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Poking holes -- and fun -- in business process management

Enough ridiculous sales pitches! In his column, CIO Niel Nickolaisen has a little fun exposing the truth behind what BPM can and cannot do.

One of the best things about working in IT is that vendors want to do business with us. The real advantage of this for me is that I can abuse the vendors that call on me and they pretty much have to take it. By venting my spleen at vendors, I have a lot less road rage and will actually keep my mouth shut when the person at the front of the grocery store line starts writing a check. Don't get me wrong, I have strong relationships with those I consider vendor partners and so can reserve my ire for selected vendors.

Niel Nickolaisen
The Real Niel
Niel Nickolaisen

For the past few years, my favorite vendor types to abuse are those selling business process management (BPM) software. To me, BPM seems to be a product that supports the notion that software can solve all of our process woes, that it is the silver bullet our company needs to dramatically improve business results. To steal and revise a quote from Seinfeld,

"BPM is the greatest fraud perpetrated on the American public since one-hour Martinizing."

Let me share an example of how BPM can seek to replace process excellence. I recently had lunch with noted author and agile software and project management thought leader Alistair Cockburn. One of his principle ideas is that there are common characteristics of successful IT projects. These seven properties of highly successful projects are:

  • Frequent delivery.
  • Reflective improvement.
  • Close/osmotic communication.
  • Personal safety.
  • Focus.
  • Easy access to expert users.
  • Technical environment with automated tests, configuration management and frequent migration.

Alistair calls these properties and not practices because there are many ways to achieve the properties. These are principles because the methods we use to achieve focus, easy access to expert users, etc., will vary with company, project and culture.

Shortly after Alistair taught me about the seven properties, I had a meeting with a BPM vendor. The salesperson explained to me how BPM is the next logical step beyond enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management systems and sales force automation.

He explained how the right BPM tool would allow business users to modify their work processes without involving IT. As an example, he told me how implementing this complex software would simplify how I manage IT and that IT project management is a process that I should fold into the BPM framework.

As he talked about how we could use his BPM product to adapt our project and portfolio management process to the changing needs of the business, I tried to rationalize the sales pitch to Alistair's seven properties. When the BPM salesperson asked if I had a question, I asked, "What in your BPM tool will help me achieve osmotic communication?"

The stunned look on the salesperson's face was reward enough. "Osmotic what?" he stammered.

"Osmotic communication," I replied, and then continued. "I wonder how BPM will help me with personal safety. Does your software help me create a project environment where people feel safe and secure asking the hard questions and raising unpopular points? Will your tool help me with that?"

It took him a minute to catch up. "Well, our software is not really designed for that. It is designed to help you improve and adapt your business processes."

I then listed for him the seven properties of highly successful projects and told him research indicated that if I could do better at these, my project success rate would improve. As far as I could tell, neither BPM nor a specific project management methodology was among the seven properties. After that, the BPM salesperson and I had a great conversation about IT management. He did not make a sale, but he did inspire me to think about where I should focus (and it was not on software tools).

The more time I spend in business and IT leadership, the more I am convinced that looking for tools, particularly software tools, as a shortcut to business value does not work. For some, BPM might be the ideal solution. For me, it is an opportunity to reflect on the real changes I should be making. For example, if project delivery improves through reflective improvement, what specific actions am I taking to implement and improve how we learn from our successes and failures? What practices do I have in place to remove the barriers between IT and our expert users? It seems that until I have done those things, my BPM quest is premature.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at

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