The Manufacturer and the Concierge: BPM Software, Case Management, and the “Structured to Unstructured Continuum”

BPTrends has just published a great thought-piece from Macedon Consulting, Inc. founder Austin Rosenfeld. Austin examines BPM Software in the context of the continuum of structured to unstructured processes that we see in real-world business. For example, manufacturing processes focus on high repeatability in order to produce millions of identical widgets. These processes are highly structured, with every step – including possible exceptions – mapped out in a BPMN process diagram. At the other end of the spectrum, Austin describes the process scenario for a hotel concierge. This tends to be a very loosely structured stream of independent requests across a relatively unconstrained domain of content, and requiring a high – but unpredictable – level of consultative knowledge work.

In the business world, he states, “most processes fall somewhere in between the concierge and the manufacturing examples.” Processes can have several phases, each with varying levels of structure. These real-world process scenarios point to dynamic case management, where some steps are structured, but there are “few or no constraints on the order of those activities or whether each activity is mandatory in any given instance.”

The take-away of Austin’s piece is that “From a technical standpoint, the design of a BPM system has now gone beyond the flow that a BPMN diagram can express.” He then gives a run-down of key functionality a modern BPM suite must contain to address ad-hoc case management instances within a standard workflow:

  • The context of the executing process is available to the people resolving the exception.
  • The possible resolutions to the exception are unconstrained, though the system may make suggestions.
  • The solution is recorded as a part of the process audit history and remains visible throughout the remaining life of the process.
  • The process can continue normal operations once the exception is resolved; the process does not have to be abandoned or restarted from the beginning.

He uses the metaphor of “a Facebook-style ‘all-objects-and-events-are-discussion-threads'” to encapsulate this approach. This is, of course, precisely what we have done with Appian’s Social BPM.

-Ben Farrell, Director, Corporate Communications