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Thoughts on process populism: Will it lead to process democracy or process anarchy?

In a recent blog entitled “Storming the Bastille: A populist uprising in the BPM world‘,  Forrester analysts Clay Richardson and Connie Moore describe a new BPM-related theme which they call “process populism”:

a stark picture of business process professionals and business users in open revolt against IT – pitchforks in hand – demanding greater collaboration and inclusion across all phases of the process lifecycle.

Note:  This blog and the original blog are based on the assumption that the relationship between business users and IT in a corporate setting is antagonistic in nature with each side complaining about the apparent shortcomings of the other.  Business is dissatisfied with IT and, as a consequence, attempts to find solutions to circumvent this restrictive environment. The emergence of corporate mashups that exist outside the firewall and access corporate data is also evidence of such conflicts. I’d like to suggest that this assumption may not be appropriate in all settings. In smaller organizations where the IT infrastructure is not as developed or is focused on exploiting SAAS solutions, then cloud-based Social BPM efforts may be embraced by Corporate IT as an efficient way to fill gaps that exist in the organization.

Before we examine this issue in more detail, I think it is important to distinguish between Social BPM: Definitions and Dissensions and BPM in the Cloud – the distinction between the topics is often blurred. Although cloud-based tools are ideal for Social BPM efforts that bridge customers, partners and internal participants whose collaboration in the past was often hampered by IT-related barriers, such Social BPM tools can also be present in environments that aren’t cloud-based.


As someone who studied political science extensively during my university career, I wanted to take a more critical look at the political metaphor used by Richardson and Moore.   I thought if the two authors started using this metaphor to examine BPM-related topics – let’s expand the discussion and look at how other political phenomenon might also relate to BPM. 

From a more general political perspective, let’s take another look at the definition from the original blog.

Populism is a political discourse that juxtaposes “the people” with “the elites.” Populism may comprise an ideology, a political philosophy or a mere type of discourse urging social and political system changes and/or a rhetorical style deployed by members of political or social movements.

I’m assuming that Moore and Richardson are interested in more than populist rhetoric – the business users in question want to change the “system”- in this case the structures that are represented by Corporate IT.   As the Forrester analysts suggest with the title of their blog, business users are just now storming the Bastille and demanding their process-related rights.  Richardson and Moore focus on the current populist movement at a very early stage in its development.  Social BPM is still in its infancy with tools supporting this trend just now starting to emerge.  How will this movement, however, evolve in the future? Will it be successful?

With this question in mind, I started to think about diverse methodologies to look at its possible evolution. Using the Gartner Hype cycle was one possibility but this had more of a technological focus that I wanted. Since process populism is more of a social phenomenon, I decided to look for assistance in this area – the evolution of political revolutions (French Revolution, Russian Revolution, etc.).

“Wait a second”, you might be thinking, “What do revolutions have to do with IT?” If you look at the conflict between Business users and Corporate IT – you might see Business as the citizens with innovative (“revolutionary”) ideas threatening the structure of Corporate IT (the Establishment).   Of course, the comparison doesn’t fit exactly inasmuch as Corporate IT and Business are both part of the same greater organization – the Corporation – on whom both are dependent for their further existence. 

With this motivation, I started looking for theories about how revolutions evolve and what are the conditions that lead to their emergence.  I didn’t want to look at the analysis from political leaders – I thought they would be too subjective. I discovered historian Crane Brinton who wrote a famous book entitled “The Anatomy of Revolution“.  After reading a short synopsis of his work, I was fascinated, especially concerning what happens when revolutionaries take power.  

After the government is overthrown, there is usually a period of optimistic idealism, and the revolutionaries engage in much perfectionist rhetoric. But this phase does not last very long. The practical tasks of governing have to be faced, and a split develops between moderates and radicals. It ends in the defeat of the moderates, the rise of extremists, and the concentration of all power in their hands. For one faction to prevail and maintain its authority, the use of force is almost inevitable. The goals of the revolution fade, as a totalitarian regime takes command. Some of the basic tenets of the original revolutionary movement, however, are eventually incorporated in the end.  [Italics are mine]

Although all of Brinton’s description isn’t appropriate to analyze process populism, there were some ideas that were relevant.  Crane suggests that there is conflict between the initial idealism of the revolutionary in opposition and the restrictions created by the actual application of power.  This got me thinking about the problems associated with Shadow IT efforts as they become more complicated – involving individuals in various relationships to the corporation in question, requiring infrastructure behind the firewall (common identity management, etc.); having to meet compliance guidelines, etc.  – such efforts often require many of the same characteristics / restrictive policies – so prevalent in environments controlled by Corporate IT.  

I searched further and found a better description of Brinton’s book which is broken down into two themes – conditions which are causes of major revolutions and the evolution of revolutions.

Let’s take a look at his list of conditions.

  1.   People from all social classes are discontented.
  2.   People feel restless and held down by unacceptable restrictions in society, religion, the economy or the government.
  3.   People are hopeful about the future, but they are being forced to accept less than they had hoped for.
  4.   People are beginning to think of themselves as belonging to a social class, and there is a growing bitterness between social classes.
  5.   The social classes closest to one another are the most hostile.
  6.   The scholars and thinkers give up on the way their society operates.
  7.   The government does not respond to the needs of its society.
  8.   The leaders of the government and the ruling class begin to doubt themselves.   Some join with the opposition groups.
  9.   The government is unable to get enough support from any group to save itself.
  10. The government cannot organize its finances correctly and is either going bankrupt or trying to tax heavily and unjustly.

I read the conditions that he described and thought – “Wow – many of these conditions are often described as the basis of the rise of ShadowIT and process populism.”

So, the conditions – as evidenced by the rise of process populism- are ripe for a process revolution. What takes the place of the “tyranny” of Corporate IT? Do you have a process revolution that leads to a process democracy?

Business – Victorious

Let’s make an assumption that this process populism leads to greater BPM democratization with increased involvement of those outside of traditional corporate IT and process consultants.   

What could be the impact of such a change?

Voting habits

In a democracy, power is spread throughout the body politic – everyone has the ability to vote – indeed, it is the responsibility of citizens to vote. Yet, if you look at voting records, in many elections, the turnout is very low. Just because individuals have the ability to vote doesn’t mean that they will vote. It is the same in the corporations where process populism exists, just because the technical ability to collaborate on process design is present doesn’t mean that all individuals in a corporate environment will collaborate.  The same necessity – to motivate people to get involved – that is currently present will still exist. The assumption that the technological changes involved in process populism will solve all problems associated with BPM-related activities is incorrect; change management – not only dealing with the after effects of process improvement projects but also encouraging people to take advantage of their new process-related rights – will be necessary in most organizations.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 “La révolution dévore ses enfants” – Danton – “The revolution eats its own children.”

Once revolutions get started, they are very hard to control.   Brinton describes two phases in a revolution that describe this dilemma:  

  • Once in power, revolutionaries begin to quarrel among themselves, and unity begins to dissolve.
  • The moderates gain the leadership but fail to satisfy those who insist on further changes.

Thus, I was surprised to find a quote in the original Forrester blog that suggests that it is possible to control such a movement.

 “If harnessed properly, the process populism movement presents process professionals with a unique opportunity to extend the reach of BPM within their organizations and beyond traditional organizational boundaries. [Italics are mine].

The assumption that the revolution can be controlled / “harnessed” is a very dangerous one.

With Social BPM technology, a wide variety of individuals can now participate in shaping the processes that impact them on a daily basis in their work environment. Once the floodgates to process democracy have been opened, then you really can’t expect individuals to stop with the edge processes – maybe they will start looking at those standard processes at the heart of the business.

Are you ready for that? Are your ERP vendors or providers of your standardized processes ready?  Is your Change Management Staff ready?


What was missing from the original Forester blog was recommendations how to respond to process populism.  It is like a political consultant describing poll results and telling a candidate “You’re in trouble” without giving suggestions on how to respond accordingly to deal with the crises. 

I’d like to take a shot at making such recommendations.

Recommendations for the “Establishment”

Social BPM isn’t going to go away – it isn’t a fad. Based on this assumption, how should you respond?

Corporate IT

  • Short-term: If you don’t have a Social BPM environment on premise, pick one existing cloud-based BPM vendor and form a strategic relationship with them. Give them access to your LDAP, identity management and/or other enterprise services so that processes created in this environment have greater value than if they were isolated from such corporate services. Negotiate on reduced prices for corporate users so that Social BPM users have an incentive to work with a preferred vendor. Identify vendors who support reuse / collaboration amongst participants who come from one organization.
  • Long-term: Decide whether an on-premise Social BPM environment is more effective, more secure or has other advantages or whether a cloud-based Social BPM environment meets corporate policy / strategy.

Corporate Process Experts

  • Embrace – rather than harness – the Social BPM efforts of others. Look at such participants as equals rather than beginners. This is a reflection of the old debate in the blogosphere about the involvement of “non-experts” in process design. The elites who looked down their noses at the rebelling masses, often found themselves on the guillotine.
  • React quickly rather than wait for such efforts to reach critical mass. A change of heart at the last minute by those elites who waited until the masses were knocking at their door with ropes and chains was never really believed. Get involved early with such Social BPM efforts and lend your support.

Corporations in General

  • The disappointment that eventually follows most revolutions is only natural and the question is how to do you motivate individuals to stay involved. In politics, you have voter registration and other activities to assure that elections are supported by the broad masses. The process-related ideas that originate from Social BPM should be recognized for their innovative potential and be understood as a means to mitigate those problems associated with Change Management as it relates to process roll-outs.


Note: Hopefully, this blog didn’t turn into a diatribe against Shadow IT which often has a distinctive innovative character. The corporation is a structured organization that is based on certain fundamental concepts and rules. However, it is exactly these traditions / structures that are often discarded in revolutions – both in the corporate world and in the political arena. Such structures from the “Old Regime” also have a value that shouldn’t / can’t be ignored. It is the necessity to merge the best characteristics of the old and the new that provides the most benefits as well as the most difficult choices for all concerned.

I’m not saying that a “popular” desire to improve standardized or edge processes is a bad thing.  Crowd-sourcing process improvement is at the heart of Social BPM and has the potential to bring innovation into these areas.  However, I’m suggesting that uncontrolled crowd-sourcing of such projects is unwise – you want process democracy not process anarchy. 

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  • A very forward thinking take on the impact of new technologies. But I can’t help feeling you’ve taken an analogy from the wrong sphere of humanity. It is not politics that should be our guide, but economics. I sense the IT professional has more to fear from the DIY superstore business model and the now anachronistic role of the craftsman in today’s manufacturing process.

    My guess is that in the future, when “process poplusim” comes about, the role of the BPXer will have to change into either or both of two camps: the cordinators/managers, and the influencers/architects.