Process for the People

Scott Francis
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What is Social?

There’s been much discussion of late on “Social BPM“.  In particular, when should the magic “social” stuff happen – at design-time, or at run-time, of a process?  There has also been a significant overlap with discussion around ACM (Advanced/Adaptive Case Management), wherein proponents of ACM advocate putting more power in the hands of users to dictate the flow of a “case” through their organization (if I can use the word “flow” to describe something that isn’t, in their view, a process). If we can pull together a quick assessment of the terrain of “social” BPM tools:
  1. Those tools that offer an online community, a la SAG’s AlignSpace, or IBM’s Blueworks Beta, for process professionals.
  2. Tools that allow for collaboratively building process models, a la IBM’s Blueprint.
  3. Tools that allow for more collaborative run-time process execution (e.g. ActionBase).  It is this third category that has overlap with the ACM space, by virtue of putting users in control of the process execution, rather than process designers.
The big short-coming in the first category:  who wants to share their models publicly with everyone else?  If I have a model, and I think it is differentiating and good, I’d hardly want to share it for free, likely with my competitors.  And certainly my boss is going to look even less kindly upon sharing corporate IP. So these communities had a high inactive user count, low active counts.  (low, relative to the inactives at least). The big short-coming of the second category:  why does the collaboration stop when the process model is finished?  For example, in IBM’s Blueprint, I can “follow” changes to any model I’m interested in – but why does the following stop when this model starts executing in Teamworks? (ahem, Websphere Lombardi Edition). The big short-coming in the third category is that generally the tooling for collaboration at run-time isn’t connected with the tooling for process design in a meaningful way. However, just because each area has a short-coming doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value – we’re just acknowledging the issues in each area.  You could list “traditional BPM” as a fourth category, and its shortcoming very well could have been a “lack of collaboration capabilities.”

So What’s Changed?

About a week ago, I was fortunate to get a sneak peak at the new IBM Blueworks Live, the upcoming combination (culmination?) of Blueprint and Blueworks.  There’s already good coverage of what is coming in the FAQ, in this IBM interview of Phil Gilbert, and in the coverage of his recent talks on the Next Decade of BPM (including Sandy’s coverage of the last talk, where he introduced the IBM Blueworks Live announcement). Phil Gilbert set the hook nicely at his BPM 2010 keynote:  software tooling has been targeted at the 6 IT people who support 240 business people.  With Blueworks Liive, Phil is presenting a potential solution: software targeted at letting the 240 people in business improve their own processes, without needing to know words like BPM, or BPMN (let alone what the BPMN notation is all about). Sandy writes: “It’s good to see IBM consolidating these social BPM efforts; the roadmap for doing this wasn’t really clear before this, but now we’re seeing the IBM Blueworks community coming together with the Lombardi Blueprint tools.”  What impressed me in my session with Phil’s team is the thoughtfulness that went into rationalizing these two products.  It appears to me that they didn’t sit down and map out features and figure out how to make them work together-  they looked at each product and tried to identify what was most compelling, and what was most deficient – in other words, what is holding it back? The key insights:  the collaboration and sharing features of Blueworks were powerful, but the social engineering of understanding how to break down barriers to sharing just weren’t there in the Beta: you’re sharing with the whole world, and process information is sensitive.  But in this case, the answer wasn’t to try to change people’s sharing behavior (a la Facebook), the answer was to create a safer environment for sharing: by limiting the audience to your own corporation (or subsets of your company), so that people will feel more comfortable sharing to begin with. Second, the notion of “following” has been extended to all parts of the offering (this was already a key feature of Blueprint).  Following is a very low-maintenance way to keep up with what’s happening in process design- and lets the business user determine what matters to them, rather than having software developers decide. There is an interface that reminds me of twitter or facebook, but moreso of yammer, because of the fact that it is private to your company. Third, bringing “BPM” to the masses.  Rather than try to dumb-down BPMN, Phil’s team has started working from the long tail up – just offering a couple of very simple process templates.  You could classify them as “Checklists” and “Approvals”.  A Blueworks user can create a new template from these two basic types – and then any other business user can run these templates (and configure them slightly when kicking them off).  Additionally, it looked like participants could add steps to the process as needed when it got to their queue. Incidentally, this addresses a concern of John Reynolds‘, regarding making programming accessible to the occasional programmer.  One could argue that the folks in the business who construct the Excel spreadsheets that run so many businesses processes are these “occasional programmers” that need this kind of tooling. Of course, this simple execution capability is a really interesting game for IBM to be in.  At $10/user/month, it isn’t prohibitively expensive.  No servers to set up or software to install.  And the setup of these simple processes is trivial. But the last point, and the most interesting one, is the implication of combining simple process execution for the masses, with the newsfeed and following capabilities of social networks.  In this way, we can keep a finger on the pulse of these user-generated processes running through a team or a company. With the capabilities coming November 20th, Blueworks Live may be short of game-changing, but it is very clear how to move forward in a way that *is* gamechanging.

Is This the Social Intranet that Matters?

Angela Ashenden of MWD Advisors asks “Are we seeing the dawn of the social intranet?“:
The other thing which the J.Boye event got me thinking about was the relationship between the corporate intranet and collaboration. There was a real cross-section of organisations in attendance, from those for whom the intranet is still very much a central publishing environment to those who see the intranet and their corporate collaboration strategy as one and the same thing—or at least part of the same discussion. As we move into an era where social connectivity and interaction becomes more important in a business context, it seems obvious to me that the “social intranet” concept is the natural home for both these strategies, with the focus not so much on the organisation (or particular people in the organisation) determining what information should be published for consumption for example, but on employees themselves requesting the information via a social platform whereby it can be shared with the organisation as a whole, and stored for later reference by others. Do you agree? I’d be interested in your comments.
Perhaps we are seeing the dawn of the social intranet.  Twitter’s features (follow, status updates, search, etc) just make too much sense for corporations for these features to not show up in products targeted behind the firewall.  But for “social” interaction to be useful, there has to be an organizing principle that makes it relevant.  That’s the magic I see in the new Blueworks Live offering – the organizing principle is long-tail knowledge work processes – defined and driven by the business. It won’t be long before the business, getting a taste of following these long-tail processes in Blueworks, is going to want to follow their “BPM” processes (perhaps running in Websphere Lombardi Edition) in Blueworks as well.  Of course, if Blueworks Live were the center of IBM’s strategy, you’d expect to see APIs exposed for other business applications to register “follows” and “updates” with the Blueworks newsfeed. Did I mention that you can see the kernels of game-changing here?
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  • Scott,
    Very interesting post. Do you think they will be tying it to Lotus too? It would a natural extension to the capabilities you described.
    Jacob Ukelson – CTO ActionBase

    • I’m not sure if it will be tied into Lotus as well – that wasn’t part of our discussion, but certainly “fits” (including the possibility of using Lotus’ forms as part of your user-generated process if need be).

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  • Pat Flanders

    It’s very interesting to see what IBM is doing. What do you suggest are the most important BPM-related activities that could be enhanced through use of social collaboration tools?

    • Clearly at design time, there’s a lot of room for social activities to enhance what process modelers do.

      But at run-time, “social” techniques can also be effective:
      – keeping up to date with process executions (your business!) via following and newsfeed functionality
      – collaborating with other members of the team to complete complex tasks
      – searching the activity stream for what’s been happening in the context of your business.
      – creating “ad-hoc” processes with colleagues without programming at all.

      That’s just a starter list, I’m sure we could do better if we really think about it.

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