bpmNEXT Conference

The bpmNEXT conference took place at the Asilomar Conference Center, south of San Francisco, this past week.  There were about 100 people and they spent two and a half days talking about the state of BPM software offerings and about future directions the BPMS market was likely to take.  Unlike most gatherings of this size, however, the participants were mostly CTOs or CEOs of BPMS companies, and thus the talk was technical and very knowledgeable.

Let’s start with an overview and then I’ll return to the talks that interested me the most.  If I were to make a short list of the topics discussed, I would say: 

  • Mobile Phones and the Cloud,
  • iBPM, declarative programming, case management and business rules, and agents,  dashboards that manage large enterprise systems,
  • BPMS tool interoperability,
  • BPMS tools that convert documents into automated processes, and
  • analytics that could be used to improve processes.

It’s unsurprising that process software vendors are rushing to make it possible to use BPMS tools located in the cloud, or that they are making it possible to deliver process information to users via mobile phones.  There were several vendors who discussed tools that could do this and applications that made use of those characteristics.  The challenge for business people is simply to figure out where these new options will pay off in more effective business processes.

 Jim Sinur, formerly of Gartner and recently the co-author of a book on the use of agent technology for BPMS development, gave a keynote and suggested that BPMS tools would move in the direction of software agents.  While this hardly seems likely in the near term, several talks at the conference suggested that it might be happening in the long term.  Indeed, between Jim’s comments on agents, some discussions of how one might implement case management, and discussions of business rules and declarative programming, in general, there was a strong feeling that a shift was taking place in how people conceptualized BPMS development.

In essence, most BPM people think in procedural terms.  We imagine a process starting at some point, and then proceeding, via one step and then the next, to some conclusion.  We can imagine drawing a flow chart to show the steps that will make up the process.  Increasingly, however, BPM people are trying to tackle process problems that involve lots of tasks that one needs to choose among.  Imagine a patient going into a hospital.  They begin by asking questions to figure out what is wrong.  Depending on the initial answers they run tests, and depending on the test results, they may run other tests in an attempt to diagnose the problem.  If you tried to diagram this as a branching decision path, it would quickly involve hundreds of possibilities.  You might draw a high level process diagram, with a box labeled Diagnose Patient Problem, but you wouldn’t want to try to decompose that box into specific activities because it would involve hundreds of possible activities.  Instead, one might move from using a step-by-step, procedural approach, to a declarative approach, where one uses a logic algorithm to sort through hundreds of possible actions and identify the specific actions you ought to pursue.  We do this when we process a set of business rules.  We don’t create a huge decision table.  Instead, we write lots of individual rules, and then put them in a software tool and use a rules engine to identify just which rules we need in a given situation.  Agents represent still another variation on the declarative theme – they are self-contained programs with their own rules and inference engines, and they are designed to pursue goals and report back when they identify a solution.  It’s almost as if you create agents to do specific tasks, then put them together and watch them interact.  The process seems to emerge from the interaction of the agents.

In the course of the conference we heard about tools that incorporated rules and agents to make them more flexible.  I particularly enjoyed a talk by Dominic Greenwood, from the consulting company, Whitestein, that described a very impressive agent-based application that solved delivery routing problems for DHL in Europe.  The application began by deciding how to group and route packages, and then, dynamically rerouted if new pickups were added to a given route in the course of the day.   We also heard about agents to help managers with specific tasks.

Case management is closely related to agents and declarative approaches.  In essence, people have been working on new approaches to describe processes, like the hospital diagnosis example I cited above, that involve choosing among a large number of possible activities.  One group within the OMG has proposed a new approach to diagramming – CMMN – that they would use to represent more dynamic, case management situations.  In one talk by John Reynolds and Amy Dickson from IBM, they analyzed the alternatives and announced that IBM has concluded that it makes more sense to extend BPMN to include case management situations.  To do this, more emphasis is placed on the event conditions involved in invoking a given activity.  I was very pleased to hear this announcement.  It means that BPMN will get a bit more complex, if you want to use it to do case management applications, but it means that we avoid two different notations – BPMN for more procedural applications, and CMMN for more declarative applications.

Separately, the OMG’s Model Integration Working Group (MIWG) put on a demonstration of the interoperability of 12 existing BPMN tools.  The working group has been at this for over a year and each of the vendors has worked through a series of test cases, making changes as necessary to assure that they could move a given BPMN diagram from one tool to the next.  During the demo, which was being executed simultaneously at the OMG technical meeting on the East Coast of the US, and which had some vendors participating from Europe, we watched as all the vendors talked via Google Handout, created and passed a diagram via DropBox, and brought it up on their various tools.  I was almost as impressed that they group could pull off this complex teleconference, projected via a laptop unto a screen in our meeting room, as I was by the fact that all their tools could exchange BPMN.  The bottom line, however, is that they could and that we have entered the era where smart companies will buy multiple BPMN tools confident that what is developed in one can be executed in another.

SAP’s Harsh Volmering demonstrated a dashboard application that followed an enterprise-level value stream, constantly reporting on what the underlying process ways doing, showing how far SAP has come in making its newer applications much more flexible and capable to being used in BPMS situations.  At the same time the SAP application certainly underlines the importance of interoperable BPMN code.

Several vendors demonstrated products that could begin with a document or a set of email exchanges and help the user assemble an application to automate the process.  Admittedly, these are pretty trivial processes, but you have to start somewhere, and these vendors are working out the techniques required to make it really easy for someone performing a repetitive application online, to automate it.

Robert Shapiro of Process Analytica demonstrated an impressive tool that applied a number of data mining tools, tailored for process improvement.  In essence, if you have a process application and data, Robert can pull the application into his tool, give you a BPMN diagram of your process, and then proceed to tell you more about your process, and how you could improve it, than you could begin to imagine.

This hardly describes all of the interesting reports that were crammed into two days of talks at this year’s bpmNEXT conference, and I plan to revisit several of these stories and provide a lot more detail; this entry is simply an overview. 

The second Asilomar bpmNEXT conference was a great success.  Asilomar is a beautiful and isolated place on the California coast south of San Francisco, and it provided a great place to meet and to focus on the future of BPM automation.  The two days concluded with a wine tour and dinner at a Carmel restaurant that provided participants with a final chance for some very pleasant last minute networking, just before everyone headed back to airports and more mundane tasks.  Most of us are already looking forward to the 2015 edition of this event.

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