Friday, 1 June 2007

Business Process: Less About Standards And More About Profitability

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Over the last few months there has been much debate in Europe regarding standards for BPM. Much of the speculation regards the new version of the Object Management Group's (OMG) Unified Modeling Language (UML) – UML 2.0, which is soon to be released: What exactly will it contain and how might it affect the market?

My initial reaction to this is that the debate largely misses the point. In talking to business users and process owners one very rarely hears them debating or discussing the relative merits of a particular standard. Most business managers are far more concerned with operational efficiency, competitive advantage, and profit.

Having said that, I think it might be worthwhile to look at some of the standards initiatives and how they relate to BP.

Starting with UML, at the recent meeting in Orlando, members of the OMG finally voted on the new UML 2.0 standard, and the debate over what would be included and what would not, ended. But, the speculation did not.

In a recent article on UML 2.0 for Bloor Research, Analyst Phil Howard commented, "What is notable by its absence is anything from the Business Rules Group, which is concerned with Business Process Modeling (BPM). For some time there has been discussion about extensions to UML to specifically cater to BPM and there are some facilities for supporting such although these are by no means comprehensive." He then goes on to say that, "As the OMG points out, the business process space is in a state of flux right now, with proponents of different approaches currently arguing their respective cases." And, he concludes by saying, "It looks as if the OMG is intending to stand above the fray and aims to support whatever emerges as a winner."

Let me be clear - I believe that the OMG has done a great job with UML and its recent extension, MDA. These standards provide support for software design and development and, in this context, UML offers clear benefits. However the OMG has never properly dealt with the issues of Data Modeling with UML. Rather, they have chosen to ignore the advice of a large body of Data Modeling experts because their thoughts do not fit with the object centric views of the technologists that help to shape UML. This inability to allow UML to properly address non-pure "OO" problems is what, in my opinion, makes the OMG and their technical committees ineffective in the area of BP. The thoughts of these people are tightly linked to the ability to generate software and systems, not to manage data or to help businesses generate profit.

Although the OMG has re-entered the space recently with its RFI for Business Processes, it is not really about BP. It is about the generation of workflow systems. This is due, largely, to the fact that most members of the OMG believe that fewer software development projects and more workflow systems are likely to be the order of the day for the next couple of years.

Of course the primary effort to create standards for Business Process has been driven by the Business Process Management Initiative (www.bpmi.org ). Here we have seen attempts to drive 2 particular standards – (1) Business Process Management Language (BPML) billed as a common language based on XML for exchanging BP related information, and (2) Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) as a standard for ways of representing BP. Both of these standards have run into problems, although work on them is still continuing. In the first case, amalgamation of the IBM and Microsoft standards into BPEL4WS means that the money in this space will move away from BPMI and follow the IBM/Microsoft camp. In the second case, this standard is again focused on executable or automated processes, and discussions between the BPMI and the OMG have caused confusion in the marketplace. There are those within the OMG who suggest BPMN is not needed and can be represented using existing UML notations, and those within the BPMI who don't recognize the need to fully address the issues of "Organization" and "Location" and other functions required to properly represent value chains and other non automated processes.

My prediction is that, over time, a standard for sharing information via XML for executable processes will emerge, and it will probably be based around UML. I also predict that should UML come to dominate the BP modeling field, customers will simply not bother to use tools. A pretty strong statement, but then honest brokers in the BP market will acknowledge that the most popular tools for BP modeling in the market today are still Visio and PowerPoint – not because they are the best or even the right tools for the job, but because they are easily used by business people and do not require the involvement of IT to describe business processes.

I would never suggest, in a world so dominated by technology, that IT has no part to play in a BP initiative. To the contrary, IT has a major part to play in helping support those Business Processes. But, most business managers recognize that if they can understand, streamline, and communicate the 80% of non-automated processes, they can significantly increase profits – either by reducing costs or increasing sales. It is this ability to map out the view at 30,000 feet and then drill down where appropriate that appeals to business people.

I suggest that if you sat a group of prospects down with two presentations:

(1) Which highlighted the benefits of standards and outlined the work in that area, and another,

(2) Which highlighted cost benefits, increased sales and profits, and the ease of sharing and communicating information?

80% of the prospects would choose #2. I would also suggest that the remaining

20% who chose #1, would likely be IT managers.

Note: This article first appeared in May 2003 on Mark McGregor's "Postcard from Europe" Series of articles on BPTrends

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