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Is BPM Too Confusing to Be Taken Seriously?

Is BPM Too Confusing to Be Taken Seriously?

Is BPM Too Confusing to Be Taken Seriously?

Written by Mark McGregor

Once again, I am continuing the theme from my previous article of using the past to look at the present and consider the future. The motivator this time was me recent attendance at three conferences in the US, starting with the Business Transformation & Operational Excellence Conference (BTOES19) in Orlando, then continuing with the OPEX Exchange event in San Diego and finally ending with the BPMNext event in Santa Barbara.

At risk of creating an “Oh, no it isn’t. Oh yes it is!” Punch and Judy debate, I am going to state again what I said many years ago. “BPM is just too confusing to be taken seriously!” When I talk with people these days, I try to avoid using the term at all. I find it easier to engage people using the terms process management or process automation, and I highly suggest you consider doing the same.

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What the heck is BPM?

It is incredible that three initials can cause so much misunderstanding, debate and heated arguments. Last time I wrote I used the following to remind people that the audiences they talk with think any one or more of the following when they here the term.

  • Business Process Mapping
  • Business Process Modeling
  • Business Process Management
  • Business Performance Management

Each of which are different and may or may not be dependent on each other. As an example how can Visio be thought of as a BPM tool? Yet it is and is marketed as such, unless BPM is supposed to equal Business Process Mapping, as a mapping tool is what Visio is!

Is there a global standard?

The we come to the Germany vs USA differential (as I am from Germany). A significant number of organizations doing BPM, think of themselves as doing Business Process Management, but in effect what they are doing is Business Process Modeling and the management of those models and processes.

Contrast that with the USA, where organizations equate Business Process Management to Business Process Management Systems, so by extension Business Process Management in the USA most often is seen as Business Process Automation. In fact, while in Germany and many parts of Europe, people start with the mapping and modeling, move into managing and then consider automation. In the USA, there is a tendency to want to jump into automation without regard to mapping or modeling (whether of the current of future states).

One wonders whether this instant leap to automation is why (anecdotally) it seems that US based organizations change vendor and automation platform more often. Maybe the ready, fire, aim approach is missing the target as often as it is hitting it!

Today, its Intelligent Automation

As if the whole notion is not confusing enough already, at BPMNext we learned quite a bit more about the new wave of Intelligent Automation. This was an interesting topic an looks like it could be of interest and useful for many organizations, however, when on speaker explained that BPM now equaled Intelligent Automation, I had to roll my eyes.

Many readers will know I am a huge fan of Business Process Management and the benefits it brings to business, but they will also know that I was brought up on the notion that it is a management discipline for better understanding and improving business, not a technology in and of itself. I suggest this need to separate the discipline from the technology is now more important than ever, and if we do separate we can create some easier opportunities for automation.

Historically, Operational Excellence communities have been as disconnected from IT implementations as IT oriented BPMS groups have been from the business. However, based on what I was seeing at BTOES, and hearing at the OPEX Exchange, things are changing, and changing fast.


The advent of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is changing the narrative. Whether it is the stories of easy and rapid return on investment, the fact that RPA is more focused on human centric tasks, or that is just more easily understood by business users – I can’t say. What I can say is that an overwhelming number of traditional non-IT, non-technically focused Operational Excellence, Process Improvement and Business Transformation teams were very engaged talking about process automation like never before.

For those promotions and selling Process Automation tooling and solutions this is a good thing, it is a sign that after all these years there is recognition that the two sides really should be more tightly woven together. However, be aware that of those who were now considering automation, most already thought they were either doing BPM, or were avoiding BPM (because BPM=BPMS and that means long waits for our IT department).

For some, having started down the path of RPA, they were already identifying some limitations and were now starting to look for solutions with more intelligence. So vendors actively working in the Intelligent Automation space may have some new opportunities. Going back to the beginning of this article, there appear to be lots of new and potentially exciting opportunities to bring the process community together. This coming together won’t happen if every automation choice; BPMS, RPA, Intelligent Automation etc. tries to label itself as BPM.

I strongly suggest that whether you are a vendor, a consultant or user organization you should avoid trying to be lazy or fashionable and instead use clear language. I think you will find it easier to engage with people, easier to get budget and ultimately easier to succeed. After all, the chances are that Process Automation in most enterprises will encompass or be embedded in most of the following; CRM (Salesforce), ERP (SAP), ITSM (ServiceNow), BPMS, RPA, Workflow, Task Management, Intelligent Automation, Application Development etc. etc. — The days of one size fits all have long gone, and the future looks to be very fragmented once again.

A former Research Director at leading IT industry analysis firm Gartner, Mark has an extensive background in enterprise architecture, business process management and change management, having held executive positions with a number of technology companies. Since retiring from Gartner, he now works as an independent consultant with clients such as Changepoint, Erwin, Mega, Planview, Signavio and LeanIX. Connect with him via LinkedIn.

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