IBM Takes BPA to the Cloud

[My May column on]

"Cool" is not a word I would normally apply to IBM's BPM software, but for the new BPM BlueWorks offering announced at Impact this week, the term is appropriate. IBM bills BPM BlueWorks as a BPM community in the cloud, and it is that, plus a lot more. Actually, I think its greatest immediate impact could be to transform the market for business process analysis (BPA) tools. The essence of BPA is a suite of tools for modeling the business and a repository for those modeling artifacts: not just processes, but strategies, goals, and metrics; value chains and capability maps; process models, from high-level maps to detailed BPMN diagrams; organizational entities and roles; policies and rules. All of these models are linked through the repository. Such suites are central to business process management at the enterprise level, and historically they have been aimed at a small priesthood of architects who don't mind the 5-figure cost per seat, mind-numbing complexity, and three weeks of intensive training. But you can't really create a culture of BPM within an enterprise, or move from isolated projects to an enterprise BPM program, without democratizing modeling and analysis. BlueWorks does that.

For starters, BPM BlueWorks is free, hosted on an website. Users get their own private spaces within BlueWorks where they can model their own business and collaborate with others that they invite into their space. BlueWorks includes modeling tools packaged as "widgets," web 2.0-based UI fragments that can be mashed up inside IBM's BusinessSpace environment. In the first release, which goes live June 26, the most important is the Business Strategy widget, which lets you model strategies and metrics, capability maps, and process maps. Strategy maps link business factors (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) to goals (actions and metrics). You can copy and paste text from Microsoft Office and the strategy map graphics update automatically. It's very cool.

The widget also supports capability maps, functional decompositions of the company's business derived from IBM's Component Business Modeling methodology. Organizations use these maps to separate core competencies from non-core capabilities as an aid to guide strategic investment. Individual capabilities link to process maps, and activities within those maps can be expanded into detailed BPMN models.

Thus the widget provides a chain of links from business strategy all the way down to BPMN. For over two years, students of my BPMessentials BPMN training have been asking for this. Outside of super-expensive BPA tools - most of which did the BPMN piece poorly - I could never give them an answer. Now I can. And it's free. The strategy widget doesn't have everything my clients want. I think they'd like a way to link in models of RACI roles and policies and rules. But those are coming, too.

Even better, IBM is populating BlueWorks with prebuilt models and maps, much of it industry-specific, taken from vertical industry standards like eTom and from IBM's own industry frameworks. Again, all free. You can customize and reuse them within your private space in BlueWorks. So you can align your strategy, goals, and metrics with industry standard capabilities and process maps. This places your process models not only within the enterprise context but within the context of vertical industry standards. All of these artifacts are managed in Rational Asset Manager within BlueWorks, the model repository.

BlueWorks manages to avoid the complexity of traditional BPA tools. It is simple and straightforward, all web 2.0, easy to use. Bottom line, it's a tool for "business users" not just "architects." I can already hear the wailing from architects that business users can't be trusted with such powerful tools. But sure they can.

In addition to repository-based business modeling, private team workspaces, and prebuilt industry content, BlueWorks also provides collaboration tools based on Lotus Connect, so you can find and collaborate with experts within your organization (or outside it) to assist in the modeling effort. Last, but not least, BlueWorks supports a public BPM community with articles, podcasts, blogs, and forums, a central location for learning about BPM, and is looking for content contributors. I plan to be one of them.

So this is BlueWorks as BPA in the cloud. But IBM doesn't think about it this way. IBM is about executing processes, not just analyzing them. In fact, they tend to describe BlueWorks as linking strategy to execution. And it can do that, too, if you want.

You can take the BPMN models and export to WebSphere Business Modeler, either on the desktop or in the online SOA Sandbox. In the SOA Sandbox, which is also free, you can add details in Modeler, bind to services in your registry, create task user interfaces and KPIs, and then execute those processes in a development/test environment in the cloud.

These efforts are all just part of a broader IBM initiative in cloud computing. In addition to BlueWorks and other solutions hosted on the public web, IBM is actively promoting the concept of private on-premises clouds. Private clouds allow software to be virtualized behind the firewall, with rapid provisioning and elastic scaling, but with the security, reliability, and integration features of traditional enterprise IT. If you are interested in the intersection of BPM and cloud computing, click here to get my new white paper on the topic.