Social BPM Methodology: The Triple Oxymoron

I consider ‘Social-BPM’ as a combination of Social and BPM software an oxymoron. Social networking and BPM automation are at opposite ends of the human interaction spectrum. BPM flowcharts are decomposed complicated structures and social networks are complex adaptive systems. You can’t just use both and claim that one will improve other. Social is about live interaction and transparency and BPM is about control. Social interaction means there is no rigid process from the outset, which means you need NEW technology becond flowcharts. Publishing process flowcharts via an enterprise wiki IS NOT social either, even if you let people comment on it as it doesn’t empower change. Also case-like collaboration only is not yet social networking if it doesn’t allow adaptation of templates. Even more questionable is the triple oxymoron of ‘Social BPM Methodology’ that now keeps appearing despite ‘methodology’ being another antithesis to ‘social.’ Social BPM is currently no more than a large white marketing space lacking understanding and plausibility. Here a list of definitions, benefits and arguments:

Various vendors:

  • Employing Enterprise 2.0 in-house Wikis, chats, user ratings, video for processes
  • Using Facebook or Twitter for customer process communication.
  • Comunicate processes to users for buy-in and help them ‘feel’ like they have ownership.
  • Collaborate via discussions, documents, wikis, etc. in process context
  • Collaboration can be archived along with the process instance or case log.

Forrester Research:

  • A methodology for bringing more and diverse voices into process improvement activities
  • Accelerate time-to-value and adoption for BPM projects
  • Facilitate collaboration for process improvement
  • Process users provide direct feedback on enhancements and improvements during execution

Gartner Group:

  • A concept that describes collaboratively designed and iterated processes
  • Goal-oriented processes with user guidance through rules and patterns
  • Connects structured and unstructured knowledge-centric tasks
  • Enables processes to become more effective rather than just efficient
  • Encourages and supports continuous process innovation
  • Needs a change program to break down hierarchies and improve collaboration
  • Needs methodology to reduce errors and costs, or continually adapt processes

BPM vendors propose that they will expand existing flowcharting engines and design tools to fully support social. Because too many people would loose face if they would accept that social replaces a governance bureaucray, we get BPM plus methodology plus social. That makes however no sense at all.

Social Network Theory and Emergence in Complex Adaptive Systems
Duncan Watts, Stanley Milgram, and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi created what is understood today as Social Network Theory, which has improved our understanding about how revolutions, terrorism, ecology, economics, and organizations work. Evolving social complexity drives innovation through emergence, which simplistic methodologies of strategic planning, business and process management fail to take into account. The surprising realization is that uncontrollable social complexity is not an unwanted side effect, but it is actually the only path to achieve continuous innovation. While principle rules for social interaction are necessary it has nothing to do with flowcharts.

Complexity actually produces unease in people who try to exert control. Emergence seems to insult their intelligence when they should understand that emergence created human intelligent capability. It is the understanding of emergence that should have profound impact on process management as we observe the social system of a business and try to describe it in various ways. Social happens when we understand that the friends of our friend’s friends have through their indirect influence a dramatic effect on us. This understanding of social networks should impact business management, because the (unknown to you) coworkers of a coworker influence how you do our job more than any management action.

HBR: Embracing Complexity

Why Do People Fail to see the Power of Social Complexity
The concept of complexity is slowly entering the mainstream. The cover page of the September 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review carries the title: ‘Embracing Complexity.’  The author of the article Michael J. Mamboussin is the chief strategist of Legg Mason Capital Management. He sees two reasons why complex adaptive systems are not considered enough in business management. First, humans are too good in wanting to see causality where there is none. Second, we tend to listen to expert opinion, even though it is well documented that they don’t do any better than in predicting things than anyone else. A suit, tie and a Powerpoint simply looks more authoritative. According to Mamboussin, the willingness of the organization to use a broad diversity of knowledge from many people is one essential step to embracing complexity. Both problems are prominent in orthodox BPM (flowchart logic and consulting), which therefore are actually reducing the ability of a business to deal with social complexity. Authoritative expert opinion on BPM is considered more relevant than the real world process knowledge of performers.

Ignore Technology at Your Peril
Those who propose that BPM is about methodology and not technology are also saying that BPM cannot be social. Yes, one can do BPM without technology and we can socially network around the watercooler. But technology is the enabler! Even if you don’t use it your competition will, causing a shortening of time scales in the economy, which challenges today’s slow strategic planning cycles if you like it or not. It voids the proposition of BPM methodology that process analysis will ensure optimization and innovation in realistic timescales and provide agility through a governance bureaucracy. Rather than relying on analysis, we need to rely on technology empowerment for social business process execution, which is not addressed by today’s Social BPM approaches. Real-world social processes emerge and adapt continuously and holistically from all aspects of hierarchy: top-down, bottom-up, inside–out and outside-in.

I propose that it is the hidden reality of social networks within an organization that actually makes it work and not its reporting lines. While I tend to rail against bureaucracy I want to point out that hierarchies are a necessity to ensure that the various levels can operate efficiently in their own domain of authority. Social is not about removing hierarchies, it is about making them work! The highest degree of efficiency comes from division of labor as long as goals and outcomes are aligned by process management rather than top-down, micro-managing activity flows for process owners. There is an unavoidable interaction between business styles and used technology that can help a business to grow without a priori changing how a company is managed. Using process monitoring and enforcement sends a clear and loud negative message about management style to employees that no HR motivation program can undo.

In difference to run-of-the-mill consultancy pitch, I propose that the most essential element of process management is not cost cutting but innovation. Change is not an afterthought. Many propose that they can control or manage change/innovation through rigid processes. The opposite is the case. Change can only be promoted by offering opportunity and is mostly hindered by controlling it. Social networks grow and change without anyone promoting that in particular. Proper social networks empower people to innovate without being held back. Social BPM as proposed today doesn’t.

Innovation in the Apple AppStore
Steve Jobs departure makes people worry about Apple’s future. They don’t understand that his greatest achievement is not his single-minded vision, but the way he brought people together to do something grand. Steve Jobs did not all-out invent a single thing. He just took existing products (PCs, MP3 players, Napster, laptops, phones, tablets, and now even the Cloud) and taught his people to make them incredibly user-friendly and appealing. Jobs knows that simplicity gains adoption and that this needs complex technology. He also lived design as art applied to productivity. We don’t need to worry, because it is not the hardware product but iTunes and Appstore as the key to the product innovation from Apple and its iOS developer community. It is driven by highly motivated individuals who thrive on autonomy. There is no change methodology that forces individuals to do anything except for some guiding rules. Their innovation is in principle just gradual improvement like all of Apple’s successes. One App may be radically new, but it represents a gradual improvement of the Apple mobile ecosystem if it finds adoption with consumers.

Apple could not predict which Apps the now 300.000 developers for the AppStore would develop. They just created the infrastructure for a huge, fairly open social network of developers and customers, only providing the security for money and information. The AppStore ecosystem and rule set does not prohibit social complexity. It is now obvious as a hindsight that 300.000 motivated programmers would easily outsmart those rigidly organized Microsoft software labs that don’t really listen to consumers. The Appstore was the innovation phase transition that enabled Apple to jump to the next level of growth. Their revenue TRIPPLED in three years. You can do the same for your business but not with Social lipstick on the rigid BPM methodology pig. And that is the lesson to learn for BPM from Steve Jobs success: If you want to turn your business into an innovation powerhouse, process creation and innovation must become simple for the socially empowered business performer.

A Social Business Process Ecosystem
I consider process classifications from rigid to social as interesting but not helpful in defining how to solve process management needs. You can’t segment them into different solutions. All work being performed is social interaction and different process types can be linked together by various goals and events. A business needs thus a single process ecosystem and not several distinct products or social tacked onto BPM. I developed such a single platform to be a ‘Process AppStore’ (a.k.a. repository) for your business that allows business people to simply create and adapt resources (content), activities, goals, targets, rules and data connectivity from a library of easy-to-use templates that they can more or less recombine at will.

Let me reiterate that (process) empowerment is not about a lack of control but about well-defined authority, goals and means! The process platform must foremost support the transparent definition of those three aspects for each performer (group) in the business hierarchy, offering end-user process simplicity for all hierarchy levels that provides the rate of adoption needed for social complexity.

While ‘simple for the business user’ means to provide understandable, reliable, predictable, repeatable, inter-connectable and low-unit-cost process resources, that is the opposite to optimizing and rigidly encode all end-to-end processes for lowest cost. The key to success is user guidance, process transparency and performer ratings, which allows the selection and reuse of goal-achieving activities. It is more effective to simply let business execute processes at will and then guide it by adding process goals and targets as organizing principles. Social empowerment gets noticed and doesn’t need an HR change program.

Or did Facebook change-manage its 650 million users?

I am the founder and Chief Technology Officer of Papyrus Software, a medium size software company offering solutions in communications and process management around the globe. I am also the owner and CEO of MJP Racing, a motorsports company focused on Rallycross or RX, a form of circuit racing on mixed surfaces that has been around for 40 years. I hold 8 national and international championship titles in RX. My team participates in the World Championship along Petter Solberg, Sebastian Loeb and Ken Block.

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Posted in Adaptive Case Management, BPM, Business Strategy, Complexity, Executives
10 comments on “Social BPM Methodology: The Triple Oxymoron
  1. kswenson says:

    I am hoping that the articles in the HBR will legitimise to the business crowd the things you have been saying for years about complex adaptive systems. I pulled some key quotes into:

    Imagine that the iPad had been invented by a “Social BPM Methodologist”. Such a person would want to define exactly what the iPad would be used for at every step in the process, and they would want to measure the ROI that such a worked would achieve using the iPad for doing a particular job. Their mantra is “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” This is of course completely ludicrous. Steve Jobs knows better than to try and define precisely what a person will do with an iPad. Instead, put powerful, cool capabilities into the hands of a creative people, and let THEM figure is out how to optimize their own work. In many ways the iPad is the ultimate realization of the counter-BPM approach.

    I do worry about Apple after Jobs’ departure. As you point out, there are plenty of smart creative people there who really made these products happen, but Steve Jobs played a critical role of allowing that creativity to go in unproved directions. “Allow” is not quite the right word, because I am sure that a creative person was only allowed to go in a direction that Steve Jobs himself agreed with, but the key was that Jobs did not insist on a market study backed by industry analysts before approving a product direction. Put a thousand creative capable designers in a room, and you don’t necessarily get anything out without a strong director. Will Apple get another leader with that combination of credibility, vision, and persuasion? I don’t know.


  2. […] his blog post, Social BPM Methodology: The Triple Oxymoron, Max Pucher gives us a great opportunity to look at the common assumptions that underlie arguments […]


  3. Craig J Willis says:

    I agree with your argument here, especially around methodology. I call it an approach, for want of a better term, for the following reason:
    (this quote is from your chapter in the Social BPM handbook) “More than technology, it will be management principles and the resulting company culture that decide if and how a business will profit from social concepts.”

    It’s an approach because those currently in management need to be educated. They need to learn to step back and allow innovation to flourish in a social environment.

    So I see Social BPM as an opportunity, or approach, to make those changes, preferably supported by suitable technology. I use the term Social to extract useful properties from Social Networking and Social Media that can then be applied to BPM in order to improve it. To me Social has one overarching principle that it must be inclusive. It is collaborative, it empowers people and it must be usable. If it fails on any of these it’s not inclusive.

    ‘Orthodox BPM’ may be collaborative, it is rarely empowering and as often as not has pretty awful usability. On this I think we agree. But if one looks at a type of BPM described by Forrester’s Clay Richardson in “Big Process Thinking” this goes way beyond simple automation. It takes into account all processes within an organization, whether system supported or not. And build this using a goal oriented approach that allows users to execute process as they see fit, where appropriate, then you retain the level of control required to direct your business without stifling innovation. Applying the social concept to this makes a good deal of sense.

    Social BPM is like taking small steps. Those that currently practice ‘orthodox BPM’ will be more comfortable talking about Social BPM than something completely new. It might take time to get to a truly adaptive organization but hey, those that get there slower may never get there! :)


    • Thanks, Craig. We agree. But I wonder what means in orthodox BPM plus Social there are to ‘extract’ and ‘apply’ user knowledge. Most systems can’t even deal with goals …


  4. Stimulating post. Thanks for sparking my thinking about Social BPM and its emergent promise. That promise, I think, is not in the obvious collaborative benefits but in experiential learning and spreading tacit knowledge about innovative strategies. I’ve elaborated in a new post at


  5. […] on one model at the same time. Max Pucher wrote about these tools in his insightful blog post, Social BPM Methodology: The Triple Oxymoron. My post is a response to his expressed concern over the viability of social media in the context […]


  6. Dileep Paul says:

    Great post. Rather than tools, the platform which gives the business users the opportunity to resolve thier issues in a better way or achieve thier goals with out having much complexity. But the oraganizations should proceed towards empowering the knowledge workers for this I think long way to go..
    This will definitly give a direction


  7. Tom says:

    Please note that in the 70s Watts was 6 and and Barabasi barely 15. Maybe you meant 90s ? ;-)


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Max J. Pucher
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