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Social BPM: Definitions and Dissensions

Recently, there has been a great deal of Internet buzz concerning “Social BPM”: Usually, these two words are seen as separate entities but with the emergence of Web 2.0 sites outside the enterprise and other developments, there has been an increase in interest in bringing the two worlds closer together.   Indeed, it appears that the latest trend is to add the word “Social” to every possible IT-related acronym including “Social CRM”, “Social SRM”, “Social CIO”- without really discussing in detail what this collaborative functionality would really entail.

Note: Although the buzz has reached a crescendo in recent months, others have been interested in this topic for a longer period.  For example, Sandy Kemsley presented on the topic at a conference in London in 2006 (!).  

Another Note: I’m currently participating in the BPX ProcessSlam for this year’s TechEds and have personally dealt with the difficulties of trying to conduct BPM-related work in a community. My experience in this project was one of my motivations to take a closer look at the topic of Social BPM.

This blog is the first in a series in which I will examine the topic of “Social BPM” from various perspectives.   My main intention in this blog is to distill the most relevant information (at least from my perspective) that I’ve read about this topic (follow the various links in the article for more details).  I’d like this introduction to create a foundation for deeper discussions relating to this trend that will follow in future blogs in this series.   

Initial Definition: Social BPM = Web 2.0 Meets BPM

At its most fundamental level, “Social BPM” is the combination of Web 2.0 and BPM. The problem with this definition is that both “Web 2.0” and “BPM” are very very broad terms that describe a multitude of technologies and mindsets.   To provide a first look at how these topics interact, I borrowed a few slides from the above-mentioned slideset from Sandy Kemsley (although Sandy didn’t use the term “Social BPM”).

Although Sandy doesn’t and can’t describe all possible interaction possibilities, I think it is possible to see that there are various perspectives from which to view how Web 2.0 and BPM impact one another. .

Why is Social BPM necessary?

A Leadership BPM  blog suggests that the current BPM-related toolsets really don’t reflect how knowledge workers work and make decisions.  


Participation in a business process, too, is “social” in nature. The participants of the process are members of a team who often want to discuss and collaborate with each other and want to know what other participants are thinking. In many case they want the ability to use the thoughts and feedback of others to change and improve their own actions in a process. Today, most BPM solutions provide a structured way of doing work, using a factory automation metaphor. But knowledge workers who participate in processes are not automatons working on a factory floor. Instead they are humans with the need to learn and to satisfy emotional needs.  They find too much structure imposed by rigid BPM solutions to be an impediment rather than a facilitator. When the process becomes an impediment, these knowledge workers will find ways to bypass the rigidity of structured BPM and work around it. This defeats the whole purpose of BPM.


In a comment on a blog, Miko Matsumura describes the impact of Social Networking tools to which the “younger generation” has become accustomed.


“Social networking” is becoming a ubiquitous part of the younger (18-32) set in the workplace. Services such as Twitter perform an interesting function whereby messages that previously went between one person and another are made sharable and discoverable. With this trend, the ability to both define and execute more dynamic process discovery is made available.


Relevance of Social BPM: Forrester’s view

The presence of Social BPM-related technology (for example, process wikis) on Forrester’s BPM Tech Radar (See Clay Richardson’s recent blog  for more details) is further evidence that this trend has relevance for the enterprise.   


What I like about Clay’s analysis is that he is not suggesting that “Social BPM” is perfect for all process-related use cases but that there are specific areas in which its usage may be ideal.


Based on our BPM Tech Radar interviews – we spoke with over 65 customers, leading vendors, and BPM evangelists – it seems that social and Web 2.0 technologies are breathing new life into BPMS to tackle the remaining process whitespace that still needs to be conquered in the enterprise.


Don’t discount social media’s impact on business process management just because of its current level of hype and consumer focus.  Over the next two to three years BPM suites will continue to incorporate social technologies and features that connect process to the real way that people work and get things done.  Millennials and Gen Y employees entering the work force will likely embrace these new features and help accelerate the Social BPM trend.  Business Process professionals should keep an open eye (and open mind) out for opportunities to begin leveraging Social BPM components such as process wikis, process mashups, and BPM-as-a-Service.


The Internet Buzz about Social BPM


All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth – Montaigne


As usual when the Internet buzz around a topic steps up, there are a variety of definitions and descriptions that arise. The various discussions around this topic illustrate that a definition of “Social BPM” is still on-going. Here are a few of the more relevant points that I found:

  • Miko Matsumura in a blog “Business Process Management Goes Social”   associates the rise of Social BPM to the Kaizen philosophy that emerged in Japan after the Second World War . “Kaizen is already Social BPM – a term made exciting by the fact that, much like progress in computerizing BPM since World War II, Social BPM puts the collaboration technology in the cloud, where it belongs….. A social BPM utility in the cloud lowers the cost of collaboration across silos both inside and outside of the enterprise, both on- and off-premises. The ability to provide 360-degree input into process optimization takes the Japanese Kaizen model of continuous process improvement and enables groups separated by geography, platform, business unit, company, customer relationship, supplier relationship, regulatory relationship, stage of technology life cycle, or any other classification to join together to optimize processes – the goal being to define globally optimized processes that work for all stakeholders.”
  • Dr. Setrag Koshafian in an excellent book chapter  „MyBPM: Social Networking for Business Process Management” describes the synergy as “[b]usiness processes provide the context of collaboration, and social networks supports and augments the various phase of BPM continuous improvement lifecycle.”.
  • In a comment on a blog, Brian Reale focuses on the term ‘socially aware bpm’.  He asks “What if bpm users were empowered to improve their process performance by harnessing an interlaced, interactive, and living knowledge base. That is the idea of ‘socially aware bpm’ and that is where a key point of interaction between BPM and Social Media resides.”  For more details, here is Brian’s blog about this definition.
  • Scott Francis of bp-3 suggests that a better description may be “BPM Collaboration tools”
  •  An Information Age article “The Social Process” provides an overview of the topic and associates Social BPM with the political impact of Web 2.0 tools: “we see so-called Web 2.0 technologies allowing greater democratic participation in the political agenda. But the same forces are at play in the enterprise”. The article is useful, because it includes quotes from various experts including Kelly Dempski (Head of the research labs at management consultancy Accenture) who believes that “making the social network a key architectural metaphor in business software, rather than an abstract process, may improve process execution because it would bring human factors to the fore.  A company is, of course, a collection of people. When you produce a system that is strongly based on the process or the document, you lose the sense that someone else is depending on you to perform a task. The really useful information for the user would be who is waiting for them to do something, or who they themselves are waiting for.”

Dissenting voices

It is important to note that others examine the association of Web 2.0 and BPM-related software more critically and suggest that a closer linkage is inherently difficult if not impossible.  One example of this contradictory perspective is in a ProcessMaker blog Social Media + Business Process Management – Irreconcilable Opposites or the Killer Combo?”  .


So, where does Social Media fit into the big BPM picture?


Let me be blunt –

It Doesn’t

Ok, so as we will see the answer isn’t quite so cut and dry.  But don’t be fooled, social media and BPM tend to be on opposite sides of the spectrum in just about every sense.  Anyone writing a white paper to say differently is either teaching at an obscure university somewhere or writing about how their kids are using Facebook and Twitter instead of using these themselves.


The author suggests that “while Business Process Management and Business Process Management Software is about modeling business processes and simulating them until we can make them more efficient. Social Media is about changing the very rules of business and social interaction.”

Indeed, others suggest that the merging of the two will be a distinct disadvantage:


Let me make a prediction: By adding social networking functionality to existing BPM systems, you can expect to greatly increase the labor needed to perform tasks because people will “take advantage” of their social network.



For me, this blog is similar to the ever-present initial chapters of academic articles where the authors take a look at existing literature and acknowledge the field’s gurus and superstars before moving on to describe their own research.  My intention was to give readers background material on this interesting topic. Hopefully, it is now evident that the term “Social BPM” is in a state of flux that is reflected by the myriad of recent blogs and articles that have dealt with it. What is especially interesting is that many of these contributions have emerged on the blogs of BPM software vendors.

So with this in mind, the next blog in this series will take a more detailed look at what sort of technology is involved in “Social BPM” and provide a description of those communities currently providing such functionality.

1 Comment
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  • It does not!
    May be a little like notes etc.
    First let me ask you this. Even our MS Outlook in
    our daily office work, has some BPM included with
    it. Right? Outlook is less rigid, more informal
    than pure BPM process oriented communication. If
    at all let ‘Social Outlook’ feature come out, and
    we will see how far ‘Social-BPM’ is going to happen.
    Fair ?

    This is a very interesting blog, from a very good
    Subject Matter Expert.

    Thanks for the blog,

    -Prasad Nutalapati