Semantic BPM – Part One

This is a remastered article written in 2010 on Redux blog that unfortunately was deleted with some very interesting comments that were recovered later by Theo Priestley and I copy it to the comments. Still there is copy on a old personal blog I used to write before.

This remastered series was finished in April this year and I’m translating it to English. Since then, some of the concepts suffered some evolution but I decided to keep what I written before in order to not change the first article concept.

The article have four parts. This is the first one. This is the second part. This is the third part. This is the epilogue.


The interest in this field started two years ago when Google launched product that did not succeed in the market: Google Wave. When it was launched in mid 2009, it was considered a threat to Facebook, because it allowed to manage our online conversations inviting or being invited to participate (widespread of co-creation). With Google Wave it was also possible to add/share files, images and other content. At the time I thought this tool could be used in business environment to collaborate with people, discuss ideas and enable as a tool business processes management. Gartner introduced the need for BPM system vendors to support collaboration among users – User and group collaboration “, ” Social BPM “had born.

Curiously few months after Google announcement (October 2009) SAP introduced a prototype which showed the integration with of a product called Gravity . Later, in February 2010 this prototype evolved into the SAP StreamWork. Other companies followed the same steps with other approaches: IBM introduced IBM Blue Works, ARIS Alignspace , followed by others. In 2011 there are already products like Appian Tempo and others like Hojoki  enabling activity streams.

In 2010 Keith Swenson summarized a very interesting set of definitions on “Social BPM”:

  • Clay Richardson Social BPM defined as: “Processes developed and improved through the use of social technologies and techniques”
  • Gartner says: “Social BPM is a concept that describes collaboratively designed and iterated processes”

Forrester added this definition although I do not understand clearly what is “social technology”:

  • “Processes developed and improved through the use of social technologies and techniques.”

This leads us to the topic of discussion, companies were constantly wrestling with the phenomenon of real-time collaboration.
Online information is becoming increasingly dynamic and the appearance of customer relationships in social networks enhance this phenomenon. These contents are richer, more dynamic, requiring more interaction and intensify these collaboration between the company and internal and external stakeholders.

The challenge is that as we headed for an increasingly connected world, the meaning of things we handle must have sense. It must have an interpretation. Enterprise ontology helps you find the meaning of things, but must be able to be as dynamic as the information flows on which we depend to carry out our work.

Today companies design and implement their processes supported by a multiplicity of systems. Duplication of data, concepts, lack of understanding on a specific area where the process runs remains a reality.

The same concept has different meaning for people who work within the organization or interact with it.

At systems level illiteracy continues to exist even with the SOA approach.

Business Intelligence continues to transform and correct the data that are scattered across operating systems and depend on human reasoning to interpret their meaning.

Increased collaboration between people requires that people know the meaning of what they are manipulating. Today the work ceases to be increasingly divided into streams, where people can see the significance of what they are doing. Increasingly, the nature of our work is oriented to the manipulation of informational entities, tasks that need to be executed, help requests, queries about stored info.

The challenge that I intend to achieve is the definition of a dynamic method of discovery and ontology management in order to enrich the knowledge about the meaning of things in business context.

An ontology can be managed in tools such as Protégé but is not guaranteed connection to the business processes definitions stored / executed in multiple systems, and therefore there is a very high risk of content obsolescence. Ontology construction tools as mentioned in [6] seems to be able to analyze a business domain without taking into account the business processes ecosystem and all existing relationships.

Process Management as it was thought reached the limit

I believe the title of this section be an infamy. But I believe that most of the people do not agree are in monolithic context . That’s fine. They are in denial.

Reality changes much faster these days. Today most of us are knowledge workers. Specially in service companies (in the industry this concept has existed for decades). It is curious that this cliché was introduced by Peter Drucker in the book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices and was reinforced latter by Toffler in the book Revolutionary Wealth: How It Will Be Created and How It Will Change Our Lives.

The first time I heard knowledge worker / knowledge management concept has in early nineties, when I read an article by Peter Druker in Harvard Business Review called Management and the World’s Work made me read the book by the same author quoted above, which was first published in 1973. People that advocates today that we live in the knowledge era, are 40 years late.

Imagine you are a manager and need answers to these questions. Prepare yourself. Take a deep breath and answer the questions below if you can (if you have trouble seek for help from a SQL or Oracle database administrator).

  • How many transports we did for Low Emissions Zone  in that we were fined by entering it with trucks that do not fulfill the norm EURO 4?
This question is best answered by Ray an operations manager; he has the answer in his head. Leave for now the database Administrator in peace.
  • When we are it performing transactions with the partner X, the operating licenses are valid?

Dear manager. Are you angry? All this could be resolved with Reporting Services, just build the example using SQL. SQL is a widely used non-procedural language, but is incapable of answer the doubts and dynamic questions that devastate our poor knowledge worker. As you already concluded, SQL answers always to the same questions, but predictive features are not available regarding the nature of the information that the user intend to obtain answer from.

If the “knowledge worker” want something more, or the query was not designed correctly the questions remain unanswered.

Another day at the bank the account manager was looking for a fund that had subscribed 5 years ago. The manager could not find it because the search was being made with “-” when the fund name is “Energy_Europa.” I even thought to myself: the fund disappeared. The bank got the money. In fact the search engine was not working correctly.

Let us focus the fundamental question: what kind of information that your company handles? Is there a way for this information being used among the people? Information is understood by your customers in the same manner as understood by your employees when they interact with your company?

Think deeply about this question. Sincerely do you believe that your data stored in a data center enables you to manage your business processes adequately? Don’t you agree that most of your data does not have meaning despite your Business Intelligence solution, the dashboards, the reports, specially on the new brave world of ACM where people are encouraged to build ad-hoc solutions using the data spread all over the systems?

What is the customer concept of for most of of the people? Is the business entity that pays the money for your products or is the consumer that uses it and pays it to your customers?

Under the empowerment paradigm a business user building a case how does it name the customer object? Where the customer table is accessed? Will other empowered user name the customer consumer, end user? Does a system have intelligence to suggest what is a customer  is? Does it knows how the company defines customer?

The use of tools for the deployment of ad-hoc process will also aggravate this issue. Remember when BPMS arose? Remember the promise BPMS would work in a layer above the existing systems in the company promoting it’s connection? What do you think AD-HOC process systems are? They are the first breach in BPM systems. We are coming back to the starting point. Several systems for business processes execution. Want structured? Infinitely repeatable? Buy BPMS. Want AD-HOC process capability? Buy other tool. We are back to the beginning because the agility promised by the BPMS in the reality never was achieved, because communication between machines was not developed sufficiently.

Systems and machines do nothing more than show and register information, when should be capable of show and register information about the operations performed.

Still ACM systems lack intelligence. Some imply building data models to use it, or let users freely used data in a chaotic way destroying reuse and pattern construction.

Ontology management

What are ontologies?
For me the best definition of ontology is:  “An ontology is a formal specification of a shared conceptualization” [3] .
Ontologies are methods that interpret natural language, human language to language that is interpreted by machines and vice versa, ie allows you to interpret the data that is stored and processed by the machines that we humans need to perform operations, analysis and decisions.

Use of ontologies for data search

Often analysts talk about of “Social BPM” as if it were the tools that allow various stakeholders to structure, talk , interact and exchange information, execute around a particular process, however the foundation of “Social BPM” is the ability to relate a network of processes and understand people,data, interconnections and dependencies like as a social network. Regarding this concept I would like to remember Conway’s Law [4]:
Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

A network of processes is organized like as a social network.

This network can be your enterprise architecture, but it’s not presented like the old process frameworks. Despite being useful, on one hand these frameworks are good for reference only but on the other hand these are best practices approaches than limit your capacity to differentiate. On the bottom line people are getting acquainted to information circulating around need to perform work, due the deconstruction of the desktop station.

Each node represents a process. Relationships exist between each process represented by line segments. Within the circle, there are alive business processes. This type of representation has its roots in mathematical principles. However it seems very clear that current BPM/ACM tools do not apply this concept difficult to understand the relationships and understanding of business processes. Most processes that are designed/ executed in BPM/ACM tools, are stored in a repository with specifications attached and flowcharts, historic data, like a knowledge base. Hence, people are managing processes in a static way.

Remember this: If you try to modify an object/artifact of a business process do you have an idea of the impacts of than change? Or you don’t know just because you look to you process repository where everything is disconnected? And if you don’t have any specs or flowcharts, because that is not needed? Imagine you want to change a business rule that applies across the organization. Do you, the CIO, your personnel have the capability to do it without ruin the execution were that rule is used with past assumptions?

Process Network

Let’s return to ontology management. Re-examine the previous figure, instead of thinking in processes, think like this is a network of interconnected concepts. Like a language, like a brain.

There is another fundamental principle that must be internalized: ontology management will never be the an archive of information as a knowledge management system with indexing like a document management system or files in a computer. For example you can file a document with the name KPI’s specification in a directory called “balanced scorecard” and through a seach engine you can find it whenever you want (as long as the search engine is not the same as refered in the bank example) . You can connect manually to another document on “performance management”, but one of the main features of an ontology is that it is independent of the context in which a particular concept instance is. Ontologies are a way of relating concepts that are related through common domain, as liker entity relationship in UML class diagrams. But on this case we want to discuss it’s application on a business domain.

This implies that is necessary to develop a common vocabulary to use in process management, as well as a process for it’s management. This principle is very important because as more knowledge is transferred from our process network to machines that store all the data in each instance, increases the risk of not understanding concept meaning and retrieve the information we humans need to work with (remember the example of customer and end user). The aim of this vocabulary development is not to build a dictionary. It is building a network of relationships and provide a unifying element of the terms from different sources, especially when there are companies whose processes are shared between suppliers and customers or partners.

The model will be presented in the second part of this article.


[3] Toward Principles for the Design of Ontologies Used for Knowledge Sharing – Tom Gruber

[4] “How do Committees Invent?” Datamation. Conway M.E.

[6] Ontological Engineering – Asunción Gómez-Pérez, Mariano Fernández-López, Oscar Corcho, Springer ISBN 1-85233-551-3, pages 109 – 153.


11 thoughts on “Semantic BPM – Part One

  1. Readers following this important topic will also want to read the new ground-breaking book “Social BPM” for many balanced viewpoints from thought-leaders in both this field and #ACM such as Keith D. Swenson, Nathaniel Palmer, Sandy Kemsley, Keith Harrison-Broninski, Max Pucher, Manoj Das and more. Details at ISBN: 978-0981987088

    Layna Fischer
    Future Strategies Inc.

    • Thanks Layna for the reminder:

      I did not had time to read the book (but I will), but I suspect that I’m covering far beyond the social aspects and concepts. I’m devoting my analyses on the foundations of interactions, patterns, concept meanings, rather than covering aspects of social tools used to communicate. If people does not know the meaning of the objects (customer, complain, request) they are dealing with there is no use such social tools. In the AD-HOC world this makes much more sense, because people freely choose what they what to achieve and need to know the information slices their are using are the right ones and mean the same thing to the other people they are interacting.

      Part two and the others that are going to be posted goes deeper in the reasoning. Here is the second part:

  2. Pingback: Semantic BPM part two « End to End BPM

  3. Pingback: Semantic BPM – epilogue « End to End BPM

  4. Pingback: Knowledge management – the Social and Technology factor « End to End BPM

  5. This is a copy of a comment from Redux site:

    AUTHOR: Philippe Stefano
    DATE: 06/27/2010 10:07:15 PM
    Very nice presentation of web semantics processes. I start to understand the picture, which was a bit clumsy. I can’t wait the sequel !

  6. This is a copy of a comment from Redux site:

    AUTHOR: Max J. Pucher – Chief Architect ISIS Papyrus
    DATE: 07/03/2010 04:38:05 PM
    Alberto, I agree with you that an architectural approach is necessary for managing business processes or any other business aspect.

    I see semantics as one form of building an ontology model of business terms. A business ontology has to provide a ability to describe business entities (which are most likely best described as objects and their properties), relationships, business rules, actors and actions that they can take on the entities in the network.

    The goal of such actions must be to change the current patterns of business entities into a desirable one, which translates to what is called ‘actionable knowledge’ in difference to ‘analytic knowledge’ that the usual statistics provide.

    You describe basically the ability to perform a query on a complex set of information entities and while that is also an interesting problem to solve it is not the key element of improving business processes. Processes are about action! Your semantic knowlegde is analytical knowledge that may improve the human ability to come to actionable knowledge but that is only a small step

    The real problem is: WHERE and HOW do I formulate an ACTION in my process environment that will either adapt my current process in a desirable manner? or: How do I transform my process template for future execution? Analytic queries do nothing of the kind.

    Therefore my approach and development was focused on a platform (Papyrus) that works based on an ontology of terms, builds object models and allows the business to categorize them into taxonomies of items that they need to perform processes on. These are real-world items mapped into backend business data and organizational information. One of the key interesting parts is that we can now either take a rule infering approach (which does mostly fail) or take a pattern matching approach to identify which data patterns are linked to certain necessary actions by actors. A so called User-Trained Agent learns those actions from users. That is not possible without having real-time and run-time access to the repository with all the ontology, class, and taxonomy information.

    Ideally the users can perform actions (run-time) and write rules (adapt the template) in free-form while being guided by the ontology as to the possible syntax and business terms within the process context. We call that ability NLR or Natural Language Rules. Once the again, the best value you can get from a BPM system is when it provides you with a real-time business context and all actionable knowledge and not just a sematic query.

    I do no longer refer to this ability as BPM, while one aspect of it is referred to as ACM – Adaptive Case Management for knowlegde workers, but rather as Adaptive Process.

    Thanks for giving this important aspect some priority. We have been working on it for over ten years and the Papyrus Platform is available since 2001.

    Regards, Max Pucher

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  8. Pingback: The Hysteresis Effect | End to End BPM

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