Part 3 — Social and mobile BPM: the debate continues.


If customers today are mobile and social, then employees are, too.  How are mobile technology and social media affecting workflow automation?

Pre-press and publishing expert Georg Obermayr came out this week with the next installment in his series on dynamic publishing, which appears on Enterworks partner Quark’s “Dynamic Publisher” news site.  In a detailed overview, Obermayr describes the benefits of dynamic publishing, which includes imposing order on what can be a frenetic process – especially as deadlines approach. 

Obermayr asks rhetorically:

Some may wonder, will the many advantages of dynamic publishing be acquired at the expense of traditional team collaboration?

Remarkably, the opposite is true. Working with a publishing system offers agencies and clients many advantages and makes collaboration fun in a new way. Below the surface, a publishing system’s workflow mirrors the conventional project workflows that are already familiar to content creators.

Those of us who grew up in an era of org charts and chains of command likely appreciate the methodical, orderly nature of processes supported by workflow automation and business process management (BPM).  However, there have been several recent articles and blog posts concerning the impact mobile technology and social media are having — or should be having — on BPM, hinting at a less rigorous, more fluid and collaborative environment coming our way.

The more recent pieces aren’t about workflow and publishing, but they do relate to the Obermayr article in the practical and philosophical sense that people (a) are more mobile and yet more connected than ever before, and (b) some personnel (particularly recent entrants to the workforce, i.e., Millennials) increasingly resent, in essence, being told what to do and when to do it. 

Social BPM

An amusing summation of this topic comes from an AIIM presentation on the distinction between systems of record and systems of engagement.  One of the slides rhetorically asks:  “Why do I know more about what my high school girlfriend had for dinner than what is going on in my organization?”

That nicely captures the essence of the issue: why don’t we have more of the visibility and collaboration in our business processes that are the hallmarks of our “personal processes” thanks to social media?  

It’s good to remember that this question has been around for quite a while. As background, this 2006 presentation on Web 2.0 and BPM by Sandy Kemsley of Kemsley Design may be the Urtext on the topic of social BPM.  It lays the foundation for much of the discussion to come. 

But the conversation really got started in 2009 through the insights of two Forrester analysts. In June 2009, Connie Moore described a broad vision of collaborative BPM without even using the words “social media,” as though seeing the future “through a glass darkly.”  A few months later, Clay Richardson thoroughly examined the topic when he teed up the 3Q2009 BPM TechRadar:

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… 

…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.

The issue continued to be debated in a variety of fora throughout the year.  Then last week, as if doing a year-end map check, an eBizQ discussion asks, “Why has social BPM failed to take off at the corporate level?”  One participant seems to directly answer Forrester evangelists Moore and Richardson circa 2009 with this blunt rejection:  “The reason is simply there is nothing to gain for the enterprise from a social add-on for BPM. Why would you add social to BPM anyway?”  (Apparently not everyone could see the Forrester for the process trees.) 

Adding Mobile to Social

Just as mobile technology has been a powerful enabling platform for the growth of personal social media, it has the potential to do the same for collaborative business processes.  As reported in CMSWire, Garter made the call for social and mobile technologies converging with BPM at the beginning of this year: 

Business process management technologies will become more agile as maturing technologies like discovery software, social software and mobile applications come together in BPM suites, making them easier to use and more relevant for the end user.

Just a few months later, Medhat Galal with BPM vendor Appian wanted to know where is mobile BPM?

With the pervasiveness of connectivity that allows us to easily bridge users separated by air, sea, and land, mobile business applications have to adapt to the new rules of the business enterprise. With regard to mobile business applications, business process management (BPM) sits front-and-center. If BPM is going to do for process what Google did for information, BPM must be mobile and always on.

More recently, Elise Olding, one of the Gartner analysts on the “Five BPM Predictions,” stirs things up with this question:  Will mobile apps be the BPMS killer?

Now that I have your attention…are you considering the inclusion of mobile apps in your business process design? Are you knowledgeable about how apps can be integrated into your design? If not, then it’s time to start. Mobile apps can not only deliver a competitive advantage, but can also be part of a larger cost-reduction effort. Apps can be developed for a fraction of the cost and deliver needed functionality.

But Isn’t Everyone Already Mobile and Social?

Think about it like this: if everyone is already getting connected by their existing mobile devices and are already collaborating over existing social media, maybe we don’t even need formal workflow and business process automation.  Or, as process evangelist Christine Longwell asks, do we really need structured workflows if we have visibility and status?

One of the major objections to implementing a PLM system is that it is going to tie a creative organization into a structured workflow that can slow down their process and ability to react.  If the process is too strictly structured, people start looking for ways around the process when “special situations” arise…

I believe it’s possible to use tools that facilitate real time, collaborative communication and status on issues to treat each problem differently, and come to the right solution more quickly.

The argument is that employees are lazy, and no one will do anything unless they are told to do something.  I just don’t think that’s true anymore…Treat your employees like children, and they will act like children.  Allow them the freedom to accomplish a task in their own way, and they will naturally work harder and do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals.

Not Your Parents’ Process Automation

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that so many of these articles are headlined with questions. Perhaps that’s evidence that we have more questions than solid answers at this point.

In any case, the conversation and debate around social and mobile BPM will no doubt continue.  It’s a discussion of interest to us, because enterprise workflow automation lies at the heart of the Enterworks Enable platform for multi-channel content management and publishing.  Our customers regularly cite its value in saving them time and money in acquiring, managing, and publishing their product content. 

So we’ll continue to enhance our process automation tools to accommodate the latest practices and technologies for sharing, collaboration, and communication – though their own parents might not recognize them a year from now.

Part 1: Mobile and social media: From multichannel to omnichannel commerce.

Part 2: More on social media: a powerful vector for sharing product information.

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