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11 Questions on Social BPM

I gave a short presentation today with Clay Richardson on the subject of Social BPM. We got a lot of good questions, and no time to answer them. I thought I would attempt to answer them here.

To understand the context, you might want to access the recorded talk, which is available on the ebizQ web site (you have to register and then navigate to Clay’s keynote). 

1. How can a BRMS like ILOG  benefit from social BPM?

The first meaning for Social BPM was simply applying social techniques to the development of traditional BPM.  In this approach, one might imagine collaborative development of rules.  Clearly this would open the opportunity to make better rules.

The second meaning of Social BPM is about direct use of social techniques in the business place.  The knowledge worker supporting “planning by doing” approach is less about up front definitions of a process.  In general it seems to me that rule sets are primarily useful in order to clearly specify an automated response, and must be prepared ahead of time.  It is hard to see how you would use such rules when directly performing the work.

2. Could you provide some specific examples of readily available user tools that would support social BPM?

Social BPM is not a separate tool, but more just the practice of using social tools at the same time as BPM tool.  For example, when it comes to assigning a task, it would be nice to be able to leverage something like FaceBook Friends, or LinkedIn Contacts.  When completing a particular BPM task, it might be nice if the system tweeted your status to your followers.  Other examples include integration of BPM with blogs and wikis.  It is an exciting field, because combining social and BPM is likely to yield so very new patterns of work.

3. If we were to develop “lightweight” BPM webservices based on a Open-source solution, which O-S platforms would you recommend?

I still think that the most important consideration is the domain of work you are planning to use the system for.  Different working domains will benefit differently from a particular BPM approach, so it is not easy to make a blanket recommendation.

Usually people look at open source in order to save money, so instead of “light weight” they are looking really for “low cost”.  You should take a look at Fujitsu’s Cloud BPM offering.  It is free for small team usage, and very reasonable price for large teams.  You don’t have to make any investment in hardware.  If if the application is successful, it is easy to scale up to a very large, robust process environment.

4. How does the concept of a Service Oriented Business Application(SOBA) related to social BPM, if at all?

SOA is an orthogonal concept to BPM in general — although there is a widespread misunderstanding about them being similar or the same thing.

  • BPM is something you do; a management practice.
  • SOA is a way that you implement a system.

I generally recommend that to build a BPM system, you use an object-oriented programming language to implement a service-oriented system.  But this does not mean that BPM is in any way dependent upon how you implement it.  This is equally true with Social BPM.

5. Does the ad-hoc process still require exposing and consuming SOA operations?

Did it ever require this?  It never did.  It is a little like this question: “Does the ad-hoc process still require you to construct and invoke Java objects?”

Forgive me for being acidulous.  There are many articles and blog posts that portray BPM processes as being simply programs that call services.  Understand that you, along with about 30% of the marketplace, have been misled.  There is a whole lot more to BPM than simply a glorified way of writing programs.  At the same time, there is a lot less.  They are different topics.

A more direct answer to the question is: ad-hoc processes may use tasks that call SOA services if they wish.  It is not required, but it is not prohibited either.

6. Do unstructured processes and ad-hoc work structures have better business drivers for Social BPM, relatively speaking?

This comes back to the two meaning of Social BPM.  The first meaning is to use social software to allow for better collaboration among the developers of the process, in order to make a traditional structured BPM solution.

The second meaning of Social BPM is about using social software in the workplace, and in this case we see a stronger alignment with “emergent processes”.  Think of social software as a system that gives people a better awareness of what others are doing.  How do you use that awareness?  It is most useful when you have the flexibility to define the process as you work, presumably with the benefit of that awareness.  In general, increased awareness (of the user) is of less value when the process is fully defined and optimized.

7. Sometimes ‘unpredictable work’ is as necessary for meeting overall organizational goals as structured work. Have you looked at ways to track ‘unpredictable work’ and tools to incorporate recurrent unpredictable work into current business processes, which must remain agile and responsive to changing environments?

Yes, there are a number of ways to use this.

7a – You can design a formal pre-defined process which has a step in it called something like “collaborate” where a bunch of work is accomplished without explicit tasking.  Thus unpredictable work can be nested inside a pre-defined process.

7b – Conversely, even in an environment of completely unpredictable work, it is possible to define “procedures” which are defined processes that can be invoked on demand.  Thus a completely unpredictable hospital episode may call into action predictable processes like “do a blood test” as part of the unpredictable work.

7c – In some cases, a pre-defined process does not exist simply because nobody has had the time or resources to sit and write it down.  In these cases people use the dynamic tasking to accomplish routine work.  After working for a while, it is possible to mine the history, and draw the formal process out.  This can be turned around again, now as a pre-defined process.

7d – Even in a case management environment where every task is determined by the case manager, it is possible to use analytic technique to compare similar cases, and learn what is working and not working.  If you happen to find reoccurring spans of tasks, they can be turned into a pre-define piece of process.

8. Most current uses of Social approach in BPM are pointed toward development of processes and not execution. How far do you think it would be before run-time process execution starts leveraging Social N/W?

I think the main reason that people talk most about using social for development of traditional processes, is because people are used to talking about BPM in terms of developing processes, it is hard to think outside that box.  Remember, it is Scientific Management which dictates that is it “good” to have a complete plan before you take the first step, and thus is seems that all work is something that should be able to planned in advance.  It is heresy to say that people should start working without a plan.  But that is exactly what we have to do.

9. Isn’t this a culture shock for centralized IT?

It really should not be, and for the most part it is not.  If you think that Social BPM might be threatening to IT, then you are probably thinking of BPM as being a glorified way to write software.   Instead, try to see Social BPM as a way of communicating about work and plans.  Installing Social BPM is no more threatening than installing a phone system, or an EMail system.  Workers outside of IT dial their own phone.  Workers address their own email.  IT departments don’t need to be in control of that.  Similarly, IT should be happy to provide a system that allows workers to define and run their own processes.

Still, social software in general is a bit of a shock to the IT traditionalist.  After all, if Wikipedia had been installed by an IT department, the first step would have been to lock everything down so that nobody could change anything.  But slowly, they are learning.

10. Social BPM, I prefer “BPM-The-Social-Way”, is an approach and not really a toolkit, IMHO. Do you anticipate a separate technology bucket to really get created around social BPM with vendors specifically focusing on it?

I don’t.  As smart phones became common, you did not see separate website to be used only by those phones.  Normally, the same old sites simply offered a way to access through the phone.   I think that social features will be incorporated into many existing product categories, without creating new separate categories.  I do think it is a strong and unavoidable trend, and any software vendor who ignores it and refuses to integrate social features will be ultimately cast aside.

11. One of the key challenges seems to be that the people at the top of the process heap are either social-networks-illiterate or social-networks-skeptics, and they think it’s for kiddos. Any advice on how to overcome that challenge?

Oh, if I only knew a sure-fire way to do this!   I asked a CEO of a major American company whether he used FaceBook.  His response was: “I have no need for FaceBook.  If I want to talk to someone, I just call them up.”   I was dumbfounded.

I remember a friend who was at a company that was acquired by Computer Associates in the 1990′s.  At that time, CA ran an email system, but they allowed access to it only at lunchtime and after hours.  You see, nobody was allowed to access email “during working hours”.

Adopting new behaviors is difficult, and doubly so when you can’t quite explain the benefit of something like social software to those who have never experienced it.  Until the mainstream crosses the chasm, the early adopters are doomed to a life of frustration watching those around us stumble all the time knowing they could be striding.


This post originally written by Keith Swenson on his blog –  Thoughts on Collaborative Planning.
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