Pierre Simon LaPlace and the BPM Demon
I suggest that BPM ought to come with a large, bright-yellow warning sticker. Let me lead you through my thinking that started with a number of posts on the subject of Adaptive Case Management versus Business Process Management.
First there is Keith Swensons interesting exchange with Jean-Jacques Dubray on ‘Do Unpredictable Processes Exist?’ Be warned, as it is a long post, but quite worthwhile. Then there is Clay Shirky’s ‘The Collapse of Complex Business Models’, also referenced in a post of similar name by Jacob Ukelson. Please read them if you have the time, but I will try to present and discuss the viewpoints here.
What can we know about complex adaptive systems?
To avoid long discussions like the one between Keith and Dubray, we could start with some epistemology — the theory of knowledge — right here, to discuss what the terms ‘complex‘ or ‘unpredictable‘ represent in the following. It is not just simple term definition, because the subject is: What CAN we know how? ‘Complex’ is considered a synonym for ‘complicated‘ and that already creates misinterpretations. I have used — and so have others — the term ‘complex’ for a working system that cannot be decomposed into parts, in difference to a complicated one. We can understand causality in a complicated or deterministic system, but we can’t analyse and predict it in complex or social systems. Complex social systems can be adaptive, meaning that they exhibit for example self-organization in hierarchies.
That is in fact the essence of the communication between Keith Swenson and Jean-Jacques Dubray. I read the whole conversation several times, because I do agree with Dubray largely about entities and their states and still end up disagreeing with him. The problem is about getting actionable knowledge from data interpretation (as per information theory). Dubray seems to believe that we can know enough to see the world as decomposable — ‘The entire universe has well defined states.’ he says. — into bits and pieces. Therefore, he feels, it must be possible to clearly define all future combination of such entities and their states and create a working map that will cover all possibilities. That is a very common, pseudo-scientific delusion. The great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace fell prey to the same in 1814 when he pondered about a demon, who would be able to calculate the future of the universe if he could access all the information about its present state. Laplace’s demon was based on the premise of classical, time-reversable mechanics, whereas the thermodynamics involved in all real processes are currently thought to be irreversible. The similarity to human processes is not farfetched, because not all state-changes can be perfectly undone. Not all actions have definite consequences. We are unable to identify ALL relationships and dependencies. And there can be no certain analysis of WHY! Taking a British car to pieces does not tell you WHY it’s steering wheel seems on the wrong side. Therefore there can be no prediction either. Model thinking is always inaccurate.
The entire universe has well-defined states?
To my amazement, the subject of events never came up in the Swenson-Dubray conversation. Unpredictability is however strongly connected to events. Dubray only describes processes in manufacturing terms, but not as customer service activities where the outcome is a very broad ‘happy’ customer perception, while Keith likes to use the ‘healthy’ patient. While these are understandable human states they are not clearly definable and NOT measurable. There aren’t any entity state changes that will ensure a ‘happy’ state in a customer. Healthy can mean very different states too. Goals are in fact not states but rules that set a state. In a complex system these rules map to unknown patterns of states in the state space. There can be many patterns related to a certain state of one entity and even when observed the information is correlation but not causation. (This is the area of my transductive training agent patent so trust me on this.)
While I am in full agreement with Dubray on the problems of BPM modeling if it ignores entities and their states, his main fallacy is the belief that the impact and effect of relationships in complex systems can be causally determined. The most important element of business processes are people and not things. If the people are removed and their actions fully automated then yes, processes can be fully predicted. They just do not serve a human purpose and will not fulfil human goals. Dubray even suggests that we can predict the weather, when there is no such thing. At best we can calculate some rough probability of a certain weather pattern being more prominent than another at a very short time in the future. If Dubray says that processes can only be predicted as far into the future as the weather then I agree with him. If however, BPM outcomes are as accurate as weather forecasting then don’t expect it to improve your Key Performance Indicators for the yearend!
A different view: Clay Shirky travels quite some distance to make his case for the potential catastrophic consequences of complex business models for our society. Like me, Shirky points to bureaucracy as the culprit. Jared Diamond has also suggested similar issues in his book ‘Collapse‘. I see this as the normal progression of the world and believe that not too much can be done about it, without being a fatalistic person. I see this as the mechanisms of evolution. We can however understand the mechanisms of evolution in areas where we have more influence than on the scale of whole societies. While the wish for control is a human trait we don’t gain when we control too much. The strongest oak will eventually be brought down by some storm, while the tiny reed will simply bend. Buildings that are too brittle tumble in the slightest earthquake. Organizations that are rigidly controlled lack resilience to outside change. I see bureucracy and methodology needed to get BPM to work as such brittle, rigid structures themselves and they create brittle, rigid processes and if fully executed a brittle, rigid business. Jacob Ukelson thus tries to defend Adaptive Case Management as an independent domain of functionality from BPM. I agree but don’t see much of a chance, because BPM proponents will continue to claim that it is just a sideline. For them BPM bureaucracy creates the safe and predictable routes on the business maps that will ensure that business activities will reach their goal. Makes it all perfectly manageable and predictable, right? No warning stickers needed.
Navigating the oceans of business on a virtual map.
It reminds me about the guy who ran his brand new 80ft yacht into a rock just outside the marina. I talked to him while the boat was being lifted onto land in the shipyard with a gaping hole in the bow. He was lucky that it had floated. He was furious, threatening to sue the chartplotter and electronic map manufacturers. He claimed that he was at least 50ft from the reef on his navigation display. ‘How could I know that these guys are too stupid to build an accurate system?’ he said. I mentioned the disclaimer that is on each paper and electronic map and GPS about their lack of accuracy. ‘There is a disclaimer on everything today,’ he said. ‘They are just for idiots.’ This idiot had 8 guests on board when this happened so I left without another word.
Yes, I see the process maps produced by BPM just like a planned route on a naval map. They are very useful and I would not go to sea without a chartplotter today. Actually the one on my iPhone is pretty good. Would I want to captain a boat that could only follow predetermined electronic routes that I could not change anytime I want? Certainly not. Without constant lookout I would have nearly hit a school of whales once. Would you want to be a guest on a yacht where the captain can only follow the predefined routes on an inaccurate map, by means of inaccurate GPS, believing that the weather can be perfectly predicted? I don’t think so, but despite that obvious reality that the economy and business is as dynamic and unpredictable as the high seas, thats what everyone wants to do with BPM.
A business (unit, process team) should be run like an offshore yacht with electronics that tell me where I am accurately enough that I can use my skills to navigate safely. I should be able to navigate ‘the old way’ to know what to do when the electronics end up being fried by lightning or give really weird advice. I also need a means to get frequent weather reports because every mariner can tell you that predictions of more than 24 hours are insufficient. In some locations you need 3-6 hours to be safe. I also need a means to communicate and a radar to get a real-time view in bad visibility.
Therefore, that’s what Adaptive Case Management gets the process owner for his team: Real-time, approximate location, information about invisible stuff, communications, estimates on upcoming conditions, the ability to plot new routes and waypoints (and save them for the future) and calculate ETAs. He depends on the electronic stuff (ACM) despite all the warnings but uses his brain — as well as a solid boat, a good crew and lots of experience — to get to the agreed upon target.
Why is there no disclaimer sticker about inaccuracy on each monitor that runs BPM? Ahh, I nearly forgot. NO NEED! BPM can only drive the predetermined route and neither captain nor crew know what they are doing.