Does Adaptive BPM Beat Traditional BPM?


Any amount of research into business process management technologies reveals a great deal of competing information around the right approach to solve the everyday challenges of managing work.

‘Traditonal’ BPM

Traditional BPM rose on the need for a way to channel the energy of the worker into tasks that needed to be performed in an efficient manner. With the age-old saying that if you can’t describe it, you can’t measure and improve it, technology was applied to the capture of the way work is done and then to techniques for measurement, analysis and improvement.

The criticism of this approach is that it turns humans into robots and strips away the creative element necessary for the business and its workers to evolve with a changing environment. Is this fair criticism? Probably not, as there are many tasks that must be prescribed, such as:

  • Safety procedures
  • Compliance activities
  • System interaction that has required steps
  • Contractual activities
  • Best practices that are determined to be ‘tried and true’
  • Complex interactions within and without the organization
  • Cost-saving activities that require an order to their execution

There are many reasons why certain behaviors would need to be done in a pre-determined fashion, but that doesn’t mean everything must.

Adaptive BPM

Adaptive BPM takes the approach that work should be done in the best way possible and that putting restraints on workers stifles the organization’s need for innovation. At the risk of oversimplification, the resolution of work is still managed but through less prescribed procedures. Measurement is by external factors, like outcomes (such as customer satisfaction) rather than adherence to specific activities.

The criticism of this approach is that it is too nirvana-ish and doesn’t reflect the realities of managing people. Is this fair? Probably not, as most people want to have flexibility and exercise creativity in their work and anything that harnesses this desire makes companies great.


Work is done in both ways. Every organization, but especially those with large workforces and/or in regulated industries has a need to alternate specified behavior with creative work. A well-designed BPM system allows for both by managing creative and non-creative activity within a single interface. At a large engineering firm, this is managed through three different mechanisms depending on the nature of the work being performed:

  • Compliance and contractual activities are ‘shall’ work that requires process owners to give authorization to deviate from the published processes
  • Best practice activities are ‘should’ and require that process owners are informed of deviation from published processes and those owners have the opportunity to step in and mandate behaviors as they see fit
  • Creative work is ‘may’ and social media is the avenue for communication of ideas and exceptions to normal ways of working. The informality of social media aligns well with the need for fast, out-of-the-box work.

The reality is that work isn’t fully creative and isn’t fully prescribed in the healthiest organizations. Business process systems need to have the rigor and flexibility to help the organization meet its goals without having a stifling effect on work.

For a great primer on the basic arguments of adaptive versus traditional BPM, Neil Ward-Dutton has a great piece in CIO.

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Chris Taylor joined Nimbus in 2009 as VP Consulting Americas, and leads a team of business process improvement consultants who serve major corporations across the world. Chris’s clients include Nestlé, Cisco, Northrop Grumman, ThyssenKrupp and many others, who use Business Process Management (BPM) tools and techniques to drive process standardisation, improvement, quality and compliance initiatives. His insight to what makes BPM a sustainable success for so many client organisations makes him a valuable industry commentator. Before joining Nimbus, Chris held senior consulting and leadership roles focused on business transformation with ILOG (now IBM), Perot Systems and Accenture. In his early career, Chris managed aircrew and flight operations while flying for the US Navy. He is an avid skier, hiker and sailor and spends most of his off time exploring the mountains and coasts near his home in Southern California and the rest of the world.