ACM and BPM: A Battle of The Hemispheres?

Because there are already enough predictions on BPM for 2012, I will rather discuss how and why we try to predict things, including processes. This post also explains why my research into software systems focuses since 1997 on both entity modelling and pattern matching. Much what has been purely intuition then is now much better understood.

ACM versus BPM and BPM as part of ACM and …???

Many have tried to define and classify what BPM is and not and what thus the difference to ACM is. There is further ambiguity looming when we aren’t clear whether we talk about concepts and methodology or software and systems. I found that the core problem is a battle of mindsets and won’t thus be easily resolved. The two approaches are separated by how our our right and left brain hemispheres view the world. ‘Ah,’ you might think, ‘Here we go again with that boring discussion about the battle between our reasonable and emotional selves.’

Actually, that depiction of our brain is inaccurate. I will thus focus here on discussing the human mind and not technology as it provides important understanding. It may surprise you, but reason is not situated in the left hemisphere as humans possess no such ability. Emotion is not situated in our right brain hemisphere, but a central brain function associated with chemicals excreted by the amygdala gland. Reason and emotion are one and the same thing. Antonio Damasio discovered that it is not our rational ability that comes to decisions but our emotional center. It is not our ability to reason that searches our memory database with keywords, but emotional responses triggers memory patterns. To think, communicate and contemplate actually needs both brain hemispheres, and not just our left. Our abstract thinking just contemplates feelings, but it doesn’t really predict and it doesn’t decide on actions and goals. That a potential pattern for the future is a plausible one is not a rational prediction but an intuitive emotional weighting.

American Phrenological Journal

Why is the brain split in two hemispheres with different abilities?

We simply don’t know, but apparently evolution found it beneficial to keep them quite well separated. Yes, the left brain hemisphere harbors our language-oriented ability to formulate abstract concepts. We still can’t understand language or speak coherently without the sensory processing of our right hemisphere and additional motor skills. The left is our SERIAL thought processor but it doesn’t reason, it just models. It performs serial contemplation in abstract concepts but does not interact with reality. So where do these abstract models come from? They are received by our senses and processed in PARALLEL by our right hemisphere as repeatedly recognizable patterns and then linked to abstract model terms in the left. This illogical and non-reasoning pattern matching in the right is what we refer to as intuition. The abstract contemplation of the left is what we call imagination. The right hemisphere is about our sensory experience of now while the left presents scenarios of our past and enables us to imagine our potential future. It is necessary to link these two together to create our conscious self and it is the job of a tiny part in our oldest part of the brain called the medulla, sitting where the the spinal cord enters the brain. Besides vegetative functions such as heart beat and breathing, it also connects our bodily experiences to our feelings of now and to our abstract thoughts. If our medulla is damaged we fall into a coma. Our goal-orientation is not some logical plan but purely hormonal drives that we turn into abstract models. We do things to feel good. Always! Which does not mean we are selfish, because we also feel good when we make people happy.

By the way: Those who see humans as being distinct from animals through emotions and the conscious self should consider that most mammals have a similar medulla and amygdala as the human brain. We must assume that they feel conscious emotions the same way as we do, while most just can’t think abstractly about it. While that may be the much easier way to lead a life, I propose that most primates actually do abstract as well, as some could be taught up to 200 hand signs, including some for joy, fear and love.

The difference between motor automation and abstract plans.

Our intelligence is apparently related to our ability to predict things. Because we always expect things to happen from experience, the amount of processing we need to do something is reduced. But we must not oversimplify: There is a functional difference between motor skills, pattern recognition clusters and abstract predictions. Motor skills can be trained by approximately 60 repetitions to rewire the six neuron layers below the grey matter to automate a motor skill. Motor skills can be likened to manufacturing, where automation has an efficiency benefit. If we would have to consciously think about how to move our limbs we would not do much else and would be pretty clumsy. Human motor automation is a complex interaction between sensory input patterns and nerve responses. Because we cannot control our environment like a factory, what we do in real-life in the motor-cortex is very different to mental conveyor belts. In a neural representation of our limbs (homunculus) we build sets of sensation-response patterns from past experience that traverse action patterns based on feedback. A somewhat similar process happens related to pattern recognition for our sensory perceptions. A hierarchy of recognition clusters is trained to recognize repeated sensory patterns and memorizes them as a series of abstract scenarios. We are not conscious as to how our brain analyses retina patterns into abstract objects, but we can later recall these patterns through the trigger of the emotional context. Scenarios without emotional context we forget as irrelevant. Sensory input triggers another stored scenario and not in a predefined sequence. If an automated skill or stored pattern doesn’t succeed, we chemically switch to left-sided contemplation and trigger similar patterns that might be helpful.

What happens when we think about it …

The left hemisphere’s abstract world doesn’t do long-term planning in flows. We contemplate retroactively from desirable emotional states (goals). We contemplate possibilities and potentials in abstract concepts as a balance of feelings and orient (decide on) our actions weighing current desires versus long-term goals. Decisions are then made as to how we FEEL about both. Which is why good decision-making can’t be trained. It needs emotional experience. A person that inspires us will do much more than some how-to textbook. Neither can Big-Data, Predictive Analytics and process mining extract experience patterns for better planning. Microsoft’s market research produces the clumsy ‘Zune’, while Steve Jobs intuitively creates the iPod, iPhone and iPad. What happened does not tell us what grand plans will work in an ever-changing, adaptive world. Human knowledge is about which real-time process patterns are intuitively connected to which human actions. Our knowledge is segmented into independent pattern-action links and those can for example trained with the User-Trained Agent. We can however just assume what patterns the performer actually uses.

The skill of people motivation is based on understanding human emotions! Humans want to feel good and do things that they hope will take them there. We look for the feeling of success (dopamine) and not for lower cost. Our efficiency drive comes from being lazy and not from being rational about it. Our abstract thinking allows us to pull the potential of a positive feeling from the future into now and motivate us to do things that otherwise might be a strain, even unpleasant or against short-term desires. I.e.: I could eat the cookie now and end up fat (feels bad). I could exercise and look good to find a better partner (feels good). I need to hit my targets to get recognition (not money). Not surprisingly do negative thoughts lead to unpleasant emotions. Now code all that into flowcharts …

A human view of BPM-control versus ACM-guidance.

Well, I propose that BPM flowcharts are a left-brained serial illusion of how things ideally should be. It is a predictive, controlling approach to our world as represented by our left hemisphere models alone. Flowcharts replace our abstract model contemplation with a lesser, dumber function than our motor automation. Simple rules replace the complex pattern matching hierarchies that recognize our world. Rather than targeting goals we just follow procedures that ignore the complex adaptive world in which we cannot exert rational control beyond mechanical steps. Rather than opening our eyes we close them and follow procedure.

What sense does it make to create software that ignores the human perspective? Could we function as a human with just a right or a left hemisphere? Could we function if the two hemispheres were not connected at all? Clearly not, while people tend to favor one or the other, everyone must use BOTH. The same is true for ACM and BPM, because with just BPM we lose our connection to reality and just a Basic ACM will be a nice to have but it won’t transform your company. Just BPM will not provide a productive, humane work environment and stifles innovation. Just ACM will help to organize ad-hoc and knowledge work, but how would you know what your goals are? While we do not need BPMS flowcharting except for basic manufacturing, we need left-brained modeling in the sense of a Business Architecture (really just a well-defined business language ontology) to make ACM work. ACM creates a real-world perspective and transparency on what is actually happening related to our goals. This is why I see an ACMS as the software engine of an embedded, goal-oriented BPM methodology – hence Strategic ACM. Wikipedia defines BPM (recently updated) as “executing a series or network of value-added activities, performed by their relevant roles or collaborators, to purposefully achieve a common business goal.” Well, it seems that ANY way to organize a business is now simply renamed to BPM. Another way to end the discussion.

Conclusion: In our brain the connector between abstract-left and real-world-right hemispheres is our conscious, emotional self. The connector between ACM and BPM is the HUMAN!

References and further thoughts:

Rather than pointing you to scientific papers to understand my proposals better, I would suggest that you take the time to view these TED talks:

On the brain’s reality versus illusion from Jill Bolte, a brain researchers who suffered herself a stroke in her left brain hemisphere.

Iain McGilchrist explains how the brain is divided.

And the always factually cool but simply amazing Antonio Damasio on consciousness.

Jeff Hawkins argues that prediction is the key function of intelligence in his popular TED talk. He does however not discuss the well-known difference between abstract reasoning and motor functions.

PS: Do not flame me for minor errors or simplifications in regards to neurology. The post was already long enough …

10 Comments on “ACM and BPM: A Battle of The Hemispheres?

  1. Hi Max:

    Important post regarding the need to get disconnected from technology and try to understand the true nature of human reasoning reaction and adaption.


  2. Hi Max,
    now I have the time to answer here as I did on may blog before. I like your considerations because it shows that to understand why people like one thing and the other not is to understand how humans are “functioning”. And yes some humans are better using the left or right handside brain, working emotional or logical, more intuitive ore more predictable.
    What I see is that our world becomes more and more orderless. Each answer we got for a question causes some new questions. The internet forces the decreasing time for doubling knowlegde. So our business becomes more and more unpredictable und therefore our intuition will be the only helpful tool to navigate through the next few weeks. Beside the swarm intelligence of our network of experts. Because of the growing complexity of challanges the individual expert will less fit. So people with good empathie will take over building networks based on trustfulness. Distrust will be past. Cooperation instead of competition will be the future.
    Some minutes before I read this articel (sorry, only German), which you may like as well:
    Kind Regards, Martin


  3. Great posts Max, I hadn’t thought about Adaptive case management vs. Business process management from the perspective of human thinking vs. business efficiency ..and was happy to do so! I recently have begun to notice a slightly different thorn that needs pulling. One that muddles the thought process of many and results in perennial Drucker dilemma Business only gets what it measures.
    Curious to get your take on how to leverage more of the insight you have identified here to motivate some expansive thinking into more effective utilization of the interconnections technology makes possible. I did my best to lay out the problem in a recent blog post..ROA- getting the most out of your assets


    • Thanks arjkay, for reading and commenting. I am glad to have hit a note of resonance in our thinking. I feel it is really important to put the human perspective up front in software. Like Steve Jobs said: ‘What we do is not driven by a faith in technology, but rather by a faith in people!’
      Kind regards, Max


  4. Hi Max
    But is BPM not about putting the human perspective up front? I think you are wrong to think it is about a “flowchart”? ACM may take the delivery a stage further in thinking recognising the “right hand side”. In software this as you rightly say needs a “Business Architecture” with a whole range of attributes that allows ready change to changing circumstances. I also see it requires “Dynamic” change as users go through their tasks so the software can dynamically create the next approriate steps. This is all now capable in our respective tools sets but let’s not dump BPM as a mindset but yes promote ACM as the extended thinking now being addressed in software? Or am I on the wrong track?


    • Thanks David. From my experience I only see BPM projects that automate human interactions for cost redution. Allowing to add ad-hoc tasks not sufficient. What users create as process must be reusable. I am an advocate of the approach to manage by defining process outcomes. Flow diagrams guarantee execution but not outcomes of human interaction.

      You are right that I see ACM as the embodiment of the BPM management concepts into software.

      Regards, Max


  5. Max
    I think that this will see the end of Enterprise Software as has emerged over past 40 years. The central system will be little more than static book-keeping the front end starts with human interactions as described feeding and using data as required. You are right it requires that Business Architecture – we will have many enemies but the customer is becoming more intelligent to understand not just what they are buying but how it is put together. Interesting times……. at last!
    Not sure ACM is the right tag “case” is too restrictive? It will be the new alternative to COTS (BPMS) and custom coded solutions – any thoughts?


    • David, thank for commenting. I agree. We will see a shift in software rather sooner than later. Just the old mainframe hacks need to retire. (I used to be one on IBM/370 and know how they think).

      Any kind of naming can be restrictive. I in fact like John Mancini’s ‘System of Engagement’ versus ‘System of Record’ the best.

      Regards, Max


  6. Max:
    ERP tools, and BPMS tools (to a lesser extent) have for the last 30 years tried to enforce a lowest common denominator approach.

    This is good, as inasmuch as it tries to first, do no harm.
    However, it stops people from using their initiative, and then building on that (which is where i think your are going with ACM?)

    My question is about how you are thinking of capturing all that KM?


    • Hi Nic, thanks for the comment. I am neither going somewhere with ACM nor am I thinking about how I will capture that KM.

      Our ACM solution captures TODAY all the knowledge of how the performers did execute a process and enables them to store it as a template for future use. The knowledge is organized into goal-oriented work structures that can also be linked to operational targets and the business objectives of the value stream.

      Regards, Max


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