BPM Industry Templates Have No Value

I was caught off guard recently when a potential customer asked if Fujitsu provided “Industry Templates” along with the BPM platform (branded now Fujitsu Digital Transformation Platform). Industry Templates is a term that refer to a package of all the processes normally found in an industry that one might need as a starting place for building out that companies processes. This question is a problem: industry templates simply don’t work. IT is tough to explain to a potential customer that they are asking for something they don’t need and shouldn’t want.

BPM 2019 – Vienna

I am attending this week the 17th International BPM conference located in Vienna Austria this week which is the prime place in the world where the leading academic researchers get together to share their latest findings and to explore future directions together. I have attended this conference about 6 times, once invited to give a keynote, and I always find this conference an interesting and stimulating chance to see what the latest deep thinkers are thinking.

The conference started with a keynote by Kalle Lyytinen a professor at Case Western Reserve University. (See summary of talk at Column 2) He has been studying business above the technical level: how businesses structure processes and how they change across time and space. They compared how the same process varied across an organization and between different organizations. Unsurprisingly, they found that processes vary greatly across different departments within a single enterprise. They also found that the variation between enterprises to be even greater even for the same process from the same industry.

Wil van der Aalst asked a question after the talk, and he mentioned that researches are University of Eindhoven have found that while studying the fairly basic “Quote to Cash” processes, they are finding hundreds of different variants of the quote-to-cash process within a single organization. This is not because the organization is failing to implement a robust process, but that there really are that many different ways that the organization needs to take different products into different markets.

Templates are a Mistake

This calls into question the entire idea that an industry template would be useful at any level. It has been my experience with customers that such templates are worse than just useless — they actually waste time. It is well known that starting with an existing program that nobody knows can take longer to change to fit the purpose, than it is to write the program from scratch. The effort for a new programmer to understanding an existing program can easily be greater than writing a new program from scratch.

When an organization decides whether to use Java or C# or any other programming language, who asks if there are “templates” for programs in their industry? When purchasing a database server, again no requirement for industry templates for the data base structure for different industries. Why is it that for a BPM system the templates are desired? It seems there is an intuitive feeling that such “standard” processes should exist — maybe because processes are supposed to be simple and all the same, whereas writing a program or a database is complex and unique?

I am reminded of Tom Malone who started the Process Handbook project at MIT in the mid 1990’s. He got funding from the government to map out all of the processes that all industries would require. The idea was that any company would take the book, look through the varieties of processes, pick the right one for them, and their process would be instantly automated. This concept was naive because it underestimates the need for variation because of specific organizational location, specific local laws and customs, specific product differences, specific customer differences, specific people who are in the organization, specific history of that company, etc. All of these differences overwhelm the commonality of an industry.

To give a specific example, both Ford and BMW make cars, but there is no reason to suspect that their processes will be anything like each other. Different countries, different materials, different supply chain, different people, different culture, difference customers, etc. Why would we think that there would be a small set of processes that would be the same? Or even similar?

BPM Industry is not Helping

Customers ask for templates, and so BPM companies are happy to sell them. Even though there is no evidence that they actually help. Academics have studied this and we know that processes are do different that copying another company’s processes is likely to be more of a hindrance than a help. I am sure there are individual cases that worked out, but I am not seeing a lot of reports of people claiming that the templates that they bought were helpful.

Takeaway

  • If you are considering purchasing industry templates, consider carefully whether this is realistic.  Why do you want them?   Are you sure you will get value from them when research says that it is unlikely?

Maybe you are better of planning to write the right process from scratch that fits your specific organization and use case.

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4 Responses to BPM Industry Templates Have No Value

  1. Keith,

    Yes, Yes, and Yes. I couldn’t agree more. It was great to read this. Just today I was explaining this exact concept to a new executive on our team. While I was explaining it, I couldn’t help but start thinking about how many times I have explained this idea over the past year. Simply put…it is the #1 question from clients, and the #1 suggestion from newbies who join our team. Yet, like you, I have never seen this work.

    When possible I simply direct colleagues and/or customers to the “process stores” of various competitors. Most of these process stores are based on the same concept – i.e. the itunes store. If you go look at BPM companies that offer their templates in this way, you will always notice one thing – they are getting few to no downloads. You will never see process templates that are being downloaded tens of thousands of times. The simple answer is that they just are not that useful.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

  2. Ingo Doerrie says:

    I would not agree to all statements at full extend. Reference models can deliver beneficial use in certain cases.

    For example they can provide ideas and orientation, if a business needs to start process modeling in a new area.

    I would not expect any template to fit into all situations and the costs need to be evaluated against the benefits achievable. But starting with no clue is only one situation, I want to mention, where they can provide a first approach.

    • kswenson says:

      What you cite is the standard “intuition.” It just seems like this should be so. However I have cited specific cases where research showed that this intuition is not true. My own experience has shown that it is usually easier to start fresh, and less work than the overhead of adapting an existing body of code to a new purpose. But I am open minded. Can you cite a formal study which has measured the benefit of such a template?

  3. The logical argument against templates is that with a good mapping environment, a facilitator can build an initial process (minus data collection forms, minus rule sets) as fast as stakeholders say ” … and then we do this”.

    If the facilitator arrives on site with an inventory of form images from the client, parked at process steps, on forms that include one image field and one memo field, the modeling process becomes less abstract. i.e. stakeholder see THEIR process steps, THEIR forms.

    The process map can now be compiled and rolled out to a run-time platform to allow stakeholders to launch instances of the “template”. Stakeholders record observations (i.e. obsolete form, missing form fields, wrong sequencing of process steps, insert a downstream step after this step, indicate routings for steps, describe rule set needs in narrative format).

    The question becomes why go for industry templates when a custom process flow can be easily/quickly built, compiled, rolled out, tested and improved?

    My preference is a series of 1-2 hour GoToMeeting sessions (one per day, preferably five days a week), building small processes of 10-50 steps so that there is enough time to map, compile, roll out, model, update the map based on comments/observations then repeat. Stakeholders relate positively to the ‘instant gratification’ of seeing their process evolve.

    Platforms like GoToMeeting allow the presenter to give mouse /keyboard control to stakeholders. Much of the time it is easier to give control and let a stakeholder build part of a process flow than to try to understand what they are thinking about.

    Encoding of real data collection/data display forms and rule sets are best off-line between sessions.

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