By Clay Richardson

When you spend time taking a sober look at a market's maturity – like we did with our recently published BPM Tech Radar report – some technologies make you yawn, but then other technologies give you goose bumps.  The primary purpose of the BPM Tech Radar was to map the maturity of the 15 most critical technologies that make up the BPM landscape.  This included tried and true technologies such as workflow, process modeling, document imaging, and business rules; in addition to bleeding and leading edge technologies such as process data management and process mashups.  

[Click For Full Size Image of Tech Radar Graphic] Now that I've had time to step back from the excitement of pulling the report together (that's a completely separate blog post or book unto itself), one key point has lodged itself into my subconscious – yes, I've had a few dreams about this (pretty sad, I know):  Of all the technologies we evaluated, the components that generated the most buzz and excitement had some connection with social media or Web 2.0.  That’s not a big surprise, right?  Social media is hot right now, it's sexy, it's the "golden child" so to speak.  But BPM and social media together?
At first blush it seems an odd marriage.  But take a step back. Okay, a few steps back.  Let's remember what BPM is all about: Ultimately, BPM is a discipline for continually improving cross-functional, end-to-end business processes.  To accomplish this, Business Process professionals spend gobs of time and money analyzing and implementing strategies to improve process collaboration, communication, interdepartmental hand-offs, and  institutional process knowledge.  Hmmm… collaboration, communication, updating knowledge – smells pretty social to me.  In many ways, social is just the natural extension and evolution of collaboration, as Connie Moore outlined in her recent blog post “Great News For The Process World — A Sea Change Is Coming.”
While the BPM suites market evolved over the past two decades to support the "known human interactions" within the enterprise, vendors continue to overlook – or can't capture – a lot of the process whitespace within organizations.  Think: e-mail communication about a process, instant messaging to get a response to a process-related question, allowing business users to generate processes, allowing front-line workers to update process knowledge.  Based on our BPM Tech Radar interviews – we spoke with over 65 customers, leading vendors, and BPM evangelists – it seems that social and  Web 2.0 technologies are breathing new life into BPMS to tackle the remaining process whitespace that still needs to be conquered in the enterprise.
Early leaders in the “Social BPM” space include Lombardi and Software AG. Earlier this year, Software AG announced their AlignSpace offering under the banner of Social BPM.  And, Lombardi is also pushing the envelope in this space with their Blueprint platform, which now offers a "friend feed" style feature that allows process users to get feeds on process model and requirements changes throughout discovery.  IBM is even getting into the game by integrating some of Lotus’ social components with Websphere Process Server.
So what's driving this trend of Social BPM?  Three larger trends are pushing process and social media closer together:
  • Accelerated pace of change in the business environment – Business leaders who thought they had months or years to adapt their processes to changing conditions are now fossils, driven into extinction by our latest recession.  Going forward, business leaders need to approach BPM using both a top-down and bottom-up approach.  New technologies, such as "process wikis" allow frontline workers to update process knowledge as conditions change on the ground.  This real-time feedback loop was never available before; most updates to process knowledge are only captured haphazardly or driven from the top down.
  • The need to put process completely into context – I spend a lot of time trying to read through e-mail threads to understand the complete context of a question posed to me (the snowball effect: e-mail starts off from one person, bounces around, and then ends up in my inbox).  Completing a process often involves numerous conversations – via e-mail, instant messenger, voicemail, etc. – that fall outside of the BPM suite container.  Imagine combining a tool like Google Wave with a BPMS: Now process-related conversations and threads can be easily traced throughout the process instance. So, instead of digging through e-mail, you can click on an activity in the process and see the entire context of conversations around the in-flight process.
  • Demand for user-generated content – I'm man enough to admit it: Just like you I jumped on the "get-rich building your own iPhone app" bandwagon.  Why? Because I think I can code and I want the world to see my new whiz-bang idea for the iPhone.  Of course none of this ever materialized (I have a full time job, remember?). But a lot of other hack and weekend developers rolled up their sleeves and contributed their own whiz-bang apps – some good, some not so good.  Looks like users and department heads are also trying to get in on the act of user-generated content.  Except it's not for the iPhone – it's for internal processes.  "Process mashups" (such as Serena Business Mashups) and "BPM-as-a-Service" (such as Appian Anywhere) technologies are indulging the business' fantasy of automating processes without IT's help.  And the verdict? Process hacks are having success generating some pretty nice processes (that run!).
Recently, I did a guest spot on CIOTalkRadio covering "human interaction management." Phil Gilbert (Lombardi Software's CEO) and Howard Smith (CTO, CSC European Group) were also guests for the segment.  I kind of blew up the show by telling the host, Sanjog Aul, that I hated the term "human interaction management" since it assumes we can manage "human interactions".  Really?  At any rate Phil and I ended up hijacking the conversation to lay out the future of what work and processes will look like.  The short of it, processes and BPM will be much more social.  Phil threw out a statement that I think sums it up well:  "A lot of people are looking for BPM on steroids.  What we really need is BPM on Facebook."  

Why It Matters

Don't discount social media's impact on business process management just because of its current level of hype and consumer focus.  Over the next two to three years BPM suites will continue to incorporate social technologies and features that connect process to the real way that people work and get things done.  Millennials and Gen Y employees entering the work force will likely embrace these new features and help accelerate the Social BPM trend.  Business Process professionals should keep an open eye (and open mind) out for opportunities to begin leveraging Social BPM components such as process wikis, process mashups, and BPM-as-a-Service.

What's Your Take?

I want to hear from you.  Let me know what you think about social media's impact on the BPM market? Do you think Social BPM represents the natural progression of BPM suites. Do you think social technologies will help BPM suites harness process-related conversations and user generated content?  Or do you think this is just a mashup of two hot market segments that really don’t belong togehter?