BPM without Boundaries? Let’s Get Real

With an absolutely spot-on speech, Mr Cornelius Clauser, Chief Process Officer at SAP, caught my attention during a mixed practitioner-academic conference on Business Process Management (BPM), May 2014 in Liechtenstein. What was most compelling was his answer to the question of what he understood to be “just enough BPM” and correlatively, what he would eliminate in his definition of “just enough.” The context for this discussion was his 20 minute talk on how SAP uses BPM internally. Here is his quote that stood out for me: “I would sooner say: when and where do you choose not to apply BPM in your organization.”

Mr Clauser’s presentation and the reactions afterwards caused me to recall what I’ve so often thought – that BPM academics and practitioners have taken the holistic nature of BPM one step too far, up to a point where I feel we are trying to over-sell our beautiful BPM discipline. This feeling was reinforced during the workshops with BPM academics on the second day of that excellent European BPM Round-table. The versatility of BPM as a discipline seems to be threatening its credibility.

Let me pursue that statement in greater depth. BPM cannot claim to be a young discipline anymore. It has been over 20 years since Business Process Reengineering (BPR) was popularized by the likes of Thomas Davenport and Michael Hammer, and at least over a decade since BPM came to follow up on the process orientation paradigm. Since then, many organizations have adopted at least some concepts of the process-oriented school of thought. We saw process roles being created, and then sometimes eliminated; we witnessed how Process Offices grew into Business Transformation groups; and we witnessed a wide adoption of BPM methodologies and techniques in process improvement projects. As a result, BPM seems to have become a commodity factor for many businesses.

Meanwhile BPM consultants and academics continued to build on the holistic nature of BPM, linking it with systems thinking, change management, organizational development, customer orientation and strategic thinking among other disciplines, thereby diluting the nature of the discipline. I hear claims now that BPM can be applied anywhere to any sort of problem, and that is where I object! Whenever a discipline is being misrepresented as a silver bullet, it is in danger of losing credibility Beware of practitioners that will sell BPM as the solution to all your problems.

Therefore, I would like to call on academics and practitioners in BPM to clearly define what BPM is to them and when and where they would not use it. I hope they will take up the challenge to describe what the boundaries of BPM are and its limitations as a discipline. On the other hand, I am convinced that the essence of BPM, and previously the BPR and continuous improvement disciplines, namely adopting a process perspective in business management, will continue to demonstrate its value for organizational challenges such as innovation, (digital) business transformation, platform and network management, and so on. So let me set an example first, by stating: BPM is not boundaryless! It should be applied consciously at the right time, under the right circumstances. It is not a panacea. BPM is a valuable discipline to add the process dimension to the multi-dimensional space of business management and improvement. No more, no less.

Joachim Van den Bergh

Joachim Van den Bergh

Joachim Van den Bergh is senior research associate connected to the Vlerick Business School (www.vlerick.com/mict) in Belgium. He is managing the Centre for Excellence in BPM, performing research on BPM and (Digital) Business Transformation and linked to the Centre for Excellence in Enterprise Architecture. The Centre for Excellence in BPM (known as BPM Network) is a collaboration between the business world, represented by member companies and Vlerick’s academics in the field of BPM. The Centre is supported by ViCre, Prime Foundation Partner (www.vicre.eu). Connect on Twitter (@vlerickBT) or via Joachim.vandenbergh@vlerick.com.
Joachim Van den Bergh

Latest posts by Joachim Van den Bergh (see all)



9 responses to “BPM without Boundaries? Let’s Get Real”

  1. Tom Bellinson


    While I believe you have raised a valid concern, I’m not convinced your solution is appropriate. I suspect that the confusion most BPM detractors suffer is a result of the fact that BPM is a toolkit, a set of methodologies, and a philosophy. When one uses the term “BPM,” it is not inherent which of these three components are being referenced. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are those who believe that BPM is only one or two of these components and so anyone referencing a component that does not belong in their belief system is labeled a BPM heretic.

    When practitioners and academics can agree on this, we can be more conscious how we’re using the term and appropriately clarify the scope of our communication. As an example, Lean is also a toolkit, methodology, and philosophy, yet nobody questions the fact that change management and systems thinking are natural elements of the philosophy. BPM like other philosophies is built upon the shoulders of management ideas that have come before. There is no law requiring it to be completely separate and unique. If BPM is the operating philosophy of an organization, it should not walk away from it “sometimes.”

    1. Thanks for your reaction and observations Tom. I definitely recognise the difficulties you describe, with regards to the different perception levels of BPM. And I appreciate the parallel you draw with Lean.
      When mentioning the value of BPM in the article, I look at it as a discipline, and I am convinced the process perspective could be applicable to many business issues and opportunities alike. However, I fear that, by communicating on the holistic nature of BPM and stressing the value of the process perspective, we have also created some unintended effects, mainly the undesirable ‘silver bullet’ delusion. Next thing you know, there is a big disappointment in BPM, similar to what happened with BPR.

  2. Hi Joachim,
    Good observations and valid concerns for all of us to consider. I agree with your sentiments regarding credibility damage when BPM is oversold as a discipline. Also agree with Tom’s comments (and indeed consider it a root cause) that there is still confusion around what the term BPM actually represents. Out in the real world the bulk of messages about BPM are actually from BPM solutions vendors, and this could be added to Tom’s list as another example of how ‘BPM’ is perceived – as a software solution to automate / integrate processes. There are certainly some credibility stretching claims coming from this community.

    1. Hi Ivan,
      you are correctly adding the software vendor communication to the picture. Moreover, even in the academic community the software perspective is overrepresented in, for example, academic conferences or journals on BPM.


  3. Hi all,
    Even if (most) organizations tend to work with some type of business processes, the question is how far they go in managing their business processes (or way of working). Maybe a good idea if we (academics) could collect stories of organizations that manage their business processes successfully but yet in a different way than the most ultimate ways described in the BPM handbooks?
    The boundaries of BPM are indeed yet to be explored. I don’t know much research dealing with this topic yet. Though interesting and relevant! This blog post can be a start?

    1. The reactions to this topic and the discussions we had during the last year strengthen my belief that we can expect some statements and publications about the boundary discussion. Looking forward to them!

  4. The issue here is that the term is used by many sole dimension advocates and their perspective is not necessarily that of the others. Is it process improvement, process architecture, process technology and bpms, process measurement, capability definition, BPMN, case management and on and on ? I think that we should remember that the M in BPM is Management not modeling so if you want to really do everything through a process lens then it is not everything but it is not a point solution and the boundary is much broader than say Lean or BPMN. The processes are the units of work of the organization that require a full set of aligned capabilities beyond just IT in order to create outcomes of value for the customers and other stakeholders. That’s a lot of alignment happening not possible without a business process point of view. I prefer to see it called PBM – process based management and that throws a whole different perspective on it

    1. Hi Roger, thanks for debating. Calling it process-based management would indeed stress the fact that it is one particular perspective on management, I agree. But then again, introducing another acronym might be less preferable?


  5. I believe and advocate that there are three important elements related to business processes: business process management, business process modeling and business process improvement.

    1) Business Process Management – The way business processes are organized and managed so that they are effective to provide competitive advantage in terms of cost, quality, time or flexibility for enterprises so as to fulfill the needs of their
    customers through products/services. Business Process Management is not limited to Information Technology enabled workflow management or automation of business processes, but it definitely includes them as well. So Business Process Management is the universal management of business processes which are manual as well as automated currently to ensure that value is delivered to customers through effective management of the same. There are exceptions to business process management and it does not cover the whole gamut of business – for example, strategy formulation, business policy decision making and creation of business functions are usually out of the realms of BPM. The operational aspects of business which are actually the action items/tasks/activities that bring value to customers are to be managed and BPM is the name for it. By this definition, I include business process modeling as well as business process improvement as part of BPM. BPM in turn involves the business motivation for improving business processes, governance for business processes and monitoring and alignment of business processes with business strategy as well.

    2) Business Process Modeling – As explained earlier, business process modeling is
    multi-dimensional and it is the visual representation of the process which is a common language that is easily interpreted by various stakeholders involved. Business Process Modeling usually utilizes some modeling approach as necessary for the end use of the modeling. Modeling is the first step for business process analysis – business process analysis is in turn the first step for business process improvement. So, modeling involves gathering information about and around business process so that the process can be analyzed.

    3) Business Process Improvement – Improvement is the universal growth mantra. Everything has to be improved and can be improved. Business Processes ensure that our products/services are produced/serviced as per the needs for the customer and are available to them as needed (at optimum cost, quality, time & flexibility). Business Processes while bringing the products/services to customers fail and there are breaks in the processes which drop the value that enterprises decide to provide customers. Business Process analysis helps one to define the improvement path that the enterprise can take up. There are famous process improvement cultures like Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing and Quality Improvement programs. Process Analysis includes understanding the existing business processes and associated improvement or waste reduction opportunities which can help improve cost, quality, time or flexibility of bringing the product/service to customer – there are various techniques involved and few to name include, as-is process analysis using five whys, value stream analysis, activity based cost analysis, simulation analysis, business process reengineering etc. Programs like process harmonization, process standardization, process optimization, process automation etc are business process improvement programs that are widely utilized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *