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Six BPMs and the Elephant

Blogger: Richard Watson

It was six men of Indostan 
To learning much inclined, 
Who went to see the Elephant 
(Though all of them were blind), 
That each by observation 
Might satisfy his mind 
The First approached the Elephant, 
And happening to fall 
Against his broad and sturdy side, 
At once began to bawl: 
“God bless me! but the Elephant 
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk, 
Cried, “Ho! what have we here 
So very round and smooth and sharp? 
To me ’tis mighty clear 
This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!”

And, so on; the third blind man believes the elephant is a snake, the fourth a tree, the fifth a fan, the sixth a rope. I’m sure you get the picture.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

From “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

Over the last few months I have done a lot of talking to clients about their business process management (BPM) efforts.  Carrying out Burton Group’s field research study, I have spoken to 35 people representing 23 organizations.  I have probably gathered as many definitions of BPM.  BPM is the most extreme case of the blind men and the elephant fable I have experienced in my career.  How people think about BPM depends entirely on their point of view, their skills, and their experiences.

The situation is not as simple to characterize as “IT people believe BPM is about tools for automating processes and business people believe BPM is a management discipline”.  The people we spoke to leading BPM initiatives have more complex and subtly differing viewpoints that are shaped by their experiences.

It’s partly the rich heritage of BPM that leads to this variety of viewpoints across our enterprises.  When we examine the management, scientific and technical trends that have helped shape where we are with BPM today, and the different roles we play, it’s not so surprising we all have differing perspectives. I’ve represented many of those trends in the diagram below, with the influential work[1] for each trend mentioned in the green clouds.

 BPM Timeline

Burton Group’s definition of BPM is:

BPM is a discipline for managing business processes explicitly as strategic assets.

The commitment to manage processes explicitly, and treat processes as strategic corporate assets, should be taken independently from any decision to automate part of the workflow.  So, BPM infrastructure is not a prerequisite for doing BPM. Process improvement thinking should come before adopting tools (more on this topic soon.)

Burton Group’s approach to providing research and advice for our clients is always to focus on practices rather than technology.  Analyzing BPM demands this approach, because the tools play very much a supporting role to the organizational change required for optimizing the business through a process lens.

Why haven’t the differing viewpoints on BPM converged?  Other questions remain: If process improvement has climbed to the top of CIOs agendas, why is business process management (BPM) still executed in enclaves? Even amongst organizations moving forward with BPM, why is there universal difficulty in articulating its business benefit?

Next week the Burton Group BPM team meets face-to-face to harvest the insights that have come from those interviews with BPM leaders.  During the consolidation session over several days, we will analyze the 1000s of data points and group them into patterns and relationships.  We will find answers to the questions above and more besides.  I’m looking forward to publishing the findings early next year, and sharing them at our Catalyst User conferences: Prague in April, and San Diego in July.

[1] Two references were helpful in compiling this timeline: “Business Process Change” by Paul Harmon. Morgan Kaufman. 2nd Edition. 2007 and “Workflow-based Process Controlling” by Michael zur Muehlen. Logos Verlag Berlin. 2004.

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