How To Blend BPM, Social Collaboration

One example: a renewable energy firm wanted to implement more rigorous process management, but also needed to leave room to improvise.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

April 28, 2014

7 Min Read
<b>EDPR's Wild Horse Wind Farm in Ellensburg, Wash.<br />(Source: <a target="_blank" href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>)</b>

Social collaboration and business process management (BPM) might seem like strange bedfellows, but they can be better together.

The sort of social collaboration practiced on enterprise social networking platforms like Yammer and Jive excels at supporting ad hoc processes and working around gaps in formal business processes -- it's about knowing who's who and who to connect with to get things done. BPM, on the other hand, is about modeling and tracking business processes with precision, and executing them with workflow and automated process management middleware. The advocates of these approaches are racing in opposite directions, so where could they possibly meet?

For Stephan Blasilli, head of process management and sustainability at EDP Renewables, they came together around a process that needed to be managed better -- but which was still unpredictable.

EDP Renewables is a subsidiary of Energias de Portugal -- a happy coincidence given that I interviewed Blasilli as part of my preparation for a speaking engagement at BPM Conference Portugal in May. I'd been invited to speak about my Social Collaboration for Dummies book and wanted to do some additional research on the intersection of BMP and social collaboration. I connected with Blasilli as a reference for Appian, creator a BPM platform that has includes a pretty complete social software environment.

EDPR operates large wind farms in the U.S. and Europe. Blasilli's social BPM application was a response to issues of maintenance and basic housekeeping that were falling through the cracks for the lack of a structured process. "Maintenance issues would be routed into different departments and sometimes there was a follow up, sometimes there was not. A lot of duplicate work was performed, just because people didn’t know," Blasilli said.

[Small time operator? Read Social Collaboration, Small Business Style.]

At the same time that he wanted to add structure, he recognized this wouldn't be a typical BPM application because it wasn't a well-defined process like routing a loan application through a series of reviews and approvals. Compared with banking, renewable energy is a young industry where practices are still being defined, he said.

"We knew right from the beginning that most of the work would be non-repetitive, where you're dealing with issues that haven't come up before," he said. "I'd always used these kind of tools when I dealt with repetitive work, where you execute according to the process description. In this case, we had a very rough idea what the process should look like -- I wouldn't even consider it a process, more like a guideline."

Appian's software was flexible enough to allow processes to be altered on the fly. Even in the absence of well-defined processes, working with a BPM platform allows him to track the work that gets done through the system so that processes can become more well-defined over time, he said. Meanwhile, the social dimension of the product means workers can make personal connections to resolve issues that have yet to be mapped out in the BPM model. They can post notes or comments on open cases. Through a Twitter-style stream, employees with specific expertise, such as high-voltage engineering, can watch for updates relevant to that expertise.

Beyond wind turbine maintenance, a case recorded in the system could be almost any kind of issue -- such as an environmental issue or a complaint from a neighboring property owner -- that needs to be addressed. By making it easier for employees to see what everyone else is working on, the social BPM application encourages them to add to a case that has already been created rather than creating a new one for the same issue. This helps with prioritization, said Blasilli, who compared it with the triage process in a hospital emergency room, aimed at making sure the most important and time-sensitive issues are addressed first.

"There's a lot of hype around social and mobile, but for us one of the critical requirements to be successful make sure the system is used regularly and integrated into their daily work," Blasilli said. The social software helped boost engagement, but it was also very important to have email integration, he said. Users get email notifications of activity, and the BPM system also allows employees to record an update by sending an email with the case number in the subject line. Mobile support could make sense as a future enhancement, although so far he has held off because many of the wind farms are in remote locations where there is no cell phone service.

What EDPR has accomplished with Appian is different than trying to integrate workflow into a general purpose enterprise social network. Like Appian has introduced social features, some social software products and cloud services have been adding structured collaboration features for some time. Podio includes a number of features for simple project management and also recently added basic workflow. Jive bought a task management product called Producteev, and the social platform has also spawned more ways of organizing business decision making. Producteev recently announced an iPad app and Outlook integration but is only loosely linked to the core Jive environment.

When I asked Jive Software Chief Strategy Officer Chris Morace whether there was a contrast or an overlap between social collaboration and BPM, he characterized it as a generational change in how business gets done. "We've shifted from an environment where work is conceived in mutliyear periods and designed up front to one where things change so rapidly that more agile approaches have just been required everywhere."

Social task and project management is a good compromise, making it possible to build in checkpoints for whether tasks have been accomplished without weighing the business down with an excessive focus on process, he said.

Integrating a social platform with other products, or extending it with apps, is another option. Jive and IBM have been a couple of the main backers of the OpenSocial API, which opens some interesting possibilities for embedding enterprise and cloud applications into a social collaboration environment. I've seen some interesting IBM demoes of structured business processes from SAP popping up in the stream of updates displayed in IBM Connections, its social collaboration environment, with a compact user interface that might allow a recipient to approve an invoice without leaving the stream -- or, alternatively, first ask questions about the invoice within the social medium. IBM has also promoted the pairing of IBM Connections with the IBM Business Process Manager BPM tool. I haven't seen evidence that these integrations are widely used, however.

Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst, says the ultimate goal is to achieve a "purposeful collaboration" environment that makes workers more productive. In many cases, the social collaboration environments that are proving to be most productive are those being built into business applications, like those from Oracle or SAP, rather than stand-alone enterprise social networks like Jive, he said. Yammer may have a better chance of making its collaboration environment an integral part of the world of work now that it is part of Microsoft (which bought the cloud startup in 2012), which is building integration with Yammer into SharePoint, Dynamics CRM, Office, and particularly the cloud office productivity environment Office 365.

Some of the enthusiasts for social collaboration, or what was once known as Enterprise 2.0, got a little too carried away with their visions of the complete transformation of the world of work in which every business would embrace transparency and chaos. Business doesn't work that way, Lepofsky said. "They're saying, the things we’ve been doing work just fine -- where they break down, we can enhance them." In other words, a business can add a layer of social collaboration without replacing processes wholesale.

Deloitte's John Hagel III talks about social proving its value in the context of exception handling -- finding solutions when a company's formal processes break down. Lepofsky puts it a little differently, talking about the "feedback loops" that become possible when you make it possible for the person in charge of approving or denying an invoice or expense report or a project plan to instead open up a discussion thread associated with that database form or document. "Social gives you the ability to have conversations around defined processes," he said.

That way, the process doesn't break down. Or, if the standard process needs to change, you have the opportunity to discuss why it needs to change. Instead of process versus social collaboration, try process plus social.

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About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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