One Common Definition for BPM

Business Process Management (BPM) remains the subject with a thousand faces.  The lack of a well accepted definition is the single most harmful thing to the industry.  Among a hundred articles there will be dozens of differing definitions of BPM.  Without a single common understand of BPM, we can’t make a single conclusive statement about what BPM does or does not do, how you might or might not use it.  This post is the result of hundreds of hours of sorting, sifting, discussing, analyzing and crafting.

Common Definition

A long discussion on Linked-in BPM Guru group, BPM.COM forum, ABPMP forum, and other places, resulted in this definition:

Business Process Management (BPM) is a discipline involving any combination of modeling, automation, execution, control, measurement and optimization of business activity flows, in support of enterprise goals, spanning systems, employees, customers and partners within and beyond the enterprise boundaries.

This is designed to be short enough to use regularly, and without gratuitous words.  There is a trade-off: a longer definition might make it clear, and at the same time more cumbersome.  Here is clarification of what we mean by these words:

  • BPM is a discipline; it is a practice; it is something you do.
  • Business stems from the state of being busy, and it implies commercially viable and profitable work.  A business exists to provide value to customers in exchange for something else of value.
  • Process means a flow of business activities and seeing those activities as connected toward the achievement of some business transaction.  Flow is meant loosely here: the order may or may not be strictly defined.
  • A person doing BPM must consider a process at the scope of interrelated business activities which holistically cooperate to fulfill a business objective.  This is the key difference from a functional view of business where each function might be optimized independent of the other functions.  In a complex system like a business, it is well known that local optimization of part of the system will rarely lead to good overall results.  A BPM practitioner must consider the metrics of the entire system when evaluating a specific process.
  • Modeling means that they would identify, define, and make a representation of the complete process to support communication about the process.  There is no single standard way to model, but the model must encompass the process.
  • Automation refers to the work that is done in advance to assure the smooth execution of the process instances.   In many cases this means writing software, but it might include building machinery or even creating signage to direct participants.
  • Execution meaning that instances of a process are performed or enacted, which may include automated aspects. Conceptually, the process instance executes itself, following the BPM practitioner’s model, but unfolding independent of the BPM practitioner.
  • Control means that the there is some aspect of making sure that the process follows the designed course.  This can be strict control and enforcement, or it might be loose control in the form of guidelines, training, and manual practices.
  • Measurement means that effort is taken to quantitatively determine how well the process is working in terms of serving the needs of customers.
  • Optimization means that the discipline of BPM is an ongoing activity which builds over time to steadily improve the measures of the process.  Improvement is relative to the goals of the organization, and ultimately in terms of meeting the needs of customers.
  • Enterprise is used here simply to mean a business organization; any organization where people are working together to meet common goals; it does not need to be exceptionally large, and it does not need to be for profit.
  • The mention of enterprise goals is  included here to emphasize that BPM should be done in the context of the goals of the enterprise, and not some small part of it.  This might seem a bit redundant in one sense: any improvement of a process must be an improvement in terms of the enterprise goals – anything else would not be called an improvement.
  • Within and beyond the enterprise boundaries recognizes that the enterprise is part of a larger system. Customers are part of the business process. Their interaction, along with those of employees should be considered as part of the end-to-end interaction.

Goal

The goal of this effort is to find the definition that closely represents  the concept that most people (expert and otherwise) have for the term BPM.  

The goal was not to determine what kind of BPM would be best for most people.  There are many different concepts that people associate with the term.  We are not assessing the value of these differing meanings, we only want to know the common meaning, and to foster agreement on the definition of the term.  We are not trying to come up with a better definition.  Instead, we want to uncover the definition that most people will have in mind when we say “BPM.”  

If we want to say something else, we need to come up with a different term.

Discussion and Understanding

The definition needs some explaining about exactly how the words are used.  Here are some things we can say about BPM to help understand what definition intends to mean.

BPM is an activity; a practice

Predominant in the definitions is the idea that BPM is something you do, not a thing you own or buy.  It is described in many definitions as a practice.  There was wide agreement on this, well over 90% of the participants expressed this view.

BPM is about improving processes

It presumes the idea that you view business as a set of processes, and BPM is the act of improving those processes.  This is important: “skill” is different from “skill improvement”. This can be confusing.  For example in competitive situations the two ideas are often intertwined – what is the act of playing tennis, if not also the act of trying to improve the way you play tennis?  However, in other contexts it is easier to distinguish – the activity of driving is different than taking a driving course to improve the way you drive.

The implication is that BPM is not about automating business process (in the ‘paving the cowpaths’ meaning) but about improving them.  The same way that ‘reengineering’ a process is about not simply automating what is currently there.  Some will say that automation by itself is an improvement over a manual process.  The BPM is the activity of discovering and designing the automated process, and is done when the finished application is deployed to the organization.  The running of the processes is not part of BPM.  However, monitoring the process to find areas of improvement would still be an important part of BPM.

BPM is done by people concerned primarily with improvement of the process

A business process will involve many people, but how many of them are concerned with improving it?  Some will insist that improvement is everyone’s job.  That is, the receptionist should be thinking about how to improve the operations if possible.  This interpretation is too broad to be useful.  The cook who adds salt to the food making it taste better, motivating more employees to eat in the building, cutting down on waste of time driving to an outside restaurant, and improving the amount of information interaction between worker, and resulting in better performance is NOT business process management by any account.  Everybody in a business is working to do their best job, and every good job helps the business, but all of this is not BPM.  BPM must be narrowly defined as the activity done by people who actively and primarily look specifically at the business processes, and trying to improve them.  Clearly those people must solicit input from as many others as possible, but those others are not doing BPM.

Participating in a process is not doing BPM

A manager approving a purchase order is not doing BPM even though that approval is an activity in a process.  A bank manager rejecting a loan application is not doing BPM even though this activity is a step in a business process.  These people are doing jobs that are part of a process, but they are not doing BPM.

Implementation (coding) of the process application is not BPM

An application developer designing a form for data entry as a step in a process is not doing BPM at that moment.  Once the “to-be” process has been adequately spelled out, the actual implementation of the application that supports it is no longer actively engaged in improving the process.  A small caution here: applications are often developed incrementally — show to the customer, get feedback, improve, and iterate — and the process may be improved incrementally as well.  Those incremental improvements should be included as the activity of BPM, but the activity of implementation of the application is not BPM.  The criteria is clear: if you are actively and primarily engaged in improvement of the process, then it is BPM, otherwise it is engineering.

Making a suggestion for process improvement is not BPM

This means that there is a distinction between many people who make suggestions, and those who then actually do the BPM.  When a process analyst is involved in BPM, it is expected that they will solicit lots of information about what is and is not working, as well as suggestions on how it might work.  Those people who give the feedback are helping the BPM work, but not themselves doing BPM.

Improving a single step of a process is not BPM

Some have the mistaken idea that any possible action that improves a process is BPM no matter how small. A person doing BPM needs to have some kind of big-picture view of the process.  It has been described as an “end-to-end view” of the process.  Optimizing one step in a process, without knowledge of the entire process, is exactly what Hammer and Champy were warning about: to understand the correct optimizations we need to consider those optimizations within the context of a complete business process.  A workman smoothing gravel on a road is improving all of the process that involved driving on that road, but it is not BPM because he does not have visibility of the whole process.  The engineer finding a way to double the bandwidth of a fiber optic cable is improving all the processes that require communications, but this is not BPM either.  An office worker who finds that OpenOffice4 helps to create documents faster than some other word processor is improving all the processes that involve writing documents; this is not BPM either.  In order to have a discussion about BPM, we can consider only those activities by people who have a view to, and consider the effect on, the entire end to end process. 

Misrepresentations of BPM

Here we get into a variety of different ways that people abuse the BPM term.

BPM is not a product – There is a category called “BPMS” which is a BPM Suite or BPM System.  Gartner has introduced a new product category called “intelligent BPMS.”   What is included depends very much on the vendor.  Analysts have attempted to list features and capabilities that are necessary, but those features change from year to year.  For example, in 2007 analysts commonly insisted that BPM Suites must have a BPEL execution capability, but today this is entirely ignored or forgotten.   Most products designed to support BPM also include a lot of other capabilities beyond just those the BPM practitioner requires.  Particularly they generally include a lot of application development and data integration capability.  It is very convenient to offer all this in a single package, while other vendors bundle collections of offerings together to get the same benefit.  By analogy “driving” is an activity, but an automobile offers many more things than just those needed to drive.

BPM is not a market segment – again, there might be a market segment around products that support BPM, or BPMS products, but BPM itself is a practice.  Vendors may be labeled as a “BPMS Vendor” which simply means they have some products which can support the activity of BPM, among other things.

An application does not do BPM – the application might be the result of BPM activity.  Once finished, it either does the business process, or support people doing the business process.  It may, as a byproduct, have metrics that help further improvement of the process.  In this sense it supports BPM in the same way that receptionist may support BPM by coming up with good ideas, and that is not enough to say that the application, or the receptionist, is doing BPM.

BPM as a Service is not application hosting – We use the term business process as a service (BPaaS) to mean applications hosted outside the company that supports more than one function of a business process.  Like the application above, it does the process, but it does not do BPM.

Entire organizational units don’t do BPM – To say that a company is doing BPM is simply a way of saying that there are some people in the company that are doing BPM.  This kind of abstraction is normal.  It should be obvious that when a company or division claims to be doing BPM, the majority of the people there are not actually doing BPM.

BPM is not anything that improves business – some argue that every activity is part of a process – because a process is just a set of activities.  Then, any action taken to improve any activity is BPM.  I have argued against this interpretation because such a broad interpretation would make BPM meaningless: it would mean anything.  There is broad acceptance that BPM is a practice of methodically improving a process that supports business, and that improvements in part of the process must be done only after the consideration of the entire end to end process.

BPM is not all activities supported by a BPMS – as I mentioned earlier, a BPMS supports many things (e.g. application development) which is not BPM.  A BPMS that only supported the exact activity of BPM would not be as useful as one that bring a lot of capabilities together.  It is however a common mistake for people to say that because a BPMS supports something, it is then an aspect of BPM.  While it is true that someone who does BPM needs to document a process, it is not true that anyone who documents a process is doing BPM.  While it is true that many BPMS support designing a screen form, it is not true that design a screen form is BPM.  The activity of BPM is fairly well defined, but a BPMS support a much wider set of activities.

Because you can do something with a BPMS does not mean you are doing BPM – A BPMS is designed to support the activity of BPM.  However there are many things a BPMS can do that are not BPM.

Acknowledgement

The following people made significant helpful contributions:

  • Alexander Samarin
  • Karl Walter Keirstead
  • Kiran Garimella
  • John Morris
  • Scott Francis
  • Lloyd Duggan
  • Nathaniel Palmer

Call For Action

In the goal to isolate the single prominent definition, this is one of those times where you are either with us, or against us.  After this is published, you will probably find people who will say “I would prefer if the definition had X, or didn’t have Y.”  Everyone has an opinion.  The question you ask yourself: is that person going to do the work to get everyone to agree?  It is fine if they want to spit into the wind, but the attitude that got use where we are today is that everyone has their own, different definition.  It is fine to have your own vision of what you think people should use, but don’t tell people is it “BPM” if it does not match the common definition.

So my request is that you endorse this definition of BPM as the one, single, common definition that we can use as a basis of discussion.  If you agree that a single common definition is of critical value to the entire marketplace, then please copy this definition, use it, and if possible link to this page.

If you can not endorse this, then state clearly that you do not, publish your definition, and get everyone to endorse that.  If you get more experts to endorse your definition, then I will switch.  I have no pretensions about being the only person in the world able to do this, nor do I think I am the best, but simply I have done the legwork, and would welcome any improvement you can make.

Definition Research

Without any spin, let me cite a list of well known definitions of Business Process Management:

  • Business Process Management (BPM) is a disciplined approach to identify, design, execute, document, monitor, control, and measure both automated and non-automated business processes to achieve consistent, targeted results consistent with an organization’s strategic goals. BPM involves the deliberate, collaborative and increasingly technology-aided definition, improvement, innovation, and management of end-to-end business processes that drive business results, create value, and enable an organization to meet its business objectives with more agility. (ABPMP)
    • This is quite a good definition, but too wordy to be useful in a business context.  We need something more succinctly to the point.
  • [BPM is] the development and control of processes used in a company, department, project, etc. to make sure they are effective (Cambridge Dictionary Online)
    • This definition does not say anything about improvement of processes, which is a necessary part of BPM.
  • [BPM is] Management of the the series of steps that a business executes to produce a product or service (Rummler and Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart)
    • Management of the work steps is one topic, while management and improvement of the process is yet another meta-level up.  This definition confounds the management of the tasks (that is the process) with the management of the process.
  • [BPM is] Management of the the complete and dynamically coordinated set of collaborative and transactional activities that deliver value to customers. (Smith and Fingar, Business Process Management: The Third Wave)
    • Close, but it does not talk about improvement and falls into the mistake that management of the activities is different from the management of the process.
  • [BPM is] Management of a coherent set of activities carried out by a collaborating group to achieve a goal (Martyn Ould, Business Process Management: A Rigorous Approach)
    • management of activities is different than management of the flow of activities.
  • We define BPM as follows: Supporting business processes using methods, techniques, and software design, enact, control, and analyze operational processes involving humans, organizations, application, document and other sources of information. Note that this definition restricts BPM to operational processes, i.e. processes at the strategic level or processes that cannot be made explicit are excluded. (Wil van der Aalst, et al., Business Process Management: A SurveyBPM 2003 Conference)
    • A good definition but too long to be used in a business context.
  • Business Process Management (BPM) is the art and science of overseeing how work is performed in an organization to ensure consistent outcomes and to take advantage of improvement opportunities.  (Marlon Dumas, et al., Fundamentals of Business Process Management)
    • This is a very good definition actually.
  • Business process management includes concepts, methods, and techniques to support the design, administration, configuration, enactment, and analysis of business processes.  A business process consists of a set of activities that are performed in coordination in an organizational and technical environment. These activities jointly realize a business goal. Each business process is enacted by a single organization, but may interact with business processes performed by other organizations.  (Mathias Weske, “Business Process Management: Concepts, Languages, Architectures“, this is definition 1.1 and 1.2 combined together, page 5)
    • This is an OK definition, but a bit long and too technical to use in a business setting.
  • Business process management (BPM) is a systematic approach to making an organization’s workflow more effective, more efficient and more capable of adapting to an ever-changing environment. A business process is an activity or set of activities that will accomplish a specific organizational goal. (SearchCIO TechTarget)
  • Business process management (BPM) has been referred to as a “holistic management” approach to aligning an organization’s business processes with the wants and needs of clients. BPM uses a systematic approach in an attempt to continuously improve business effectiveness and efficiency while striving for innovation, flexibility, and integration with technology. It can 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.  These processes can impact the cost and revenue generation of an organization. As a managerial approach, BPM sees processes as strategic assets of an organization that must be understood, managed, and improved to deliver value-added products and services to clients. This foundation closely resembles other Total Quality Management or Continuous Improvement Process methodologies or approaches. BPM goes a step further by stating that this approach can be supported, or enabled, through technology to ensure the viability of the managerial approach in times of stress and change. In fact, BPM offers an approach to integrate an organizational “change capability” that is both human and technological. As such, many BPM articles and pundits often discuss BPM from one of two viewpoints: people and/or technology. (Wikipedia article on BPM, captured around Nov 28, 2013)
  • BPM is a discipline that leverages software and services to provide total visibility into your organization. Discover, document, automate, and continuously improve business processes to increase efficiency and reduce costs (IBM)
  • BPM is a way of looking at and then controlling the processes that are present in an organization. It is an effective methodology to use in times of crisis to make certain that the processes are efficient and effective, as this will result in a better and more cost efficient organization. (AIIM)
  • [BPM is] the discipline of modeling, automating, managing, monitoring, and optimizing business processes to increase profitability (Winscribe)
  • A process of managing your business processes;  A management discipline; A technology or set of technologies;  A rapid application development framework.   First and foremost, BPM is a process and a management discipline. (“What is BPM Anyway? Business Process Management Explained” at BPM Institute)
  • a management discipline focused on improving corporate performance by managing a company’s business processes (Paul Harmon, 2005)
  • BPM is a business discipline or function that uses business practices, techniques and methods to create and improve business processes.  (“What does BPM Actually Mean?” at BPM.com)
  • Business process management (BPM) is the discipline of managing processes (rather than tasks) as the means for improving business performance outcomes and operational agility.  Processes span organizational boundaries, linking together people, information flows, systems and other assets to create and deliver value to customers and constituents. (Gartner)
  • structured approach to performance improvement that centers on the disciplined design and careful execution of company end to end processes (Hammer, cited by Tim Weilkiens in OMG’s OECD)
  • Business Process Management (BPM) is a holistic, top-down management approach that focuses on optimizing business operations to maximize customer satisfaction. With its strong emphasis on continuous process improvement, BPM gives firms the flexibility to quickly respond to changes in the competitive landscape. (technology vendor Interfacing)
  • BPM is a systematic approach to improving a company’s business processes. (CIO)
  • Activity undertaken by businesses to identify, evaluate, and improve business processes. With the advancement of technology, BPM can now be effectively managed with software that is customized based on the metrics and policies specified by a company. This type of action is essential to businesses seeking to improve process performance related issues so that they can better serve their clients. (BusinessDictionary.com)
  • Business process management (BPM) is a concept that focuses on aligning all organizational elements to improve operational performance. The BPM strategy is categorized with holistic management approaches which are used to develop better business efficiency, while channeling organizations toward more creative, flexible and technologically-integrated systems. (Techopedia)
  • BPM is concerned with managing change to improve business processes. (“BPMN and  Business Process Management” Popkin Software)
  • Business Process Management is most often associated with the life cycle of a business process. The process life cycle spans identifying and improving processes that deliver business capability to deploying and managing the process when it is operational. What is often forgotten about is managing process performance after a process is operational. (IBM Redbook “Business Process  Management Enabled by SOA“)
  • A structured approach that models an enterprise’s human and machine tasks and the interactions between them as processes (PC Magazine)

BP Trends’ “Business Process Manifesto” — an excellent resource in general — has a good definition for “Business Process” but none for BPM.

Because many of these include the term “business process” I include the most common definition here:

Visit my post on eccentric definitions of BPM to see a list of the rather bizarre definitions that exist on the web.  I did not include those distractions here.  We are trying to find consensus and quoting outliers does not help.

Update

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14 Responses to One Common Definition for BPM

  1. Cor Visser says:

    Keith, i certainly agree with the definition and the accompanying notes. It provides in a condensed way what I always thougth of as the core of business process management. Great piece of work. Thank you !

  2. Fred Cummins says:

    Keith, I like the definition. It is important that you have clarified that for a business process, “Flow is meant loosely here: the order may or may not be strictly defined.” Also that “A person doing BPM must consider a process at the scope of interrelated business activities which holistically cooperate to fulfill a business objective.”

    As I read your blog, I realized that an implementation of VDML (Value Delivery Modeling Language) will be an important BPM tool. For more information on VDML, see http://fredacummins.blogspot.com/2013/02/value-delivery-modeling-language-vdml_4878.html

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  4. kswenson says:

    I really liked Mark Kerremans discussion of the effort: BPM: IT’S A “PIG” TO DEFINE on his VisionWaves blog.

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  7. mike8austin says:

    Keith, to add to your list, the BPM Advanced Certificate program at Univ. of San Francisco defines BPM as:
    “An approach to organizing that focuses on the optimization (streamlining) of critical processes (sequences of events) for purposes of efficiency.”
    I like this definition for its succinctness but it does not explicitly capture two important points that your proposed definition does: “in support of enterprise goals” and “within and beyond the enterprise boundaries.” However, those two principles are explicit parts of the UofSF BPM curriculum.

    I am ecstatic to find this post because it will help me educate my team of business analysts as we attempt to introduce BPM methodology into a research and development organization.

    • kswenson says:

      Thanks, that definition certainly has the advantage of succinctness. I have been using this one consistently now, and really wish it was briefer. However, touching on the things it does include is helpful in communicating the complete idea. Everything is a compromise, and I hope this one is useful to you. There is significant buy-in in the community.

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  13. Steffy says:

    Appreciate the effort you’ve put in creating this article. I would ike to add up a tiny little word to the statement “BPM is about improving processes” as “BPM is about improving, the ever evolving processes”. Businesses have started evolving every day, meaning your processes need to evolve too. And you should ensure that the BPMS in place should be able to include these evolving changes.

    A BPM is something that can include the points mentioned https://kissflow.com/bpm/top-10-features-for-business-process-management-systems/ in this article

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