New Gartner MQ: Rattling the Birdcage vs Upsetting the Applecart

I'm probably the last to chime in on the new Gartner iBPMS Magic Quadrant. Adam Deane's hilarious sendup cannot be topped, and Scott Francis's uber-thoughtful three-parter is also excellent, but possibly takes it more seriously than it deserves. Both are well worth reading. Here is my take.

Many of us, at some point in our careers, have suffered through a corporate reorg following a bad quarter. A few people at the bottom get laid off, some bold new theme is announced, and the ones who drove the company into the ditch mostly take new positions within the executive suite. Back at Wang in the late 1980s we called it "rattling the birdcage." A lot of squawking and feathers flying, after which the same birds are still in the cage, just on different perches.

In a way, that's how I've always felt about the Magic Quadrants and Waves. The goal is to draw a reasonably big box around a set of vendors to scope the competition and then provide some semi-defensible ranking of the competitors. When the ranking is published, there is the predictable crowing and squawking and the dots move around a bit, but the products have all gotten better (and possibly less differentiated) than they were in the previous round. In the early phases of a technology space, the ranking criteria play a valuable role in defining a "whole product" offering. When Gartner coined the term BPM Suite - was that around 7 or 8 hears ago? - you had a hodgepodge of vendors from different backgrounds - human workflow, integration middleware, document management - all talking the same language of business process. The MQ played a huge role in defining the features and functions of a BPMS that could handle a range of process types. Today, almost every product listed in the most recent BPMS MQ is almost unimaginably good compared to the very best products listed in the first BPMS MQ.

Once all the competitors can tick off all the boxes in the checklist, you need to raise the bar. The overarching goal of BPM technology - let's call it empowering business to manage, monitor, and improve their important business processes - is still far from a solved problem. We still need better tools, more business-friendly, more cloud-ready, better able to deal with business events and ad-hoc tasks, with mobile devices, with Big Data, etc etc. That's what bpmNEXT is all about - if you don't know about it, check out BPM is not at the end of the line. The basic problem statement has not changed, but the tools and techniques to solve it continue to evolve.

If there is some general organizing principle around the evolution, I would call it enlarging the coverage from a structured orchestration model to embrace also sense-and-respond behaviors. Last spring Gartner captured this next wave of BPM perfectly in its conception of "intelligent business operations". But instead of simply adding them to the BPMS checklist, they elevated the new IBO capabilities to the sine qua non for the new MQ. Instead of rattling the birdcage, they decided to upset the applecart. BPMS vendors that could tick off almost all the boxes in the previous MQ were booted out entirely. Time will tell, but I think that was counterproductive.

In the MQ report, Gartner warns, "Do not compare the new iBPMS Magic Quadrant with the prior 2010 BPMS Magic Quadrant. They service different audiences." With all due respect, that is absurd. There is not a separate audience for iBPMS. The problem statement is essentially the same as it has always been. This is the natural evolution of BPM technology. The audience is the same, but the ranking criteria have changed. I think it's fine that Gartner puts significant weight behind the new IBO features. It's a good thing. It has the potential to drive the market forward, as the MQ always has in the past. But it also has the potential to be ignored by the broader BPM community as biased or serving a small special constituency.

In the new MQ, Pega, Appian, and IBM stand out from the rest. Scott Francis now calls them the only three Vendors That Matter. I think that is ridiculous. Those three products are all very good, I agree, but in different ways. Pega's deeply embedded rules foundation, Appian's early bet on cloud and mobile technology, and IBM's agile/iterative "playback"-oriented collaborative design paradigm give each of them outstanding advantages. But all have weaknesses, too, and none yet meets the customer need for a single platform that addresses the whole spectrum of process types, in addition to embracing IBO and case management.

If Gartner truly believes that iBPMS and BPMS MQ's address "different audiences," here's a suggestion. They could repurpose all that research and generate a new BPMS MQ for the mainstream BPM marketplace that includes both IBO and "regular" BPM capabilities. Can't we go back to just rattling the birdcage?