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Is BPMN hurting Business Process Analysis efforts?


Blackberry’s are the Enterprise preferred mobile email and calendar client which are usually forced onto employees; but iPhone and Android devices are the preferred mobile email and calendar client for employees that are forcing these clients into the Enterprises.  The funny thing is that until the iPhone was introduced; Blackberry’s were the best option out there because we didn’t know better.

Within business process modelling (from a detailed requirements and process design perspective), I believe the best option for business users is to use BPMN.  But the question is: Are we just waiting for the iPhone of Business Process Modelling to come along.

Inspiration for this Blog

A colleague of mine attended Business Analyst World (@ba_world) in Melbourne recently and some presentations from other companies really resonated with her.  

In short, the companies were doing business process modelling leveraging a product that didn’t implement BPMN or any other generic standard for that matter but talked to the business users in a specific business modelling language that they could understand.  Oddly enough, the product being leveraged was a product I had seen before, but it had a major drawback for me and that was that it didn’t implement an open standard.  Why do I consider this such as big issue?  In short, vendor lock-in; and this is an issue because if you invest in Business Process Modelling of your business; then it is a huge investment that should be maintained indefinitely.

Anyway, this got me to thinking…When it comes to lower level process diagrams, EPC seems to work well, but just seems to be too restrictive and forced to me; BPMN appears to be trying to reach nirvana too quickly with a language for both business process modelling and business process management style Workflow; and finally, businesses and business analysts seem to still love swim lanes in Visio.

So is the future of requirements elicitation near and just not understood well enough by everyone yet, or is it just not being thought about yet?

The Makings of a Good Modelling Tool (An alternate set of requirements)

Firstly, instead of focusing on the standards; the following are what I feel are mandatory for business acceptance of a business modelling tool:

  • Usability – Ability to model in front of business users (otherwise we need to work off a whiteboard; then copy into the tool later) – FYI – Mobile Device integration (like iPads) could be an interesting use-case in the future here too…
  • Documentation/Training Tool – Process models need to be made available to the whole organisation and easily accessible via a web interface with intuitive usability – preferably integrated with the business applications.
  • Displayed in a pretty, well laid out and not boring way – Process modelling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; hence it can’t be dull to look at as that will lose your audience quickly (just a fact of life).
  • Collaboration Platform – Ability for anyone in the business to question existing processes or recommend changes via the web interface used for Documentation/Training.
  • Ability to view as-is and to-be changes efficiently – If you’re tool is entrenched in the organisation, change naturally happens; and your tool needs to easily support this.
  • Ability to view models similar to the way we document use case definitions – Just like showing a business user 10 pages of documented requirements; showing end to end processes with all variations, exceptions and interactions is just not going to work in getting effective understanding and sign-off from the business.  I believe by just focusing on standard flows, alternate flows, and exception flows similar to old-school use-case documentation; really would allow you to focus the business users and not overwhelm them in workshops.

So About the Standards…

I’m not an expert in Business Process Modelling and I’m also not trying to suggest that I’ve researched this topic extensively, but I know what will work with business users when I see it (and I haven’t yet).  I currently lean mostly towards BPMN style swim lanes or EPC; but I’m not sold on these either.  

Side note: I see BPMN as something very powerful in the execution world with tools like SAP’s BPM combined with the inbuilt business view as a great way for the business to monitor and measure their semi-automated processes; but this blog is focussed on business requirements using business process modelling.

Basically, the purpose of BPMN is to support business and technical stakeholders; hence as a design tool; we’ve probably got it right there.  However, when it comes to requirements and the importance of getting requirements right; let’s drop the technical and focus on the business.

Do we need another standard?  Most likely in my opinion.  The problem is how to write this standard?  We obviously want some link into the BPMN space but this will have to be fairly loosely coupled in my opinion (though a level of reverse engineering in the future would be heading towards nirvana again).  Who is best to write this standard?  Software companies? Probably not though in this day and age there’s little other choice.  

In short, it would be good to see if this is a real need still so I’m interested in your opinion or knowledge here? 

The Business Analyst Role – The most important ingredient regardless of Standards

This is slightly off-topic but I thought was important to add in this context: 

Regardless of tools, standards or methodologies; one key skill I strongly believe is the secret to successful projects is good business analyst skills.  

There’s a real art to getting the requirements out of the business without just documenting what they know back to front already.  Often the business will just tell you what they do today, and skim over details that are obvious to them which can hurt implementation projects when you only find out when it’s not built in final UAT.

Just as important: because business users are so entrenched in the current processes; sometimes they don’t even realise why they do things a certain way.  Typically there are significant efficiencies to be gained if challenged appropriately and while modelling helps significantly; the BA’s key in identifying this.

For traditional waterfall projects; Business Analysis is extremely critical as obviously signing off of requirements early means little ongoing involvement between business and the testing cycle.  Within Agile methodologies; developers usually pick up this role; and although maybe not as good as a dedicated business analyst, the shorter iterations and direct business engagement helps significantly as developers are unlikely to misinterpret the requirements; and even if they do; it’s picked up quickly.

In short, a good Business Analyst will ensure that regardless of your approach or tooling; they’ll capture and convey the requirements appropriately.

I have a dream…

that one day all business users, IT folk and software companies will model their processes in a consistent way in order to design their systems appropriately.  It will be a common language that is not only intuitive and well understood but integrated through to system design and back.   I just don’t think that day is today and hence for today, we’re reliant on Agile methodologies or great Business Analysts (or preferably both together).

Edit: What’s wrong with BPMN for Requirements Elicitation

I realised after I posted this that I missed thisfundamental section to my blog. To at least give some background to why I think it misses the mark I’ll make the following observations:

  • Unlike EPC, BPMN is less structured and open to different approaches based on your background. Maybe a clear standard on implementing BPMN from a requirements perspective may fix this.
  • Some of my requests for the tool could address many of the other problems I have with BPMN such as being able to view the processes in isolated ways to not overwhelm the business.
  • BPMN is quite clearly a type of programming language and hence forces this style of thinking onto the business.
  • It’s not abstract as it usually becomes an execution language.  I believe in UML that you split up logical models verses design models, and that is really powerful for communication. Sometimes logical and physical can be quite different. 
  • It doesn’t have many obvious business interactions icons. 

I have to admit, I haven’t reviewed ARIS recently to see what they have done in this space as we currently use Enterprise Architect for our early modelling needs but the tool really shouldn’t matter that much should it???

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  • Great & candid blog!!!

    Yes, simple is beautiful and efficient. I think current the tools assume the business users, implementation and technical team to be homogeneous. Which I believe is wrong. The tools should focus on few core product features for each group, instead of one size fits all. Maybe they should have more layers of interactive component.
    The technology behind facebook is not the most complex, it the easy  & simplicity which the crowd loves.

    • Thanks for the feedback J H.  I agree with your point about Facebook but for reference; IMHO it’s starting to lose its ease and simplicity in managing all those annoying “apps” people use, but regardless we’re some way off seeing the end of Facebook.
  • Good news for the BPMN modeling masses.  In June 2010, Microsoft released Visio Premium 2010 that now supports BPMN natively.  You get a full set of BPMN shapes + a BPMN rules validation function out of the box.  Also, creating a model in Visio 2010 is MUCH faster than in the past with new functionality they have added.

    Bringing BPMN together in Visio is great because millions of people model business processes in Visio already.  What does this mean?  No new tool to learn, but you also need to start bugging your IT organization to support the 2010 Premium release.  Note: a free trial is available from (the main Visio product page).

    Another issue you remarked about is sharing and collaborating on BPMN models.  SharePoint 2010 now offers a process repository to allow Business Analysts to store, manage, and share their BPMN models.  SharePoint 2010 also offers Visio Services to allow non-Visio users to view the BPMN models there.

    Visio makes BPMN modeling even better when you add its analystView add-in (also available on; or 60-day trial at  analystView offers BPMN simulation for current- and future-state models. 

    analystView also provides XPDL export allowing you to share the BPMN model with any BPMS that supports XPDL imports (about 60 BPM Suites today support XPDL import).

    Using BPMN as a modeling standard is a good start, but just using the shapes does not get you all of what BPMN offers.  Bruce Silver ( wrote a book on BPMN Style and Method.  Think of BPMN shapes as modeling ingredients, and the style and method as the recipe for how to cook with them.  This allows people in business to use the BPMN standard in a more common, collaborative way.

    You can here Bruce talk about the BPMN modeling standard on YouTube at:

    You can hear Scott Helmers, a Visio MVP, working for Harvard Computing Group, talk about BPMN in Visio 2010 at:

    • Hi Derek,
      While possibly a little bit too strong a marketing response there for me; it’s good to see BPMN making its way into Visio with help.  That said, the fundamental issue is still there for me with the standard though I agree that style is absolutely key if we were to get it right.  If every consulting company, BPM specialist company and then universities could use the same style, then we might be able to get traction with business users with the current approach but I feel that’s not really going to happen with BPMN in its current format.
  • Hi Matt,

    I concur with your observations. BPMN got a lot of uptake quickly and evolved into a process specification langauge for developers with version 2.0. There is a reason for the fact that it is used in developer tools such as SAP NetWeaver BPM.

    However, there are studies that indicate that only a dozen or so constructs of BPMN are commonly used in practise. If one was to define a buisness user subset (a properly advertise it) that would be all we need for starters.

    In related efforts, domain specific modeling is a very interesting topic. Its constructs are always bound to one domain but if all your processes evolve around this domain, it can be quite useful. This is a link to an academic paper describing such an approach. Per definitionem the approach has its benefits and drawbacks and cannot completely replace a domain neutral modeling. But it may be useful in certain cases. There is tooling for this, too.

    And by the way: I am sure we are not waiting for the iPhone of process modeling. Or would you want to run your processes via Apple each time you deploy?

    • Hi Christian,
      Firstly – Crack up…How about we change that to the “iPhone interface with Android marketplace of process modelling”?
      That’s a good point about the reduction of BPMN, but I figure we would also have to still introduce some new business specific (non-workflow based) constructs to capture the business rules and interactions much clearer at the very least (this is key to using BPM as a requirements tool).
      Your whitepaper on PICTURE was insightful, and I’ll need to google it a bit harder to see more examples as it looks promising (PICTURE is not an easy search phrase unfortunately so more links would be great).
      Lastly, “Is BPMN hurting…” is much better shock value than “Is BPMN not Healing…” (which is more accurate) but at least I didn’t go with “Is BPMN killing…” which was my original title!

      Thanks for the info and feedback,

  • Hi Matt,

    First off thanks for putting in words your experience and sharing it with this community. I personally believe it is good to see people pushing the envelope for new ways to help Business people get more control on how to drive business operations. IMHO, I believe BPM is mostly about the “B” in BPM acronym and this represents creating tools that embrace this persona really well in whatever lifecycle anyone decides to propose when creating business process applications.

    I also believe BPMN has made a buy move forward in helping Biz and IT better collaborate together. It has set the standard for these 2 audiences to work on the same model and remove ambiguity and get into agreement and understanding more easily. And it has been accomplished with a standard with wide acceptance which is always good. Furthermore, with BPMN 2.0, there is a real link and semantics as to how these models need to be executed.

    But I see your point in wanting more. I do not believe it is nirvana at all. All the contrary, I think it is the next organic evolution for BPM. The structured process you can capture in BPMN is not all the affects the operations of your business. There are other things that complement the structure process. The error would be to capture all this in a single BPMN model.

    One of the hardest things in my perspective in the current modeling environments is how to capture the external events that can modify or alter the existing in flight work on the structured processes. To me these are different aspects contributing to the same domain. These “events” notion altering the in flight work may be better represented in a declarative way rather than linked explicitly to the constructs of the structured BPMN process (and it is worth mentioning that you can do a lot with only a small subset of the whole BPMN notation). These 2 models combined at execution may provide a good way for business analysts to model their world better. Is this something you see in your nirvana?

    Look forward to your thoughts!


    • Hi Eduardo,

      Thanks for your thoughts and I appreciate your insight.  Firstly, I do still believe the power of BPMN is huge, but in a way, from a business perspective you can actually do more with less  (referring to your comment about the small subset of BPMN). 

      In terms of your comment about the external events…this is a tough one though I’m sure there’s a few angles you can approach this (none standard of course).  I potentially see this done via the use-case approach to modelling where you provide standard, alternate and exception flow versions (all separate models though tracked holistically within the tool). That said, it would be good to discuss a real example to see what it could look like with current modelling practices, or newer approaches.

      Hence, if you happen to be attending TechEd and the Innovation weekend; it would be great to try out a few scenarios like this for Innovation weekend to try see what Nirvana could possibly look like.  i.e. Innovate the “innovation idea” process maps!  Just an idea if you’re up for some brainstorming.

      Thanks again,

      • Hi Matt,
           I love the idea of brainstorming new ideas to improve the expresiveness of models that ultimately bring more control to the persons that own and have responsibility on the operations of business processes. BPMN will only get more complicated if it keeps expanding and this will only hurt all that this standard has achieved. It would be good to see new proposals extending and collaborating with the BPMN standard so that it can really provide more value that it actually does (which is not minor). Thanks !
        • Welcome Eduardo and glad to see you engaging directly with the community in your domain expertise.  Thanks Matt for triggering this conversation.  A few years back Bruce Silver provided BPMN tutorials on this website and last year I noticed that Dick Hirsch made a catalouge of communities that he called Social BPM. Social BPM Wiki Page   A BPMN community was but a single component of Dick’s wiki list.  Might be interesting to draw Dick Hirsch into the conversation here as well.
  • I agree that we need a kind of standard for business level process modeling. Since BPMN is receiving growing attention, I would propose to develop styleguides and modeling conventions for BPMN, as well as suggesting business-related additions and modifications of the BPMN standard.

    In this paper I am trying to show how to re-factor a rather complex BPMN model (OMG’s sample e-mail voting process) in order to be easily readable and understandable for business users:


    • Thanks Thomas – and thanks for your resource link (which I’ve only had a chance to scan at this point)…
      What you are describing could directly relate to how SAP are implementing the business view of BPMN and I think is a really good piece you are working on.  I do still believe it needs to go further than this, but it could be that what I feel would be required is just the ability to drive the BPMN model better in discussions, or online by business users. eg. Being able to minimise alternative paths so you can focus the discussion on specific paths may address some of my concerns when combined with the styleguides and modelling conventions. (not to forget the ability to extract this effectively for training needs)

      Thanks for your feedback,