Does adaptive BPM trump traditional BPM?

Any amount of research into business process management technologies reveals a great deal of competing information around the right approach to solve the everyday challenges of managing work.

‘Traditonal’ BPM

Traditional BPM rose on the need for a way to channel the energy of the worker into tasks that needed to be performed in an efficient manner. With the age-old saying that if you can’t describe it, you can’t measure and improve it, technology was applied to the capture of the way work is done and then to techniques for measurement, analysis and improvement. The criticism of this approach is that it turns humans into robots and strips away the creative element necessary for the business and its workers to evolve with a changing environment. Is this fair criticism? Probably not, as there are many tasks that must be prescribed, such as:

  • Safety procedures
  • Compliance activities
  • System interaction that has required steps
  • Contractual activities
  • Best practices that are determined to be ‘tried and true’
  • Complex interactions within and without the organization
  • Cost-saving activities that require an order to their execution

There are many reasons why certain behaviors would need to be done in a pre-determined fashion, but that doesn’t mean everything must.

Adaptive BPM

Adaptive BPM takes the approach that work should be done in the best way possible and that putting restraints on workers stifles the organization’s need for innovation. At the risk of oversimplification, the resolution of work is still managed but through less prescribed procedures. Measurement is by external factors, like outcomes (such as customer satisfaction) rather than adherence to specific activities. The criticism of this approach is that it is too nirvana-ish and doesn’t reflect the realities of managing people. Is this fair? Probably not, as most people want to have flexibility and exercise creativity in their work and anything that harnesses this desire makes companies great.


Work is done in both ways. Every organization, but especially those with large workforces and/or in regulated industries has a need to alternate specified behavior with creative work. A well-designed BPM system allows for both by managing creative and non-creative activity within a single interface. At a large engineering firm, this is managed through three different mechanisms depending on the nature of the work being performed:

  • Compliance and contractual activities are ‘shall’ work that requires process owners to give authorization to deviate from the published processes
  • Best practice activities are ‘should’ and require that process owners are informed of deviation from published processes and those owners have the opportunity to step in and mandate behaviors as they see fit
  • Creative work is ‘may’ and social media is the avenue for communication of ideas and exceptions to normal ways of working. The informality of social media aligns well with the need for fast, out-of-the-box work.

The reality is that work isn’t fully creative and isn’t fully prescribed in the healthiest organizations. Business process systems need to have the rigor and flexibility to help the organization meet its goals without having a stifling effect on work.

For a great primer on the basic arguments of adaptive versus traditional BPM, Neil Ward-Dutton has a great piece in CIO.


Categories: Social / Collaboration, Workplace Reality

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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2 Comments on “Does adaptive BPM trump traditional BPM?”

  1. November 5, 2011 at 6:31 am #

    Chris… I like “shall”, “should” and “may”.

    Your post covers the full range of processing needs (structured, unstructured) in terms that most readers can understand and relate to.

    For complex processes, in the area of “should”, I imagine what you mean by “published processes” is the processes have been put “in-line” with embedded background compliance checkpoints at key process points where a rule set is able to detect important variations and erect roadblocks that can only be eliminated by remedy or supervisory override.

    “May” ad hoc interventions are trickier – here, we are either accommodating work for which there are no published processes or process fragments OR we are saying to users, we encourage “should”, but go ahead and do what you like if you are adamant about not following best practice. Here, there has to be a way to trip up a user when things start to go off the rails, and the only solution I have found is to provide a UI with a menu of services where some of the listed items represent the only way to get something done (i.e. ship a product). When a ad hoc user clicks on such an item, the system looks at all of the relevant prerequisites and trips up that user if there are any deficiencies.

    An example of a rule set at a Key Process Point for shipment of a product is 1) is there an order number with all required details? 2) did the product go thru QA? 3) did it pass QA or does it need to be sent back for re-work?

    With the approach just described, ad hoc interventions become “processes of one step each” and forced checkpoint processing allows structured and unstructured work to be handled the same way.

    We call this ACM/BPM, which may be what you are calling Adaptive BPM.

    Its my view for ACM/BPM that the software environment has to be fundamentally a case management system that accommodates structured flows as opposed to a traditional BPM system where process is king and the only record of work done is an audit trail.

    With an ACM/BPM system, in the extreme, an entire group of users could be performing all work from a menu of processes of one step. As you indicate, this is not something likely to happen in the real world because “there are many tasks that must be prescribed”.

  2. March 8, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    Nice article Chris – and thanks very much for the pointer to my CIO article!

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