Eccentric Definitions of BPM

So much discussion of what BPM (Business Process Management) is, what is next, how it is expanding, what it is not.  There are many good people trying seriously to resolve the definition of BPM.  My impression is that they do this fine work in the middle of a sea — actually a maelstrom — of confusion about the term.

How bad is it out there?  I thought I would collect some example of “eccentric” definitions of BPM.  Two caveats: first, this is not a representative sample of all definition, instead I have chosen definitions which seem at-odds with the Wikipedia definition of BPM.  Second, when I say they are “eccentric” I don’t mean to say they are necessarily incorrect.  I believe these are serious attempts to define the term, and the definition is representative of a group of people who use the term in this way.  I am not collecting these to make fun of them.  There is no right and wrong.  Instead, this is an attempt to get a picture of reality, and the wide variety of meanings of “BPM”.

(1) “Business Process Management (BPM)  I’m sure you have come across this in your everyday working. A generic term for mapping, modelling and running business processes, typically using BPEL. However, note that some BPM software products do not expose their runtime (ie no BPEL), effectively running as a ‘black box’. Note that BPM is an approach (like SOA) not a product.”  More Confusing SOA Terms

(2) “Business Process Management (BPM) is the concept of shepherding work items through a multi-step process. The items are identified and tracked as they move through each step, with either specified people or applications processing the information. The process flow is determined by process logic and the applications (or processes) themselves play virtually no role in determining where the messages are sent.”  Glossary of Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information Systems

(3) “BPM is probably the most visible part of service orientation and SOA is key to BPM implementation.” – Enterprise Architecture Is Business Driven

(4) “BPM is a discipline combining software capabilities and business expertise to accelerate process improvement and facilitate business innovation. One could argue that BPM is based on the principles of SOA, with both aiming to empower the organization to more quickly respond to changing market conditions that result from planned events such as mergers and acquisitions or external influences such as competitor moves.”  The Role of Business Process Management in SOA

(5) “What is Business process management?  BPM relates to the identification, extraction and management of business processes or functions, which combine to solve an operational business need. Of course, we create most software systems to solve a business need! So what is so special here? The intention is that BPM, as realized today, goes further than this in that it also facilities the ability to quickly and easily change the execution, business flow or processes used.”  BPEL, business process management, SOA and you

(6) “BPM is a new, better way to implement advanced process applications that include both human and system tasks. But doing this has been hard — the technology has been complex, incomplete and expensive.” – ActiveVOS

(7) “BPM has its roots in ERP and similar tools designed to enforce and manage processes within an organization. These tools soon made it apparent that although helpful, they tended to foster rigid process models that were not appropriate for all businesses or situations. In contrast, BPM excels at pulling the business rules out of code, thus speeding development and allowing businesses to model and integrate their processes in a more cost- and time-effective manner. A good example of this is dynamic exception management, which until now may have been impossible to create within a reasonable timeframe and budget. There is little doubt that BPM tools today will become staples within IT organizations given the level of value that they provide.”  – Extending the Business Value of SOA through Business Process Management

(8) “Business process management (BPM) may mean transformation at the enterprise level, but for midsized companies it means automating and streamlining workflows and business processes.”  – Business process management strategies ezine for CIOs

(9) “(Business Process Management) Activities that hone and direct business processes, with the aim of enhancing their responsiveness and efficiency — such as design, deployment, instrumentation, direction and analysis. Important elements include business process modeling, orchestration and business activity monitoring (BAM).” – Loosly Coupled

(10) “He also observes that his company’s clients often associate SOA very closely with BPM, and visa versa. “It was the same standards, same tools, and the training was about 90% the same,” he said. “The difference was found in the labels attached and the emphasis upon certain key concepts.” – SOA, Enterprise Architecture, BPM all the same underneath

(11) “BPM is mainly a management discipline and strategy which endorses the idea that we can model a business in terms of its end-to-end processes that cut across traditional organizational and system boundaries. These processes are then represented in a way computers can understand and process” – Ubiquity

(12) “BPM allows a business enterprise to computerize, optimize and implement underlying activities with the help of adaptable business processes.” – SOA and BPM Partnership: A paradigm for Dynamic and Flexible Process and I.T. Management

(13) “The phrase Business Process Management (BPM) refers to a set of activities an organization implements to optimize its processes. Business process management also encompasses software tools designed to assist firms in achieving process optimization.”  – What is Business Process Management?

(14)  “I don’t get stuck on whether SOA is an implementation of BPM or BPM is an implementation of SOA. … So I didn’t say that BPM is an implementation of SOA. I didn’t say that SOA is an implementation of BPM. They’re just very closely related, which explains why we’re actually merging our BPM and SOA consortium together. It’s essentially the same activity.” – Building Better Business Services with BPM and SOA

(15) “Many BPM vendors talk about SOA, suggesting a clear link between both strategies. SOA is an approach for making best use of existing resources in new and loosely coupled arrangements. BPM, on the other hand, aims for continual improvement through the integration of technology.” – The Contradiction Of BPM

(16) “BPM is a collection of process automation tools (and workflow is typically one of these tools) to document, automate, and manage various processes.” – BPM and Workflow

(17) “In layperson’s terms, BPM covers a wide range of activities categorized as business automation or computer-based efficiency strategies. More precisely, BPM is a method used for the organizational integration of business operations through improved information techniques” – The State of BPM: Poised for Takeoff

(18) “BPM is all about looking at business processes in graphical format and being able to manipulate those flows without having to delve into the IT side –
the new flows take root in the operational system ‘as if by magic’! ” – The Relationship Between SOA and BPM

Confusing Statements

Here are a set of quotes which are not definitions of BPM, but clearly imply a misleading meaning of BPM

(1) “The technology for the convergence of BPM and SOA may not fully mature until 2010.  ….  SOA’s big benefit is it abstracts the backend application from the process and the BPM tool allows a business person to dictate how the process will flow and which service will be consumed, without having to get into the details of the technology” – Gartner on Convergence of BPM & SOA

(2) “Stand-alone BPM is dead in the water. How do I know? We did it. The killer app is BPM and SOA together. It’s in the system component orchestration layer. You have to think about your [Web] standards if you want to execute” – In the trenches with BPM

(3) “Is there even really any fundamental difference between SOA, EA, and for that matter, BPM (business process management)? … the line between these disciplines is quickly blurring within many enterprises … The difference was found in the labels attached and the emphasis upon certain key concepts  – SOA, Enterprise Architecture, BPM all the same underneath

(4) “The IT community is certainly no stranger to architecture development and engineering disciplines. Perhaps it will seem strange to the business community that they too have a formal architecture that can be engineered.  … you may find the true potential of EA, BPM and SOA is in their unification through the EBA rather than as stand alone corporate initiatives. ”  – EA, BPM and SOA Convergence

(5) Here is a job description I found: “We are a culturally diverse, global company looking for a BPM & SOA Consultant/Designer with experience and background in developing business process management solutions for the telecommunication service providers.”  Later there was a requirement to “Develop and adhere to BPM and SOA development best practices.”

(6) “SOA makes great BPM, BPM makes crappy SOA.”  – Why BPM screws up SOA

(7) “Let me start by defining that in this post the term ‘service’ is used for a specific business process step that can be composed and reused in different business processes.” – Semantic Covenant: The Service is Always Right

Discussion Articles

Michael Poulin wrote a “BPM – SOA Relationship Study” investigating this same phenomenon.  He found that 30% of respondents felt that “BPM is part of SOA”.   38% said that BPM is service orchestration.  One conclusion was that “those organizations that are most successful with BPM initiatives ascribe key responsibilities to IT architects”.   The people participating in the survey were almost all self selected from the IT comunity, with on 6% describing themselves as “Business Analysts” a role that is arguably still a technical one. So if you ask a bunch of IT guys what it takes to do what they call BPM, and they define BPM as way of improving their automated systems, then it is not surprising that they find the projects with most success are led by IT architects.

Joe McKendrick discussed this in “The awkward dance between BPM and SOA“.  He says “Depending upon whom you read, BPM is either worlds apart from SOA, or the two are fused right down to the genetic level.”  Oddly, the discussion of them not being fused leads down the path of whether a service is a necessarily a step in a process, and entirely technical disagreement in my mind.  No mention anywhere that some process don’t even have to be automated in order to be improved.

JP Morganthal concludes that “The confusion on the SOA-BPM relationship comes from IT professionals, who solely focus on the execution engine (BPMS) of any BPM initiative. As Morgenthal pointed out, many successful BPM initiatives have no underlying technology implementation.”  (in Disassembling the SOA & BPM Relationship)


This was not a scientific study — just a couple of hours of google searches to try and get a feeling for the deviant definitions.  The collection above is not representative — I picked what I felt were the most unusual definition.

Overall, about half of the definitions I encountered were one that talked about BPM being a management practice.  These are the one that in my opinion “get it” about BPM.  I found that in general the BPM anaysts “get-it”.  I also found that the main vendors “get-it”.   Most of them 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.

My overall conclusion is that there is an “IT community” which talks about BPM as being equal to/converged with/part of system architecture/SOA/EA.  This community represents 30% to 50% of what articles on BPM.  There is another “business community” that represents the non-IT management side and sees no connection to system architecture at all, and that is maybe 40% to 55%.

The problem is that these two communities don’t communicate with each other.  They have their own magazines, their own blogs, their own books, their own analysts, their own forum sites.  Like the Democrats and the Republicans, these groups are being polarized by their own in-bred ideas bouncing around an echo-chamber of their own making.  It is a divide with potentially tragic consequences for the technology consumer.

I had been working on this for a few days, but prompted to go ahead and post it by the post “And We Thought BPM v/s SOA Blur Was Already Beaten to Death…” by Ashish Bhagwat.  He recommends “It’s time SOA-wrapped-BPM gave way”.    I agree with his that something should be done.  But what?



13 thoughts on “Eccentric Definitions of BPM

  1. Your “Democrats and the Republicans” analogy is the answer – they work “within” the Constitution. In our case, it should be a reference model – commonly-agreed abstract framework for understanding entities and relationships between them in the BA/BPM/SOA/EA domain.


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  6. As many of these definitions are written by BPM consultants, they’re invariably action focused and reflect the inevitable biases in their approach and/or desired outcome. When I teach BPM (in a business school) I emphasize the “M.” Specifically, I define BPM as the recognition, by organizations, that business processes are (core/non-core) capabilities of the organization that must be defined, owned and managed in much the same way as other assets and capabilities. Once this recognition is achieved, then and only then, can attention be selectively focused on attempting to reconcile, improve and innovate them.

    • Richard, no contest in terms of management of processes being necessary. The question is how. Is recognition really enough? I guess that most people share today a process perspective in terms of organizing a business. Once again, how do you then actually do it? Without IT? Forget it.

      I disagree on processes being an asset. I see my people as my asset and because I chose the right ones who share with me a process perspective, we do processes, but it is them who have the skill to actually do it. Goals control my process and they will be linked to a part of my capability map. Process knowledge is not stuck in some illusionary asset. Peter Drucker said: ‘You can’t manage (process) knowledge. Knowledge is between two ears only.’

  7. @Max: I was trying to make the point that unless the organization (read management) sees processes as something to be managed, there’s not much point in going forward. I refer to the “thing” as a *capability* (I steered away from referring to them as “assets” for the reasons you mention). If (and only if) they (management) buy into processes as to-be-managed capabilities, will they then come to the presumed need to apply all the things that go with management thinking to processes as they do to other managed capabilities. While some organizations “get it” many others do not. If they did, there would be identifiable business process managers (as there are, for example, supply chain managers — a different capability).

    Once organizations “get” BPM as a to-be managed capability, then the logical follow-on questions having to do with tools, methods, methodologies, architectures, etc., to scope, define, improve, innovate, measure, enable, etc., come into play. These, in my view, should be identified as such, i.e., BPM methods, BPM techniques, BPM tools, and so forth, rather than simply forming some conjunction and then saying the definition of BPM is that particular conjunction. That’s what I see in the profusion of definitions that prompted the original blog and these comments that follow.

    • Richard, I guess I was trying to make the point that once the ‘BPM management’ becomes a bureaucracy in its own right, that thinks it has to nail down each little detail of each work item, especially by means of BPMS, then it stops being a good thing. Process is not about thinking in work, but in goals and outcomes. Process is what happens between intent and outcome and it must not be nailed down into little logically organized work steps.

      My further point is that to achieve the outcome workers have to be empowered and not controlled by IT means. Process is about goals and transparency. All the BPM methodologies create bureuacracy that actually hurts businesses in their ability to continuously innovate. So I really don’t care about a definition of BPM at all. Keith, others and I chose the term Adaptive Case Management to define another approach that broadly falls into the BPM domain as well. As pointed out, it all becomes very dogmatic at some point, so let’s stay away from that.

  8. As a business or IT person, if after reading all of those definitions you still don’t get it then it is time to look at a new career… maybe taking out the trash could work for you.

    What’s in a definition anyway? Like all good things, if it delivers value then JFDI!

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