Social networks will turn business processes inside out

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I’m attending Appian World to get a sense of what the business process management company envisions for the integration of social and BPM.

And I got off to a bad start. The worst conference experiences are in buildings with a security checkpoint and metal detector, like the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C. And the conference organizers suggested business attire for the opening reception. There were few millennials in the crowd. Well, after all, it’s a business process software company, not 37signals.

As I was waiting for the elevator in the hotel, after the reception, I thought about the transition that Appian is trying to make, fusing the network communication model of social with business process.

When elevators were first invented, they were analog: An elevator operator stood or sat inside the elevator and manually moved a handle that was attached electrically to the motor on the roof or in the basement, and that controlled the rise and fall of the elevator box. The operator pulled back to go up, and when you got to the right floor, you got off. And along the way, if other people wanted to go up, the operator would stop and let them on.

Later, the operator was replaced with automated technology, and the actions of the operator were more or less simply aped. The rider pushed a button, and the elevator would head to the fifteenth floor, perhaps stopping along the way for other riders going up.

At the JW Marriott, the new approach to elevators is in place. The bank of elevators is controlled centrally, so a rider pushes buttons outside the elevators, and the controller directs the rider to the appropriate elevator that is sent to their floor. This allows for a much better throughput (or perhaps for energy conservation).

My sense is the Appian approach to integrating a social layer and business processes is something like the second generation of elevators. Just as the first generation of automated elevators were based on simple premises — like the fact that there is generally a single elevator in older buildings — the current generation of integration between business process technologies and social tools will be like automating the elevator operator.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with what I hear from Appian, at least in part. Yes, work should be done in the medium where the information needed to do the work is present. But what does that mean for the users of products like Appian? It boils down to getting workflow folders of information and process state information relative to some routine, functional activity, like claims processing or engineering planning, into a social context, like an activity stream shared by claims processing folks or engineers. The argument goes that this allows easier communication and coordination. But the deeper premise is that the central imperative will remain the logic of the business process, and the social layer will speed things up, but otherwise not change the work much.

We’ll see.

My belief is that this won’t be the case. In a report now in production, “Social networks will displace business processes, not socialize them,” I wrote

“Yes, we will see business processes running ‘in parallel’ with social streaming: they will be ‘socialized’. This will take the form of information that is pushed in the business processes from one role to another being pulled into the streams of all those people empowered to fill that role, or the one who is playing that role in this specific process. Let’s say that Jane is a Claims Clerk, and she is — in the social context — ‘following’ the ongoing progress of a specific claim.

But since she — and the other Claims Clerks — are operating in the social context they will want all the information found in the claims folder, as well as the check list logic that determines the state changes in the claims process. This is where process will start to break down: because people will want to stay in the social context, the business process logic is packaged up like a new sort of data in the folder, another information resource to be referred to.

However, when considering a specific claim, Jane may ask Hamid, another clerk, to take a look at the claim. (Or more apt: Jame may simply post a question about the claim in a claims related workspace, and Hamid might be following Jane or the workspace, and respond.) That social interaction between clerks was never in the original process, but may have happened informally, even under the previous system. But now this is much more fluid, and can happen even if Hamid is working in a different time zone.

Ultimately, although people may start thinking about the business process running in parallel with the social dimension, quickly the social dimension will simply turn the process into a flattened version of itself, just another social object in the social stream.

The result will be objects that are self-contained, carrying their state, like the claim or the sales deal, and where the rules and roles of the business process are relegated to ‘best practices’ information, carried within the complex object, like the customer support case folder, or the deal.

Instead of people attached to an assembly line, processing a claim, the assembly is built into the information being pulled, and instead of being pushed, the partners work out how to pull work instead of pushing it based on rules.”

The thing that companies like Appian haven’t really experienced yet is what happens when companies shift over to a social model of communications, in a social world. Yes, there are a number of slower-moving or regulated industries, where in every in every case an exact sequence of events must be followed, without exception. And that is probably a big enough marketplace for Appian and its competitors, even if they don’t want to shift with the majority. The trend in the remaining 90 percent of businesses, those that have historically conceptualized their business as a collection of processes and people as filling roles in those processes is to transition to a new metaphor of business, based on people connected through social networks, working on tasks, and structured information being pulled from person to person across the network.

How does that pulling work? Imagine that Jane at the insurance company can follow people or other information sources, relying on the social tool to pull information from those sources on her behalf. The final step is to support Jane and others by letting them follow sources from the underlying claims system, such as long-term care claims. When new long-term care claims are posted by other people in the company, Jane might see that claim appear in her inbound stream. But Jane can also share that claim with others, ask others to add comments to the claim, completely delegate it to someone else, or post it in a social context so that anyone who has access to the context can help, like Hamid in the report excerpt above.

In effect, the socialization of process will erode the slow-and-tight form factor of old-school business processes and allow for a fast-and-loose model of work while automating the routing of information, but it will be based on social pull and following.

The new job for business process vendors will be figuring out how to make their technology keep up with the fluid and dynamic patterns of work in the fast-and-loose organizations that social communications engender. That will be when the BPM world will step up the equivalent of the third generation of elevators, where the buttons move outside the elevators. Except in this case, the process state and data will move outside the process and float around in the social network as just another kind of structured information.