BPM Hall of Fame

[My April column for BPM Institute. Please add your own nominees in the comments.]

Is there a BPM Hall of Fame? I don?t think so, but there should be, to recognize the true pioneers and innovators in the field. BPM?s core ideas and technologies come from several divergent fields, and my list would include those who first introduced them ? ideas about what a business process is, and what managing one really means. Thinking about who should be in a BPM Hall of Fame is a fun exercise, and you might it helpful in framing your own views. My list emphasizes technology, recognizing those who first recognized that improving business processes demanded fundamentally new technology, often enabled by fundamental shifts in the surrounding IT environment.

My nominees would be:

  1. Ted Smith. Whatever BPM gurus today might say about agility or end-to-end visibility, the biggest ROI from BPM still comes from automating the flow of work, leveraging the network to make business processes run faster, and get more work done with fewer people. As the founder of FileNet, Ted Smith in the 1980s invented the concept of workflow, and even trademarked the word itself. Back then, business processes were mostly paper-based, inherently manual and slow, but the new technologies of computer networking and digital mass storage offered the possibility of a better way. While competitors like Kodak and Wang promoted document imaging as an electronic file cabinet, Ted Smith realized the real benefit of getting paper inside the computer was not storage and retrieval, but making business processes more efficient by automating the flow of work.
  2. Fernando Flores. Finance Minister under Allende at age 28 and sprung by Amnesty International from political imprisonment six years later, Fernando Flores spent his exile from Chile at Stanford. There, while Ted Smith was inventing workflow, Flores and Terry Winograd conceived of the business process in a very different way ? not as a sequence of assigned tasks to be performed as quickly as possible, but as a set of commitments between requesters and performers, including negotiation, promises, and acceptance of satisfactory completion, the humanistic side of work. Leveraging the new technology of PCs, LANs, and email ? intra-office, as this was still pre-Internet ? Flores? Speech-Action theory took shape in a software package called The Coordinator, pioneering what was later called groupware. In today?s terms we would call it collaborative process management. His company Action Technologies later refined the ideas and updated them to the web, but their incorporation into mainstream BPM remains a promise largely unfulfilled. Winograd today is best known as adviser to Larry Page, whose research project on web search turned out, we hear, even bigger than BPM.
  3. Dale Skeen. There is another dimension to BPM beyond managing the efficiency or quality of human work: using processes to integrate the diverse application systems that, in the view of some, are what really run the enterprise. These systems were never designed to talk to each other, but the pressures of globalization and the web meant that they had to anyway. As a co-founder of TIBCO and inventor of distributed publish-subscribe integration, Dale Skeen pioneered enterprise application integration (EAI) technology. But what puts him in the BPM Hall of Fame is not that. Rather, it was his understanding ? long before others in EAI ? that optimizing integration requires more than automating a single event-triggered action. It means automating the end-to-end business process, and his second company Vitria brought that approach to EAI, with a unified design environment encompassing integration, human workflow, BAM, and exception management, and a similarly unified runtime environment. Skeen is the inventor of what we call today integration-centric BPM, and most of the big middleware companies just getting into BPM are following the path he blazed back in the dotcom days.
  4. Ismael Ghalimi. While the first three nominees could be said to have pioneered threads of what later became BPM, Ismael Ghalimi is responsible for many of the things that today define what BPM actually is ? a technology based on Internet and web services standards, and, more important, a technology that empowers business to take charge of their own processes. His company Intalio was the first to offer a process engine based entirely on web service orchestration, and he founded the BPM Initiative (BPMI) to make that orchestration language, called BPML, a multi-vendor industry standard. Before this, every workflow system, EAI system, or self-styled BPM system was proprietary from head to toe. BPMI grew to 200 member companies, but BPML was soon eclipsed by a rival proposal from IBM and Microsoft called BPEL. In the aftermath, Ghalimi not only moved Intalio to BPEL but made its BPEL engine open source.

While we are just beginning to feel the impact of standards-based and open source BPM runtime, another BPMI effort ? the Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN), now managed by OMG ? has already had a huge impact, and promises something even more valuable than inexpensive software: business-empowered implementation. Smith and Fingar?s 2003 book BPM: The Third Wave, heavily influenced by Ghalimi?s efforts, laid out the essential vision, in which BPM solutions would be built and modified by business people working collaboratively with IT in a single tool. In the end, this business-empowered implementation style will be recognized, in my view, as the most important innovation of BPM, and Ismael Ghalimi was its prime mover.

  • Phil Gilbert. BPMN?s power comes from the fact that its shapes and symbols are intelligible to business, yet expressive and precise enough to serve as the ?abstract? definition of executable process solutions. But lacking support for human tasks, subprocesses, and looping back to previous activities in the flow, BPEL turned out to be an imperfect runtime companion for BPMN. Fulfilling the promise of business-empowered implementation actually required a ?BPMN engine,? but no BPMS vendor had one. As CTO (now President) of Lombardi, Phil Gilbert elected to break his own shipping product and build one. That?s either nuts or brilliant, but Lombardi?s Teamworks has emerged as the first and best realization of BPM?s promise of business-empowered implementation based on standards and business-IT collaboration.
  • Workflow automation, structured collaboration, business integration, standards-based tools, and business-empowered implementation. To me, these are central themes of BPM today, and my Hall of Fame nominees are the ones that gave them to us. I accept that your list might be quite different. You are invited to submit comments and your own nominations on the BPMS Watch blog.