#BPM2012: ACM Rears its Head

  • September 4, 2012
  • Scott

I haven’t spent as much time this year as in previous years discussing ACM because for the most part, ACM advocates have stopped spending all their time trying to prove that BPM “can’t do” ACM.

Sandy Kemsley, however, attended the ACM Workshop at BPM 2012, and took a few notes and blogged about her conclusions. She called it “BPMN Smackdown by @swensonkeith” – But I believe his title was the more modest “BPMN is incompatible with ACM”.

It sounds like Keith makes a few arguments that we’ve heard before:

[..] in which he posits that BPMN is incompatible with ACM. He starts by saying that it’s not a critique of BPMN in particular, but of any two-dimensional flow diagram notation. He also makes a distinction between production case management and adaptive case management – a distinction that I find to be a bit artificial since I don’t think that there’s a hard line between them – where PCM systems have developers creating systems for people to use, whereas ACM has people doing the work themselves.

This has been one of the defining problems of ACM – defining itself by what it isn’t.  Conceptually it just isn’t working very well, in my estimation, as a name that means something separate from amorphous names like CM and BPM.

But Sandy goes on to point out an additional problem:

The distinction between PCM and ACM has created a thin, rarified slice of what remains defined as ACM: doctors and lawyers are favorite examples, and it is self-evident that you’re not going to get either doctors or lawyers to draw event-driven BPMN models with the full set of 100+ elements for their processes, or to follow rigidly defined processes in order to accomplish their daily tasks. Instead, their “processes” should be represented as checklists, so that users can completely understand all of the tasks, and can easily modify the process as required.

Yep.  Outside of these doctors and lawyers (and musicians), the examples start to run thin.  Because even processes that are run off of checklists on an individual scale will benefit from a supporting structural framework (for which BPMN is a good fit) when we look at them in aggregate (macro scale).  We’ve blogged about this before in the healthcare space.

Sandy lays out Keith’s argument:

Taking all of that together, you can see where he’s coming from, even if you disagree: if a system uses BPMN to model processes, most people will not understand  how BPMN models work [if they are drawn in full complexity by developers, I would add], therefore won’t modify them; if all users can’t modify the process, then it’s not ACM. Furthermore, creating a flow model with temporal dependencies where no such dependencies exist in reality hinders adaptability, since people will be forced to follow the flow even if there is another way to accomplish their goals that might be more appropriate in a particular context.

Keith’s general approach is to lay out small points that you’ll agree with in isolation, to build a case toward a larger point that you would disagree with if he started with it.  But there’s a challenge in this kind of debating / reasoning technique.  I call it question bias, but it might better be called framing bias.  If you frame the debate or question the right way, there is only one “right” answer, and the sum of these questions leads you to a dead end where you have to agree with the larger conclusion.

An example of this is the famous line “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” – tough question to say yes to when the economy is hurting. But similar questions might elicit dramatically different (and more important) results: “are you more optimistic about the future today than you were four years ago?”  “are things better today than you imagined they would be four years ago?” Are examples.

In the case of BPMN and ACM, Keith discards the idea that you might build an “ACM-style system” (as he’s defined it) out of a BPMN suite.  Meaning, users never have to see BPMN, but the modifications they request to their checklist are already captured by a model that can accommodate dynamic additions, deletions, changes, etc.

Since, at BP3, we already know it is possible to use BPMN to build such an ACM system, we’ve never been comfortable with the statements that ACM is somehow different than BPM.  It is just a specific kind of process with a specific set of user requirements.  Some BPMS tools won’t accommodate those user requirements. But some will.

Sandy makes a similar point, more eloquently:

You can create a BPMN diagram that is a collection of ad hoc tasks that don’t have temporal dependencies, which is semantically identical to a checklist. You can create alternative views, so that a model may be viewed in different forms by different audiences. In other words, just like Jessica Rabbit, BPMN isn’t bad, it’s just drawn that way.

Looking forward to seeing more of Sandy’s updates from BPM2012!


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  • Keith Swenson

    Scott, thanks as always for the discussion.

    There is one thing that I would like you and your readers to consider: It is possible that you don’t understand ACM at all. You start with the position that there is no good definition of ACM. This would be my fault, and I blame no one else. If it is the case that the definition is not good, it is very possible that you you simply misunderstand what ACM is.

    In my attempt to explain ACM, I have continually contrasted the ACM approach with BPM approach, but you have always rejected this. You have always insisted that ACM is just a kind of BPM and that the contrast is not value. Once again, it is not clear to me that you really understand what ACM is because you *reject* the definitions that have been provided.

    Finally, you conclude that “at BP3, we already know it is possible to use BPMN to build such an ACM system.” However, you have rejected the definitions I have provided, and supplied your own definition of ACM, and then implemented something you call ACM using BPMN. You have never shown that this resulting system meets the criteria of an ACM provided by the ACM group.

    For criteria, see: http://social-biz.org/2012/05/29/acm-awards-finalists/

    At the workshop we saw a couple of excellent demonstrations of ACM systems. I don’t need to mention that they do not use BPMN. In fact, every single talk (not just mine) mentioned the unsuitability of BPMN for what they are doing. You can continue to *reject* this evidence, but I am not sure you really understand what ACM is.

    Can you convince me that you really understand ACM? Can YOU provide a definition for what you think it is? That is the place we should start.

    • You do realize your ACM workshop was at a BPM conference, right? And I’m the one who is crazy when I think ACM is just a specific corner of BPM?

      When you start out by thanking me, I should expect the knives to come out in the next sentence!

      Keith, it is equally possible that you don’t understand BPM at all.

      To go point-by-point, not that this is constructive when you’re upset, but:
      1. I didn’t say I rejected the definitions – you said that. And then had a nice argument with yourself on the topic. I think the definitions of ACM leave it in such a thin space as to not make it terribly interesting as a software category. I’ve been proven wrong before, maybe it will be a fantastic software category. But in the meantime I think I’m allowed to express a dissenting opinion 🙂

      2. Yes, you have trotted out comparisons to BPM at every turn, mostly to try to define what BPM can’t do, and then argue that ACM does it. I’ve never taken issue with what “ACM” can or can’t do, I’ve just taken issue with your assumptions about what BPM can’t do. I have pointed out that since BPM software is implemented by… you know… software… that it isn’t terribly instructive to say what it can’t do, because it probably can do it with the right authorship.

      3. I’m sure you saw excellent demonstrations of ACM systems – even systems that don’t use BPMN. After all, you’ve previously cited examples of ACM “systems”: twitter, email, a clipboard with a checklist, yammer, etc. Well, that’s fine. But trust me, it is pretty easy to build a process in BPMN that allows users to build and maintain checklists, without ever having to use BPMN themselves.

      4. I take it that the BPMS you have used in the past doesn’t address your ACM definition. We haven’t had the same problem.

      “Can you convince me that you really understand ACM? Can YOU provide
      a definition for what you think it is? That is the place we should

      Do I really need to prove myself to you? You are the judge of who can understand ACM or who can understand BPM? Is that how this works? 🙂 My definition of ACM would be something like “Keith’s attempt to
      redefine the playing field after the last round of BPM acquisitions”. 😉 I think I understand it perfectly.

      • Keith

        Your definition ACM is “Keith’s attempt to redefine the playing field after the last round of BPM acquisitions”.

        You ask “Do I really need to prove myself to you?” Not to me. But I think you owe your READERS the evidence that you understand what you are talking about.

        I think it is abundantly clear to everyone that you have no intention of understanding or seriously discussing ACM.

        • Keith, I’m sorry you’re taking our disagreements so personally. It
          isn’t the first time that you’ve decided to take shots at my
          intelligence or ability to comprehend or understand rather than respond
          to the content of the discussion.

          I don’t think it reflects
          well on you to take that tone or tactic, and it sounds awfully
          defensive. Of course, if people reading this agree or disagree, I
          welcome them to chime in and voice their opinion, and I won’t censor
          your comments.

          It is abundantly clear that I’ve “called your
          baby ugly”, and that you really don’t like it (or me?) – but that isn’t
          because I don’t understand you. It’s because I don’t agree with your
          premise. Your framing. Your definition of the limits of other software
          packages and concepts. And because I already have a checklist
          application called “Reminders” on my Mac.

          Because we have
          different world-views about this, we find it hard to agree, despite
          having our own logical arguments that lead to our own opposing

          It is also abundantly clear that I’m not on the ACM
          bandwagon. It could be because I don’t understand it, or it could be
          because I do 😉 Maybe everyone who doesn’t agree with you simply doesn’t
          understand ACM, is that it?

          I think the body of work on our
          blog and in comments on other blogs shows well enough that I understand
          what I talk about, if the several hundred deployments and customers
          don’t speak for themselves. You’re certainly entitled to your own
          opinion, but maybe you could find better ways to express it if you
          choose to.

          Meanwhile, it really won’t matter what you and I
          argue about in the end. The market will decide the winners and losers of
          this argument eventually. So far, it doesn’t look like its own
          market. Let’s see if that changes. I expect to continue to see ACM
          discussions as part of BPM conferences, like BPM2012.

          • keith

            I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. Sorry if I did.

            I think if you understood what ACM is, you might actually agree with a lot of this stuff.

            Unfortunately, from the very beginning, you decided that ACM is just “Keith’s attempt to redefine the playing field after the last round of BPM acquisitions”.

            Given this definition, OF COURSE you keep saying that it is just BPM.

            You are right that it is pointless to discuss the benefits/tradeoffs when we are talking about completely different things. You are saying that “ACM is xyz” but your definition of ACM is unique to you.

            So I asked you to make a serious definition of what you THINK ACM is. That way we can discuss whether that is the same thing I am talking about. But you still fail to do this.

            It is not that you called ACM ugly. My frustration comes from the fact that no one can even tell if we are talking about the same things!

            Your definition that ACM is “Keith’s attempt to redefine the playing field after the last round of BPM acquisitions” proves that we are simply TALKING ABOUT DIFFERENT THINGS.

          • I guess I understand how you feel, because I feel that if you understood BPM, you’d understand that ACM is just an interesting corner of the BPM universe.

            (I’m really not interested in playing word games with definitions, which is why I’m just not interested in engaging with you on that. I’ve seen that movie before and it just isn’t very productive. Words and definitions don’t prove what software can or can’t do. Software and platforms can do things really well that often wouldn’t occur to you to put in the definition )

            I think it should be obvious that my definition, offered, was an attempt at a humorous response to the question 😉 Because a pedantic argument over definitions isn’t really that interesting.

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