Large Models in BPMN

  • January 5, 2010
  • Scott

A research paper was recently published, which purports to research improving the traversal of large hierarchical process repositories.  After a good introduction and background to the topic, the authors quickly jump to IDS Scheer and IBM’s Websphere as examples of BPM tools.  And next, the authors jump to the conclusion that 3D modeling will solve the problem of complex modeling in BPM.

However, the evidence presented is incredibly unconvincing.  3D modeling may hold some promise for BPM, but the examples presented don’t look more understandable to me – they look less understandable. It seems like, conceptually, 3D might take advantage of our innate spatial relationship capabilities and render complex things more understandable… but that isn’t what comes across from the examples in this paper.

Much more powerful than “3D” is the concept of containment, and representing containment. Containment is a form of abstraction that allows me to talk about the behavior of a black box, but then shine a light inside the black box and you can see additional details at a finer granularity, only if and when you choose to.  Containment is the key abstraction needed for understanding large models, and 3D just looks like a fun science project by comparison.  Abstraction by containment is a big part of how we process geography, maps, and directions… and process flows are a geography (road / map) of sorts.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to keep waiting for the silver bullet for making large complex models more understandable or accessible!

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  • Matthew Corbett

    Hi Scott,

    Very Interesting analysis, even years later. While musing for a pet project, the idea of “3D” BPMN modeling came to me. I thought, “this must be an innovative way to help us communicate complex processes!”. I decided to see if anything was out there. I came across this implementation from Brown and Recker and your thoughts on it.

    After reading the paper and seeing the implementation, I have to agree that the reality of it didn’t necessarily lend itself to the end goal of making a complex, multi-leveled process easier to communicate, and thinking about it terms of “3D” as it’s known in the collective conscious isn’t as helpful as I had hoped.

    However, I do think there’s potential in iteration of this idea, incorporating the ideas of containment and encapsulation. Perhaps giving the user the ability to collapse and expand, or shine light on/dim those black boxes of the process in some kind of layered environment, and so on.

    Especially now, almost 8 years after that paper was published, with 3D rendering capabilities in the browser having come a long way, I may try to take crack at this from a different point of view.

    Matt Corbett

    • I think it’s an interesting idea, but I think BPMN is probably the wrong basis for a 3D representation – after all, it is designed for 2D : )

      Also, in virtual / 3D geometry, the laws of physics don’t apply. What’s inside an object can be bigger than the object itself 🙂 There are interesting opportunities, but they probably mean re-imagining how you would model or represent a process from first principles… !

      ( I always liked the layering idea – think of those old biology transparencies of the human body – you peel the first layer back and now the skin is gone and you see the musculature, and eventually just the skeleton. )

      • Matthew Corbett

        Hi Scott, great points, thanks for the feedback. It’s making me think. The spec was indeed designed for 2D diagrams, as I’ve read more and more.

        I think the layering is key. Maybe each level is represented by a flat, 2D object, and they are stacked in some way, with the ability to rotate and roll the model to see all the levels at once, or hide them selectively, etc. I’m also thinking about the spec, as detailed here: , it calls for having the ability expand a subprocess in the context of its parent. With this, I’m thinking about how swimlanes within subprocesses may or may not exist according to the spec, and which BPM products allow a subprocess without swimlanes. Lots to think about!