Notes on Musical Notation

I attended the keynote by Dennis Wisnosky, CTO of Dept Of Defense, today at the Architecture & Process conference. He is currently on a campaign to get vendors to make truly interoperable implementations of BPM technology. He has been testing implementations of BPMN, and found disparity.

A notation is…

He feels that the most important thing is a standard notation for business processes. What do you get with a standard notation? You can have a document that displays something, and everyone should be able to read it, and agree on what it means. He gave two examples of notations.

First, he showed an electronics schematic. He pointed out the resistor symbol, the capacitor symbol, and the ground symbol, included in a simple filter circuit. You go to any electrical engineer, in any country of the world, and they can read this diagram. It is a standard notation that works.

Second, he showed musical notation. Again, this is a world-wide standard which consists of notes on the staff, as well as a collection of other notation. Again, you can take a piece of music to any musician in the world, and have agreement on what the notation means. It is clear what notes are to be played, when they should be played, and for how long.

He is absolutely right. You should be able to take a BPMN digram from any product, and show it to a person who is trained in BPMN, and there should be an unambiguous interpretation of what the diagram means. That is the goal of BPMN.

But a notation is not…

The analogy with music is a very good one, because it exposes some other properties of a notation that people find non-intuitive. For example, you can write a jumble of notes on a staff, but that does not mean that any given instrument can play it. A tuba player can read the piccolo part, and agree what the notes mean, but that does not mean that the part can be played on a tuba.

A standard notation does not imply that all legal notation can be played. Each instrument has allowable parameters around what you can and can not play, limited certainly by range, but also other factors: a piano can play chords while a wind instrument can not. (Please, no smart comments about bag pipes, OK?) A composer does not write a piece of music as an “abstract” composition of notes. A composer considers each instrument, and writes music that that instrument can play. This is expressed as standard notation, which anyone can read, but there is a lot more composition than simply creating the notation.

It is really important to keep this in mind for BPMN. When a process analyst creates a process diagram, that analyst must keep in mind the capabilities of the process engine that will be executing the process. The process should be designed specifically to run on that engine. But then the process can be expressed in a standard notation that we all can read and agree on the meaning of.

Conversely, this means that when an engine imports an XPDL file containing a BPMN diagram, the BPMN and XPDL standards do not, by themselves, guarantee that the engine will be able to execute it. The best we can hope for is that the engine tells you when there is something “out of its range” and can not perform.

Don’t confuse notation with universal language…

Imagine a universal instrument that could play any combination of notes for any duration, but there are other considerations beyond simply being able to throw any notation at an instrument. A trumpet and an oboe may play the same notes, but they are qualitatively different instruments in a way that transcends the notation. The notation communicates certain important things, but it is not the full embodiment of the music.

Some people jump to the conclusion that all process engines should have a “complete” implementation of BPMN — whatever that means. Having all process engines with exactly the same capability would mean stopping all innovation on support for business process, and limiting all engines to a least-common-denominator approach. It has been my experience that each engine offers new and unique difference that are good for supporting particular kinds of processes. Stifling innovation for the sake of universality is a short sighted goal. The fact that the engines are different is not a bad thing. Yet we still can expect, and must demand, that the notation be consistent.

Dennis Wisnosky represents a very large and powerful customer of process technology, with influence across the industry. Watch what he does, because I think he is in a position to have a profound effect on the BPM marketplace this coming year — and he is on the right track.

19 thoughts on “Notes on Musical Notation

  1. “When a process analyst creates a process diagram, that analyst must keep in mind the capabilities of the process engine that will be executing the process.”

    … and also the capabilities of the organization that will be executing the process. A piano can play chords, but most pianists only have ten fingers and one nose.

  2. Pingback: links for 2008-04-24 « steinarcarlsen

  3. Keith,
    Great post. Happy to see we’re on the same page on this (at last). You might mention the effort in xpdl 2.1 to get tool vendors to declare supoort for some BPMN portability conformance level – simple, standard, or full.

  4. Hi,
    I defiantly agree that focus of BPMN should be on creating a common business process language, which is consistent and understandable by the whole range of stakeholders from the business process owner, to the business analyst to the developer.
    The fact that a BPMN diagram can be converted directly to a process execution engine is secondary, since they’ll always be an engine specific (or requirements specific) adjustments to be made.

  5. Pingback: BPMN 2.0 Should Remain Focused on Notation « Go Flow

  6. Pingback: Keith Swenson’s Blog – On Collaborative Planning « Adam Deane

  7. It’s in fact very complicated in this full of activity life to listen news on Television, thus I just use web for that purpose,
    and take the most recent news.

  8. I don’t know if it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else encountering problems with your site.
    It appears as if some of the written text in your content are running off the screen. Can someone else please
    provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them as well?
    This might be a issue with my web browser because I’ve had this happen previously.

  9. If cosmetic dentistry is right for you, it is important to find a
    dentist with a reliable track record. Next, using liposuction cannulas, the
    fat is removed. From this total amount 92,634 procedures were Surgical and 97,744 was Non surgical.

    It basically deals with removal of fat from under the chin using
    a suction device.

  10. Since the most natural skin care ads and products are directed at women, many men may, as a result, not discover
    how to remove wrinkles and also fine traces. But adult males might be just like concerned about the wrinkles on the faces as
    girls. In addition, these are forget about capable to prevent the
    hands of your energy than women of all ages; anyone experience wrinkles and also sagging as
    collagen in addition to elastin fibers tenderize and the skin produces significantly less oil.
    There are many of means, however , to reverse indications of aging.

  11. Fantastic items from you, man. I have take into account your stuff prior to and you are simply
    too magnificent. I actually like what you’ve obtained here,
    really like what you are saying and the way through which
    you are saying it. You’re making it entertaining and you still take care
    of to keep it wise. I can not wait to learn much more from you.
    That is really a tremendous web site.

  12. Appreciating the time and effort you put into your site and in depth information you offer.

    It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed material.

    Excellent read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding
    your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  13. Wonderful items from you, man. I’ve take note your stuff previous to and you’re just too fantastic.

    I actually like what you have received right here, really like what you are saying and the best way
    wherein you assert it. You’re making it enjoyable and you continue to
    care for to keep it sensible. I can’t wait to learn far more from you.
    That is really a terrific site.

  14. It is the best time tto make somme plans for the ong run and it’s time to be happy.
    I have read this submit and if I may just I want to counsel you soime attention-grabbing things or tips.
    Perhsps you could write next articles regardding this article.
    I want to read even more issues approximately it!

  15. Hi there! I could have sworrn I’ve been to youir blg before but after looking at some of the posts I
    realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely happy I came across itt
    and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

  16. Thhe company history explains thhe background of your company and the people involved in managing and
    operating youyr business. Nowadays, companies have realized that the best waay tto earn profit
    is only throufh growth ‘ profitable growth. These can be very useful
    in helping you make a good decision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s