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Is BPMN too Complex? Here’s how to Overcome Your BPMN Phobia

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Business Process Model & Notation (BPMN) is a rich and detailed standard. It enables us to specify processes in a very precise way, using a notation that has become a widely adopted standard. There are a whole plethora of different elements and learning BPMN sometimes feels like learning a new language. This can cause issues for our stakeholders—if a stakeholder sees a huge, detailed BPMN sub-model using every single type of element, they may recoil in confusion, understandably complaining “it’s just too complex!”.

In our desire to create a model that captures the rich detail of the process, do we risk creating an artefact that can only be read by specialists?

Although this is a risk, it is a risk that can be avoided with careful planning and forethought. One of the core underlying purposes of BPMN is to facilitate communication, but like any tool it will only be as effective as the practitioner using it.

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If we were to show an executive a complex, busy, detailed process model showing every step in the orchestration of a process they would likely look away in boredom. Yet show a high-level overview to a front-line worker and they will look at you wondering why you are showing them something so blatantly obvious. Showing an insurance contact-center worker a sub-model with three sub-processes (‘capture client details’, ‘prepare quote’, ‘send quote’) is likely to leave them thinking we have a very simplistic view of the work that they do.

Stakeholder Analysis is Everything

This brings us to the very crux of the matter. Much like most process analysis work, stakeholder analysis is key. Not all stakeholders will need to look at the same ‘views’ of a process, and BPMN allows us to conceptually ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ of a model, focusing on the parts that are particularly relevant for a particular stakeholder. A senior executive might well be interested in seeing the top-level end-to-end view with half a dozen collapsed sub-processes shown. They are interested in the shape, the scope and the ‘macro view’. A front-line worker may need to see every single step, and a member of the IT team might be particularly interested in tasks that are automated. BPMN allows us to show and hide the detail as we ‘zoom’ in and out.

It is also important for us to acknowledge that whilst we may have a detailed knowledge of the BPMN notation, in the early days of us using it in an organization, it will be completely new to some stakeholders.

It can be useful to provide a ‘key’ or ‘legend’ which explains the key elements that have been used in a diagram. Providing informal ‘lunch and learn’ sessions where interested stakeholders can find out more about process modelling and BPMN can help build buy-in. Usually once stakeholders have seen how useful it is, and once they are familiar with the notation, they are keen to see it used.

BPMN is Good (for What it’s Good for)

Last, but by no means least, a further important point for us to keep in mind is that BPMN is good for what it’s good for.

It is an excellent process modelling and management notation, but there are certain things that it (deliberately) doesn’t represent. For example, whilst you can represent the flow and storage of data, if you need to represent the structure of an information or data model then an accompanying model in a different notation would help—perhaps a class diagram or entity relationship diagram. Equally, if you are modelling processing that will be automated in a new system, BPMN won’t specify all the non-functional requirements—you’ll almost certainly need additional requirements artefacts of some type.

So whilst process modelling with BPMN can be extremely powerful, it is important that we think beyond processes too. Else, we may find some stakeholders disengage with BPMN because it isn’t representing the information that they are particularly interested in seeing. This can be another cause of BPMN-phobia!

However, if we keep our stakeholders front-and-center of our minds, and if we work collaboratively to create ‘views’ of the model that are meaningful for them (providing  guidance where needed), over time we are likely to overcome any BPMN phobia.

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