The Beginning of the End in BPM?

This morning Progress Software announced the acquisition of Savvion for $49 Million. On the heels of last month's acquisition of Lombardi by IBM, I think it's safe to say this marks a real turning point in the market for BPMS. To me it is a disquieting one, as it suggests the failure of BPM's "business empowerment" promise to translate into sustainable revenue for the platform vendor. The transaction price here is kind of shocking, surely a sign of the shaky current economy, but the larger trend is also disturbing.

If we go back just a few years, four vendors on the business-centric end of the BPMS landscape stood out by empowering business to play a direct role in process implementation: Lombardi, Savvion, Fuego, and Appian. Their software featured model-driven design based on the BPMN standard. It encouraged a new agile iterative design style based on business-IT collaboration rather than tossing business requirements over the wall. Where most BPMS vendor projects operated in a bubble disconnected from their customers' larger business process modeling and analysis efforts, these four vendors stood out by saying it would be better to unite them, to put business at the center of BPMS, not just at the center of process modeling and analysis. If Smith and Fingar's 2002 BPM: The Third Wave was the vision, these four vendors came closest to fulfilling it.

Fuego was acquired a few years ago, and now suddently two of the other three are gone, absorbed into the larger SOA/middleware melting pot. Appian is still hanging out there, but probably not for long. What does it mean? Maybe even greater success for BPM under the wing of larger, more financially secure companies. But I worry that the notion of business-empowered implementation, those BPMS vendors' sole reason for being, if you ask me, will fade away.

There is room for hope. Fuego, absorbed into BEA and now Oracle, today seems to be the tail wagging the Fusion middleware dog, at least the BPM piece of it. IBM could choose to follow a similar path with Lombardi, although their initial positioning has Lombardi pigeonholed in a separate "departmental" BPM corner. Progress does not have another BPMS to complicate the Savvion product integration, but the synergistic Progress components featured in the acquisition announcement - complex event processing and "business transaction assurance" - seem quite disconnected from what Savvion brings to the table.

I like Savvion's products and what they have brought to the BPM market. They were the first to offer a free BPMN modeler, for instance, and even today they continue to innovate with features like tabular process design and analysis. If Progress can embrace those business empowerment values and not bury them beneath an IT-centric middleware stack, maybe this will signal a BPM market heading to a brighter and more mature future.