At SAP TechEd 2009 Vienna, I met Chris Horak, with whom I share a passion for good single malt, music (he’s into Metal and Bebop and plays Donna Lee on the e-bass), and the occasional witticism. Chris told me that he wondered what the future of Business Process Management might look like: “What will the successors of today’s BPM and ERP software in 10 or 15 years look like?”
Chris works at the office of the CTO at SAP and it appears that they try to look very far ahead. I don’t normally try to do that – frankly, I think it’s often difficult enough to see clearly what is happening right now in front of my nose -, but I took Chris’ question as a challenge and tried to come up with a few ideas. I let it sink in and a few thoughts emerged. Here’s my best shot at playing poor man’s Ray Kurzweil.
Today’s workflow processes are in a sad state (and I don’t mean Delaware). A workflow or BPM process is essentially a list of steps to be executed with a few conditions that define which steps to skip. Every workflow has a goal and exists because we want to see that goal realized. But where is this goal ever expressed? Nowhere! The step-by-step instructions we have instead are a poor substitute.
Imagine a team leader who tells her team members what she expects from them. Imagine she would do this by giving each step-by-step instructions for the next year but not telling them about the goals and purpose of these activities and what she hopes to achieve in year three or even after one year as the total result of their different efforts. The poor employees can only get hopelessly lost in the woods! Thankfully, such puppet-master style leadership should be very much the exception among humans.
But as the performance of computer is increasing logarithmically (if you haven’t seen the recording of Ray Kurzweil’s keynote speech from SAP TechEd Phoenix, please watch it at once) and we’re nearing the point where they develop human-like smarts, we have to learn to guide them differently and more like humans.
BPM as a Strategy Engine
The BPM of the future will not be based on step-by-step instructions, which are for idiots, but on the description of goals and purposes. Pursuing these goals, the BPM software will find a way as unstoppably as water flows downhill and Bill Gates came to the top.
It will simulate multiple possible execution paths, re-evaluate them iteratively, and incorporate any outside information that becomes available (which will be an awful lot) to update the strategy and tactic. It will respond flexibly to unexpected problems and obstacles.
Meta User Interface: A Living, Thinking Wave
I imagine it as a living, thinking Google Wave that dynamically adds the right people and bots as they are required to solve problems or provide expertise, and facilitates their work by blending in just the right information sheets, application interfaces, and tools. In most cases the engine will choose them autonomously so that navigation become as a thing we rarely have to do. The notion is old: context-sensitivity, except that the notion of context will be infinitely more subtle than today.
This means that the user interface is actually a meta user interface whose main purpose is to act as a substrate for all the other, situatively embedded user interfaces.
Exception Handling in a Living Wave: Resolving Goal Conflicts
In today’s workflow processes, exception handling by human intervention plays an important role. Many businesses have put all the business rules of their high-volume mass processes into their software systems, thus allowing for millions of documents to be processed “in the dark”, i.e. without human intervention. Only when a case cannot be decided by the machine – usually because it is a rare exception – is a human agent determined and given the task to correct the document or resolve the case otherwise.
Smarter BPM systems will require this type of human intervention much less frequently because they will be able to work with their input more flexibly. So what remains?
Even much smarter machines will require human exception handling when goal conflicts occur or the definition of the goals and purposes is not precise enough. In a complex strategic environment where a BPM engine pursues several goal at once but needs advice on their priorities or confirmation for sacrificing one goal for the benefit of another, it will query a human for clarification.
Obviously, this is similar to the way we consult our boss when a goal conflict occurs and the priorization of the conflicting goals is not clear enough.
Cross-Company Part 1: Business Process Representation
A challenge that was recently posed to SAP Mentors was to think about the company of the future. I came up with a slogan: “The company of the future is the cross-company.” By this I mean that as outsourcing, body-leasing, strategic cooperations, and many other forms of cross-company collaboration become commonplace, business processes transcend company borders. Business processes that span several organizations, each with their own IT infrastructure, require seamless infrastructural coverage and representation as exactly one business process (not many processes that are connected through interfaces).
This has clear implications on security: Nobody wants to be entirely transparent to their collaborators, which may also be (future) competitors. Future BPM systems must allow you to keep certain things hidden from external collaborators (but not your own company’s workers) while other information should be easily accessible to them. This will be especially challenging because due to the smarter BPM engines, the actual running processes will be much less foreseeable than today’s rigidly pre-fabricated workflow processes.
The data protection challenge calls for some kind of federation, just like the one that is part of the e-mail (SMTP) protocol or Google Wave’s architecture. (The more I think about Google Wave, the more I am convinced that it is the result of some serious visionary thinking and we will discover many more ideas in it that point at important trends.)
Cross-Company Part 2: Agent Determination
A smart agent determination system that looks at the business context, then finds the next human agent by matching it with the skills and responsibilities in the organization will have to work for external consultants and specialists working at a partner company as well as for its own company’s workers. You need to be able to find the right person for the task no matter if that person is an employee, as long as the person is available for the task. He could be a community member, a freelancer, or a job-seeker: The smart agent determination system of the future BPM system will find him and invite him to collaborate.
Rich User Context
The user context will play a much larger role in future UIs. First of all, UIs will play a bigger part in determining the user contexts via sensors and other sources of information: Who is using the system? Where is the user currently? Are we moving and if yes, where to? What time is it? When will we arrive? Is the light dim or bright, is it a noisy environment or silent, who else is there, where were we previously and where will we be next? What has happened a day, an hour, a minute ago, and what future events are we expecting? What is the rhythm, the flow state, of the situation?
Secondly, the UI will consider the situation and act accordingly. It will not bother us when we don’t want to be disturbed because we’re playing with our kids or driving our (Better Place ;)) car. It will provide information that is relevant to the current situation – e.g. an important meeting – as it becomes available.
The outside world (see the “internet of things” notion) will become part of the BPM engine’s user interface. A good example is the beer tap in this year’s SAP TechEd Demo Jam session that didn’t open when the person trying to operate it wasn’t authorized to do so. Doors and keycards are another example. The future user interface of a business process will not be limited to a computer screen, but be all around us.
I expect that most of what I wrote above is rather trivial to most readers and will become part of our everyday experience much sooner than 2019. But as the title says, it is my best shot at guessing the future of BPM, even if I make a fool out of myself. It might even all be yesterday’s news – I have no idea of what researchers are saying about where BPM is headed. Be that as it will, looking into my blurry crystal ball has been a fun experience and I will try it again.