want to sell software and receive commissions, then tie your horse to one vendor in each space – one BPM vendor, for example. If you're only upside in working with a software vendor during their sales process is to win the services engagement, then what *you* are selling is your ability to deliver on their platform (stick to that) – it is still up to the software vendor to actually win the software business.

    I agree with you that you can lose your focus – and your credibility with customers – when you pursue the software licensing money. And often times consultants under-estimate how difficult it is to sell enterprise software – the costs and length of sales cycle are substantial, and most consulting firms aren't set up to make those kind of investments of time and money. Perhaps a deal will fall in your lap, but don't change your business to chase this revenue without doing some serious consultation with a software reseller to understand how this business works.

  • Scott

    Very thoughtfull and convincing, thank you.

    At the end of the day it should become similar to DBMS market: is it a big difference wich one to use nowadays? A company developing custom applications is able to deliver the application on a number of major DBMS so it just follows the the customer's choice. In most cases the customer already has DBMS license or purchases it from the nearest shop. But sometimes it's handy to get the license from the developer: end-to-end installation, single warranty…

    BPMS market is far from consolidation reached by DBMS but we see a lot of M&As and on technology side BPMN starts playing the same role as “standard” SQL for DBMS.

  • sfrancis

    I think your comparison to the DBMS market is apt – today, no one would think it odd if you provided consulting services across multiple DB vendors – and DB vendors wouldn't hold it against you. I think the BPM market will get there eventually (large market, stable players, fairly standards-based technology). In the meantime, we have to manage each relationship with care and feeding and make sure that we are providing value into the vendor's ecosystem (likely, that value will be rewarded with business).

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