Process, Structure, and the Illusion of Hindsight vs. Foresight

  • January 19, 2011
  • Scott

The argument over what a process is continues.  As well, the argument over what is BPM and what is ACM.  Two articles recently on the subject.  First, Michael Poulin argues that all process is structured, and that ACM is not about process at all, but about managing the unknown or unexpected:

ACM is not about process management due to the absence of the process, it is rather about a management of consequences of unpredicted events, which itself is very important business task.

Well, look.  It is an interesting attempt to define ACM – it just happens to be a different definition than all the other ACM thought leaders have been using as an operating model.  Maybe the ACM folks will take up his definition – maybe not (I feel that, as someone not classified as a proponent, I shouldn’t be the one to define the term.  Though I did suggest what I think ACM is about, vis-a-vis BPM, at one point… and at an earlier point).

Then Keith Swenson weighs in – and seems to largely agree with Michael’s discussion – I think for two reasons: first, it has a very narrow interpretation of process, and second, Michael provides justification for arguing that even well-understood processes may not be as well-understood as people think (and therefore perhaps they need to be re-examined as being ACM!):

He says “But, wait a minute, do we know what/why we do things? Do we really know the logic of our actions?”   Truth is, we do thing[s], and then later rationalize why we did them.  However, it is not clear that that rationale is in fact the cause of the actions.

So, now the argument seems to be that we’re just rationalizing a set of actions after the fact, rather than contemplating a plan in advance. The ability to see the structure and organization of what we do is a good thing – a key organizing attribute of businesses and people.  Somehow Keith has made this sound like a deficiency instead of a beneficial attribute (it might not have been his intent, but that’s how it comes across). Being able to describe a complex interaction as, instead, a smaller set of high-level actions, is a huge benefit to humanity’s ability to understand the world.  And the fact that BPM leverages that capability is hardly a deficiency, for example.

Moreover, Keith uses an art metaphor:

When an art student first attempts to draw an outdoor scene involving a tree, they commonly will start by drawing a line around the tree.  That line does not exist in reality, but it is a construct of the mind which automatically classifying what you are seeing.  The tree “looks” separate from the surrounding, because we understand that the tree is a separate entity from the mountain behind it.  The art student must “unlearn” this habit of drawing in the borders between conceptual things.  Such unlearning is not trivial.

There is a fair amount of “unlearning” when learning to draw (or paint).  But there IS a process for sketching landscapes, versus sketching portraits.  Growing up, I observed that my sister could take a picture of something and sketch a photo-realistic copy of the same thing scaled up or down in size (I thought that was quite amazing, being the little brother).  It was hardly assigning method to the madness after the fact – she had a plan before pencil touched paper.  There were even a standard bag of tricks for incorporating or correcting any mistakes.

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  • Scott,

    The quote you took from Michael Poulin’s post is spot on. It is exactly what ACM is about.

    The definition that Mastering the Unpredictable uses is:

    Adaptive Case Management (ACM) is information technology that exposes structured and unstructured business information (business data and content) and allows structured (business) and unstructured (social) organizations to execute work (routine and emergent processes) in a secure but transparent manner.

    OK, it is a mouthful but it is a definition. Michael Poullin has done a great job of interpreting and explaining that definition. If you agree with this as well, then we can be friends again 🙂

    It is all the other pundits that are saying that ACM is just BPM with XYZ. It is very bizarre really because the definition does not mention BPM at all.

    The rest of the things you say here seem to completely miss the point of my post, but readers should read that and decide for themselves. I apologize in advance if I was unable to make myself clear.

  • Keith- you’re right, it’s a mouthful. Interestingly, I think it was Jacob who said he really disagreed with Michael’s post.

    I don’t have anything to argue with of Michael’s ACM definition (yeay!) though I *do* think his process definition is too narrow for my taste. Not that it really matters, as it is just an esoteric argument that doesn’t impact the work we do every day. Regarding the folks who talk about ACM as BPM+XYZ – the problem is that the folks pitching ACM (yourself included) started by talking about it in the context of BPM – by saying “see, here are the shortcomings of BPM and why you need ACM” – but if ACM is truly different, there’s no need to do this – any more than you would say “BPM is really no good at word processing, and therefore we’re introducing a new category of productivity application called ‘Editing’!” – Silly example. But if ACM is more about unpredictable events we should be talking about how it relates to CEP rather than BPM. (says me). So, I understand your frustration but I feel the ACM proponents brought this on themselves, yourself included. at the end you say ACM isn’t BPM at all – but it took a whole post about BPM to say that… So I think understandably if the people who are pundits on BPM switch to talk about ACM, you can expect a lot of people to jump on the bandwagon and call their BPM “ACM” etc. It was all pretty predictable software vendor response.

    Where I disagree is with the idea that most of the time we’re imagining process where none exists, or that it is just a fancy of the way our brains work. We imagine (and then realize) process for things we do often that we’d like to improve. And that’s a good thing.

    I always link to your original post so that readers can do just that – read your thoughts for themselves and see what they can take from different points of view. I hope we’ve always been friends even if we have strong arguments around the edges of this topic 😉