The Zero Code Hypothesis

  • April 4, 2013
  • Scott

Everyone has their hypotheses about managing business by process.  For example, the ACM folks hypothesize that the important knowledge work that businesses do cannot be effectively modeled in BPMN.  The more “traditional” view of BPM (which is only about 10 years in the making) is that BPMN is a good tool for modeling business processes.  Another school of BPM looks at it through an automation lens (and as a result, the BPEL vendors that came about).

Sometimes people will lay their hypothesis about managing business right out on the table for you to examine. In other cases you have to pick through their statements and positions and software to infer what their hypothesis is.  Note: not everyone will consider their own take on BPM an “hypothesis” …

At bpmNEXT, Camunda presented and I thought their hypothesis was interesting: that the commercial “zero-coding” frameworks are a problem.  That the zero code layer neither provides all the functionality that the business user wants, nor the right interface into the core engine behaviors and other development tools that IT/Developers need.

It is kind of a fascinating counter-point to the movement to make BPM “more accessible” to the business, and I think it represents a pretty sizable chunk of the open source market that is in strong agreement.  Their argument:

  • Zero-code solutions promise that the business can do it all
  • But this is bullsh*t (I believe that’s a quote based on my notes!).  Sure, it is fine for vacation requests and checklists, but not for real business processes.  This is a pretty tough condemnation of not just zero-coding BPM, but also of ACM approaches in a sense.
  • Otherwise real business processes take real IT work to accomplish.
  • An accountant isn’t setting up web services integrations with a wizard.

Camunda’s philosophy goes a bit further – that getting Business-IT alignment isn’t about getting rid of IT – alignment doesn’t mean getting rid of one party.  As a techie who loves process, I find a lot to like about this messaging.

First, what IT or BPM project wouldn’t be better off with a more capable, technical team responsible for delivering it?  I’m constantly amazed at how businesses short-change multi-million-dollar projects in order to save a few thousand dollars on labor costs.  These technical people are not cogs in the machine, they’re critical elements in your success as a business, as a project, as a process.

Second, vendors shouldn’t be misleading customers about the level of technical expertise that is desired, if not required, to do BPM well, when we’re talking about substantial enterprise processes.

There are other things about the approach as a result of keeping IT at top of mind in building tools: the emphasis on BPMN as a centerpiece of the solution.  The focus on diff/merge features to support round-tripping.  The secondary emphasis that UI/UX receives.

Contrast this with…

Now, contrast this with the approach of WebRatio or Tidalwave, which presented their hypotheses on BPMN. First, WebRatio demonstrated social interaction like integration to Twitter and Facebook – a novelty area but one in which the specialty vendors for your social media processes are already carving up the market (e.g. Spredfast, etc.).  They also implemented the voting application for bpmNEXT.

In TidalWave’s presentation, they illustrated a WordPress-like capability, with BPMN underlying the implementation of it.  Key passages from their presentation included “Enabling people who normally couldn’t do BPM or BPMN”.  BPMN was described as the invisible hand surrounded by UI.

It was an interesting side-note that they could export the BPMN XML – and even edit and reimport it.  However, they’re selling the apps, not the tooling behind the apps.  From their point of view its okay if the customers or users don’t know there is a process behind the scenes.

The interesting points to me were:

  • more confirmation that you can build rich tools with BPMN engines, that do not require the user to be an expert in BPMN or process
  • the combination of WordPress style features for building content, and BPMS-style features for putting together simple processes

And to think that these sessions were all on day 1 of the same conference – totally different hypotheses on how to approach BPM and BPMN.

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  • Nice post from Tom Baeyens on this subject, specifically arguing you can have it all – the direct access to BPMN and coding layers, and the simple UI:

    “It’s a contrast, but I don’t think these two trends are contradictory. To me this is a sign that the BPM sector starts to realize that it’s dealing with two very distinct stakeholders.”

    Good read! Couldn’t comment on his blog, but I agree that the two philosophies aren’t mutually exclusive, though they are contrasting.

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  • Thank you for the very good summary, Scott! I just wanted to clarify 2-3 points that probably have been a bit misleading in my talk:

    • Jakob – Thanks for the course correction, and my sincere apologies if you feel I put words in your mouth! Of course, I did my best to summarize but impossible to get all the nuances that you have in mind – As to the corrections, they’re entirely consistent with your talk as I remember it, but I missed a few of the subtleties – for example that zero coding would obviously be okay for some problems (and not for others).

      Great post!

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