BPM And The Tower Of Babel

I admit my knowledge of the Bible is lamentably sketchy. You, my erudite readers, no doubt know your Genesis and didn’t need Google to know that Babel was: “a city (now thought to be Babylon) where God confounded a presumptuous attempt to build a tower into heaven by confusing the language of its builders into many mutually incomprehensible languages.”

The subconscious is a funny thing though because it was the Tower of Babel that came immediately to mind as I read the latest attempt to define what BPM means.

Let’s not shoot the messenger. Paul Harmon’s piece yesterday in BP Trends What is A Business Architecture? is an extremely comprehensive survey of all the various strands of BPM thinking, the schools of thought, the practitioner communities, the various BPM ‘traditions’. Its BPM perspectives cover Enterprise Architecture, Process Frameworks, Lean and Six Sigma, Value Chains and much more.

It’s not Paul’s fault. His article rather perfectly describes the widespread confusion and extreme levels of disconnection in the real world of BPM. There’s not only disagreement about what BPM is, there is no consistency in the use of terms, and it’s not even clear whether BPM “should be undertaken by business people, working top-down, or created for them by IT people, working bottom-up”.

So the long and the short of it is that, after a couple of decades, there is no agreement on what BPM is, nor on how to do it.

And just in case you thought that it couldn’t get any worse, Paul concludes: “We expect this discussion to get more complex before it is resolved”.

How so many bright people over such a long time managed to expend so much human effort in such unfocussed and uncoordinated attempts ‘to improve things’ is a discussion point for future MBAs. The real world demands that we move on.

To do that, we have to re-boot BPM and start over. To escape this confusion and these mutually incomprehensible languages, we have to go back to first principles. We need a new creed and a universal language.

Let me offer a BPM manifesto based on what I’ve seen and learned from my clients. Six principles that form the essential foundations for a BPM that matters.

1. All work is process.
– as the APQC wrote in its first report on BPM, back in 2005

2. Processes can be manual or automated or a hybrid.
– end-to-end processes are what matter, not just what’s automated.

3. Process should be integrated not stand-alone.
– the goal is a single process model, a complete joined-up view of the enterprise.

4. Process is the natural language of the enterprise.
– end-to-end process provides a lingua franca, and bridges the IT:Business Divide.

5. Simplicity matters: process adoption is crucial.
– compliance and continuous improvement depend upon end user engagement.

6. Process is a platform, not a project.
– process is the framework for effective collaboration and sustainable excellence.

Core principles of this kind can align the diverse builders of BPM – the traditions, communities, practitioners who largely ignore each other – to enable far more effective collaboration and far more productive results. It’s about making work easier, faster and more valuable.

Going back to Genesis, I’m not going to speculate on exactly whose presumptuous claims brought down upon us this chastisement of confusion and incomprehensible languages. But if I was a marketing guru in a BPMS vendor, I think I might be poring over the Good Book, looking for loopholes.

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Mike Gammage is VP and Principal Consultant at Nimbus Partners. Mike has worked in performance improvement consulting, and more recently the BPM space, for more than two decades. He is particularly interested in the overlap between two very dynamic worlds: BPM and perfomance improvement (the drive across all industries to standardise, improve and automate) and sourcing and the virtualisation of the enterprise (the drive to create more flexible and lower-cost service solutions through outsourcing, offshoring and shared services). In either case, Mike believes the enterprise needs a single source of truth about its end-to-end business processes, as well as a framework for the design and implementation of change. It also needs to connect the end-user and all other stakeholders to ensure the adoption of change. These are the keys to sustainable transformation and continuous improvement.