What's really driving BPM

BPM is revolutionary, all right. But who's seeking liberation from whom?

Among the many great quotes in David Margulius’ BPM in the trenches is one from Mike Barnett, who describes the rise of BPM as “a near revolution of management against IT to get more control over the rules that control the enterprise.”

As director of professional services at BPM vendor Gensym, Barnett knows whereof he speaks. But I’d like to offer an alternate view of this evolution.

Right from the birth of the industry, IT managers have been called on to supply tools that execute some of the most sensitive operations of the enterprise. What’s more critical than billing or customer data management?

What has changed is that IT now handles not only the data on which the business operates, but increasingly the business process itself, including the many decision points that constitute the heart of any successful company.

As nearly always happens in technology, the engineers who first tackled this problem created a dedicated system. Typically, they wrote -- or cobbled together from parts -- specialized applications to accomplish tasks such as credit approvals or document revisions. The sequence of steps in each process was typically hard-coded: Get information A, check credit score B, note background C, seek signature D, and so forth. Employees were trained to use the new interface and, once launched, the app worked well.

Then the process changed.

Now the warts of the hard-coded solution began to show. For each revision in procedure, change of information flow, or new government regulation, engineers had to sit down with the businesspeople and hammer out a solution. Code was rewritten, and then rewritten again. Following each revision, there was the inevitable period of painful debugging. The interface kept changing. Everyone cursed IT.

Today’s BPM tools have been created to address this problem. Although there are many flavors, all aim to place control of business information and processes directly in the hands of actual decision-makers, ranging from corporate to line-of-business management, with little or no (visible) IT intermediation.

You could describe this as a revolution initiated by the business class, as Barnett did; equally, you could describe it as IT management offloading a set of time-consuming, problematic tasks to the people who should own them.

That’s part of an ongoing evolution stretching back several decades in which the industry continues to build higher layers of control over complex systems ranging from business processes to network operations to device management.

Moreover, and this is my point, it’s a process driven as much by the technologists -- who are tired of being cursed -- as by harried business managers who may once have cursed them.