What is BPM

As I work to prepare the agendas for the fall schedule of the Denver chapter of the Association of BPM Professionals (ABPMP), I thought it would be timely to step back and define BPM.

First, let’s get the acronym expanded correctly. I still hear some say BPM is Business Process Modeling or Business Performance Management. No, to me at least, BPM is Business Process Management. Perhaps this is the simplest definition we will all agree to. As I went searching for more definition, I found that there is less agreement than I expected and perhaps even a rift in those trying to define BPM from a technology vs. a more pure process perspective.

First stop (as usual for me) was Wikipedia.  They start with:

Business process management (BPM) is a management approach focused on aligning all aspects of an organization with the wants and needs of clients. It is a holistic management approach that promotes business effectiveness and efficiency while striving for innovation, flexibility, and integration with technology. Business process management attempts to improve processes continuously. It could therefore be described as a “process optimization process.” It is argued that BPM enables organizations to be more efficient, more effective and more capable of change than a functionally focused, traditional hierarchical management approach.

I found this good in that it starts with the idea that BPM is a management approach focused on clients (I prefer customers, but good so far.) I like that the stated goals are both effectiveness (doing the right things) and efficiency (doing those things better) and that it works to create innovation, flexibility (agility) and continuous improvement. The rest was less bpmcycle[8]than totally satisfying. It fails to explore the enterprise nature of BPM. In its overview, it acknowledges that BPM involves people and technology, but seems to focus on technology. It mentions  that “in the IT community, the term ‘business process’ is often used as synonymous of management of middleware processes; or integrating application software task,” and thankfully, stops short of equating BPM to SOA (Service Oriented Architecture.) The remainder of the article discusses the Design, Modeling, Execution, Monitoring and Optimization cycle and the technology supporting that cycle.

I next found more Eccentric Definitions of BPM from BPM.com. Wow, I had no idea there was so much confusion. In this article, Keith Swenson concludes that:

Overall, about half of the definitions I encountered were ones that talked about BPM being a management practice.  Most vendors carefully state that BPM is an initiative to improve the business, but often they tie this to IT with the reasonable idea that if you are going to improve your IT system, you should start with ideas that come from a BPM initiative.   These statements don’t actually equate BPM with system architecture, but I feel that many people reading this see the association so many times that they come to think of them as the same thing. There is an “IT community” which talks about BPM as being equal to/converged with/part of system architecture/SOA/EA.  There is another “business community” that represents the non-IT management side and sees no connection to system architecture at all.

More on this line of thinking from Ashish Bhagwat of the Redux blog:

It’s time SOA-wrapped-BPM gave way. We are already talking about moving on to social, collaborative and adaptive favors of BPM.

BPM is not about integrating your systems and making them work together. Workflow, as promoted by platform vendors and integration centric vendors may look like that, but integrating with systems is an approach, not objective. Process visibility/monitoring are not a post-implementation by-product. Those are one of the drivers for BPM.

The question should be – what are my operational issues, what are the tools available to me to get a solution for them?

Yes, it is time SOA-or-other-IT-wrapped-BPM gave way! BPM starts with Business for a reason. It presumes that business processes are key assets and should be managed with as much rigor as other assets (I’d argue more.) The enterprise processes of a business start with the customer and a process Design that understands what customers value and ensures that value is delivered. Modeling helps verify that the process design is innovative, effective, efficient and flexible and identifies where improvements can be made. Applying six sigma, lean, business process improvement, UCD, STPagile applications, organizational design and other improvement techniques all may help generate improvement. Until the new designs and their associated improvements are Executed so that the business uses them, no improvement will result. Execution will likely require good project management, change management and IT development. Until processes are Monitored, no continuous improvement and ongoing Optimization can result. This monitoring must allow both tactical adjustments to processes as well as strategic guidance of the business based on environment and customer changes.

Yes, I support the Design, Model, Execute, Monitor, Optimize cycle. But, it is not just tactically focused. Does it require a BPMS, SOA or other IT?  Maybe, eventually. But possibly not to reap benefits from many of the BPM improvements that can be made. Technology is an important tool that helps to deliver benefits. It is not necessarily the starting point for BPM.

7 Replies to “What is BPM”

  1. Jon, this is always a good question to ask and for the same reason gets a bit rhetorical as well 🙂 The problem has been that there are just too many perspectives involved that make this an intriguing and almost impossible-to-answer kind of a question at the same time.

    More on the definition aspect on “my blog” at Eclectic Zone – http://wp.me/pN8i1-4G (Defining BPM and State thereof – The Perspectives at Play).


    PS: Thanks for the reference to my post. I wrote that post on Redux as a guest blogger. Have been too busy with some activities at my front, but I’m itching to write something for some time now, hopefully soon 🙂 thanks for the link again.


  2. Jon: I really like your comments and agree that business should, in most cases, be the key driver of any BPMS implementation. But I urge you to consider the significance of standards and the importance of having knowledgeable IT people who can help any process design adhere to them. It doesn’t mean that the main functions of these processes have to be given over to IT, but their role shouldn’t be diminished. Thanks for your time!
    -Pat (www.activevos.com)


    1. Pat, Thanks for the comment and no arguments that IT is critical to most BPM initiatives. My goal in this post was to stress that it is often bigger than the role IT has typically allowed for BPM and when applied enterprise wide has the greatest potential.


  3. Burton Group has a good take on the BPM definition problem in their recent field research published in April, 2010 (” Becoming Process Oriented” – http://www.burtongroup.com/Research/PublicDocument.aspx?cid=1865):

    “The 35 people Burton Group spoke to as part of this study each had a different definition of BPM. BPM is the most extreme case of the blind men and the elephant fable… This confusion matters because an understanding of what BPM is enables and limits what can be achieved with it… BPM is a discipline for managing business processes explicitly as strategic assets… The commitment to manage processes explicitly, and treat processes as strategic corporate assets, should be taken independently from any decision to automate part of the workflow. ”

    That said, a quality/process improvement/BPM team that altogether shuns process solutions involving technology on principle is probably doing itself and the organization that sponsors it a disservice by missing out on some very big opporutnities. Like you, Jon, I don’t think the only tool in the belt needs to be a BPMS, but often innovation comes from blending technologies from a palette in ways not thought of before – and a BPMS, especially one that powefully supports the integration of several types of technologies, makes a powerful canvas. For more on that, see an interview with Vinnie Mirchandani, the author who wrote “The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations” (see article from CIO Magazine, “Renaissance Men Wanted: Big Problems Need Big Innovators” – http://www.cio.com/article/596713/Renaissance_Men_Wanted_Big_Problems_Need_Big_Innovators). And while I agree that a viable BPM practice can exist without using a BPMS – implementing solutions in a BPMS without some form of a BPM practice is risky, so they can become linked this way in people’s minds very easily

    This argument, much like its fiery cousin “who should own/run BPM initiatives – IT or the business?”, seem like they are always put out there as “or” rather than “and” propositions. I think that reality demands a “middle path” – where a business should be continually aware of all the stakholders in a business process (who are much easier to identify than the owners of the process – especially when it crosses org boundaries), including IT, and have the freedom and flexibility to tailor and change its definition of the BPM practice and leadership to reflect its goals.


    1. Good input as always, Alana. No argument that in today’s information-focused world, technology will play an important role in most initiatives. I do like the idea that the starting point for BPM is treating processes as strategic assets of a business. Once that commitment is made and internalized at the right levels of an organization, the rest follows naturally… probably down a middle road where strategic focus balances IT and other initiatives. My intent in this post was to pull that path more centrally than I often see it heading. This will be one of the topics we’ll be focusing on at upcoming ABPMP meetings.


  4. Jon . . IMO you nailed it with “Until processes are Monitored, no continuous improvement and ongoing Optimization can result”

    This has been my focus (mapping, compiling the map, ‘guiding’ instance processing) for the past 10 years.

    My only comment is with the implication that their is a requirement for IT “development” – yes for interfacing with 3rd party internal and external systems that do not use standard data exchange formats but the technology we use otherwise requires only casual hand-holding by IT staff.

    In principle, our customers could take our software out of the box and do their BPA, BPI and BPM (for monitoring) – the problem is many are so busy doing ‘more with less’ that they can hardly attend to their firefighting and the other problem is very few seem to be able to think ‘process’, so we strongly encourage them to work with a friendly local consultant they have a relationship with. We make our technology (methods and software) available to these consultants at no charge. The only catch is they have to demonstrate that they can use our software before we give it to them and that takes 10-20 hours of web sessions at $20 per hour (8 people max at each session).


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