BPMN - A Little Training Goes a Long Way

All this hubbub about BPMN and case management, would doctors and lawyers use it, and other nonsense... They could learn to do it, but that's not the intended audience. And it would probably surprise some to know that technical developers are not the primary audience, either. So who exactly is BPMN for, and why do they use it?

In my experience, the main purpose of BPMN is to document, analyze, and improve business processes. The process improvement, if it's taken that far, is not necessarily automation in a BPMS. Well less than half of my students are looking to automate their processes. The people who use it call themselves BPM project team members, business analysts, architects, and consultants. They often live in the IT organization but their perspective is that of the business. They are not technical. And they don't need to be.

BPMN is a visual language for describing "process logic" in a diagram. Process logic simply means the order of the steps, the various paths possible from process start to end. It doesn't describe other useful information about the process, such as the data, the systems, the forms and screenflows, the business rules, problems and goals, or KPIs. Process modelers are often interested in those things, too, and many BPMN tools let you model them, but each in their own way. The point of BPMN - the process logic part - is that the meaning of the diagram is independent of the tool used to create it. It's a standard, supported by many tools.

We are nearing the tenth anniversary of the first draft of BPMN 1.0 and the Smith and Fingar book, BPM: The Third Wave that made it semi-famous. One of the really smart (or lucky) decisions made at the beginning was to base the standard on swimlane flowcharts, the notation used by business-oriented process improvement consultants, rather than UML or IDEF, used by IT. Like traditional flowcharting, BPMN is based on boxes, representing actions, connected by arrows, representing sequence in time, arranged in swimlanes, representing actors performing the actions. Business people get that. But BPMN also provides in the diagram important information missing from traditional flowcharts, such as the interactions between a process and things outside it, like the customer, service providers, and other processes, and the effect of events, signals that "something happened", like receiving a message, detection of an internal error, or expiration of a timeout. Business people can get that, but they don't know it already. It takes a bit of education.

Like any language, BPMN has rules of grammar and syntax. You can use it correctly or incorrectly. In informal usage, you can communicate the basics without following all the rules. But if you are going to use the BPMN to actually document an existing process, or analyze it for improvement, or create business requirements for some IT implementation, it's better to follow the rules. Any BPMN tool worth using has some way to check the diagram against the rules defined by the BPMN specification.

But a diagram that passes that validation with zero errors may still not achieve the most important objective of BPMN, which is clearly communicating the process logic, what happens when and under what circumstances. That requires additional guidelines or conventions, beyond those required by the spec, that I call Method and Style. Most of them are basic, such as how to label activities, gateways, and events.

Creating "good BPMN" - diagrams that communicate the process logic clearly, completely, consistently, and of course correctly - is a readily learnable skill. You can learn it from a book, but for most people a bit of training and tool support helps. That costs money, and it's a bother. Why do it? The answer lies in what that BPMN really represents. In most cases it is the end product of dozens (or hundreds) of man-hours of information gathering from stakeholders, followed bydiscussion, debate, and internal analysis. Is that really how we do it? Why do we do it that way? What happens if such and such occurs?

So you want the diagram to be precise, complete, and clear to anyone who looks at it. The diagram must be understandable to someone other than the person who created it, and it needs to stand on its own, without the need for an accompanying book of explanatory text. The number one reason why managers send their team to my BPMN Method and Style training is the realization that much of their past investment in flowcharting - those same dozens or hundreds of man-hours - has been wasted, since the diagrams are not shareable. Their meaning is clear only to the people who created them. In that context, a little bit of training goes a long way, and the value is clear.

The BPMessentials BPMN training teaches not only the BPMN shapes, symbols, and patterns you need to know but Method and Style, as well. The "Method" part is a step-by-step methodology for going from a blank page to a complete, clear, and consistently well-structured BPMN model. The "Style" part is a set of guidelines or conventions, as discussed earlier, that make the meaning clear from the diagram on its own. To support it, we use tools that can validate those guidelines as "style rules", just like the rules of the spec. There is more than one tool that can do it: Process Modeler for Visio from itp commerce, native Visio 2010 Premium or (soon) Visio 2013 Pro, and Signavio. There are versions of the training for all of those tools.

Unlike some training, ours is not a teaser for a consulting engagement. The goal is not for the student to say, "Please come in and do this for us." It's to give students the skills to do it themselves, for real. So in class we use a BPMN tool and exercises using the tool. And the training includes post-class certification of proficiency based on an exam and a mail-in exercise reviewed personally by me, with iteration by the student until it is perfect. Certification demonstrates that students can create "good BPMN" on their own.

Our next class is October 22-24, live-online, from 11am-4pm ET, 5pm-10pm in Europe. If you haven't considered BPMN training before, you might want to try it. A little bit goes a long way. Click here for more information about the class.