David Chappell


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The Changing Definition of a BPM Vendor: Does Microsoft Qualify?  
# Monday, November 27, 2006
Definitions of business process management tend to divide into two streams: the business meaning and the technical meaning. From a purely business perspective, BPM commonly refers to viewing an organization as a set of processes that can be defined, managed, and optimized. What technology is used to implement those processes, if any, need not be part of the discussion at all. To technical people, BPM typically refers to a group of technologies focused on defining, executing, and managing process logic. While applying both kinds of BPM in the same organization might well make sense, it's not obligatory. Each one has value on its own.

For the technical view of BPM, the one I'm most interested in, the next challenge is to figure out exactly which technologies should be included. I'd argue that the list looks something like this:
  • Workflow, including both system workflow (connecting software) and human workflow (connecting people)
  • Graphical tools for defining workflows
  • Integration technologies, such as adapters used to connect different kinds of software together, data mapping tools, and more
  • Business rules engines
  • Business activity monitoring

Categories like this are typically defined by the analyst firms, such as Gartner and Forrester. Most often, the analysts base these definitions on existing products. This makes good sense, since the goal of a category is to provide a way to think about the area and to compare different offerings. For BPM, this definition has largely been driven by small firms, the companies that are sometimes called "pure-play" BPM vendors. As big companies adopt the BPM terminology, however, the definition of this category is changing.

For example, Microsoft provides everything on the list above, but not in the same way as the smaller BPM firms. Rather than supporting human and system workflow in a single engine, for instance, Microsoft splits them in two: human workflow is provided by Windows SharePoint Services (and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server), while system workflow is supported by BizTalk Server. Similarly, a good number of people would argue that to qualify as BPM, the tools used to define workflows must be usable by business people, not just developers. Once again, Microsoft's view is different, as its tools are targeted more toward technical people.

Given these differences, it's possible to argue that Microsoft doesn't qualify as a vendor of BPM technologies. Yet this is a difficult position to support for a couple of reasons. First, most of Microsoft's customers probably will see it as providing BPM, whatever the analysts think. I've put this question to hundreds of them in my recent talks, and a large majority (although not all) believe that what Microsoft offers certainly is BPM. The second reason to view Microsoft as part of the BPM world stems from the point mentioned earlier: in new categories, the original definition is commonly driven by small firms, then changes as major vendors enter. A great example of this was the application server category, which wound up looking almost nothing like the original products that carried this label. Arguing that Microsoft's products don't qualify as BPM because they don't exactly match the original definition seems as odd as claiming that WebSphere Application Server doesn't deserve to be called an application server because it's so unlike the Kiva or NetDynamics products that originally gave this category its name.

As new products appear, especially from major vendors, they change the definition of a category. Expect to see this happen once again with the definition of BPM technologies. And whatever analyst firms might say, expect to see Microsoft perceived by most of its customers as part of the BPM world.

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The products you have named are giving customers to have good BPM applications, but do you really believe that Microsoft communicates good about these products? I bet most of customers believes that BizTalk is a data transfer tool that can handle varius problems and sharepoint is just a nice content management system. I believe the image of the products and how Microsoft puts them on the self until now is a bit far away from BPM and the capacity of the products.

I agree, Jan--Microsoft hasn't typically presented these products under the BPM banner. This is changing somewhat, however: see www.microsoft.com/bpm. Whether they'll continue with this perspective isn't clear yet, but from a purely technical point of view, I believe that what they're doing fits into the BPM category.

Dear all,
Microsoft is building now the infrastructure and will be availble for all users with next months,
since with new Framework V 3.0,microsfot support different kinds of workflow,as well as very stable intergration services not only by Biztalk but also by WCF (Windows Communication Foundation).

i like these kinds of dicussion which let all of us to get the right vision for what's going on plus the vision of each software vendor.

In a future blog entry, could you discuss what security features BPM vendors should be implementing in their products?

I am yet to see Successful Enterprise wide BPM Implementations( except one off Implementations in Insurance and Financial Services, but cant really call them successful) ? Do you know of any good BPM implementations in Retail, Pharma and Manufacturing Industries ? Which business problems did they tackle , and how can they be justifiably called BPM implementations as opposed to SCM implementations ?

Talk to any BPM vendor--Metastorm, Lombardi, Savvion, etc.--and they'll give you plenty of case studies. Most are internal, too, not supply chain management.

Perhaps you have a very agressive definition of "BPM" or "enterprise-wide", and so none of these examples will meet your criteria. Still, must a solution be deployed enterprise-wide to have value? I don't think so. The truth is that in big organizations, almost nothing works across the entire enterprise. The key to a project's success is often carefully circumscribing the domain that's targeted.

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