BPM Programs Will Need New Skills To Survive The Great Digital Migration

Last week I was honored to present at the bpmNEXT conference out in Santa Barbara. The conference is a little bit of inside baseball for the BPM industry. 95% of the attendees are BPM software vendors, industry analysts, and professional service companies. I have attended this event over the last three or four years and was invited back this year.

In the very first slide of my presentation, I made the prediction that “75% of BPM programs won’t survive the shift to digital transformation.” I could hear crickets in the room when I made this prediction. It felt almost as if I had told a mom that her kid just didn’t have what it takes to get into college. I went on to explain the prediction, including the hurdles I’m seeing BPM programs encounter, and that many BPM programs are adopting new methodologies and practices to better support digital projects.

Over the last 17 years I’ve seen the BPM industry go through its highs and lows. And I’ve seen BPM from all sides – from the software vendor perspective at HandySoft, from a consulting perspective at Project Performance Corp, and as an analyst at Forrester Research. When I joined Forrester back in 2008, BPM was at a high point. A lot of companies were adopting the methodology, the buzz around BPM was strong, BPM had a good reputation, and the Great Recession helped propel BPM to new heights.

I think part of the confusion around BPM has always been whether it is a discipline or a technology. I always viewed BPM as a discipline supported by a technology. By this definition, the “discipline of BPM” gained a negative reputation over the last four years, because it was too inwardly focused – the methodology was not suited to customer-centered projects nor was the technology. So in my last few years at Forrester, I saw many BPM programs floundering, and teams completely abandoning BPM, the discipline. The discipline was just too much heavy lift for business leaders.

The great irony is that business leaders still loved the technology – the ability to quickly automate and connect core business systems to new customer-facing apps and interactions. But the methodology of modeling out business processes, doing lean and six sigma analysis, and process mining required too much investment and time, and took too long.

So, when I say that BPM is dead, I am saying that BPM is not a growing discipline. Companies are jumping ship from the discipline, but in some cases keeping the underlying technology and repurposing it to support their digital transformation projects. This is why I jumped ship at Forrester, because I could see that the the concept of “BPM the discipline” was in decline. I felt compelled to  get back in the trenches and work directly with BPM program leaders. And to help these leaders make the transition to using their existing platforms to drive digital transformation.

During my 17 years in the BPM industry, I have seen the industry – us pundits, the vendors, customers – ask this question over and over again: “Is BPM Dead? What’s next?” I guess I’m done pretending and hanging on to some notion that the BPM market – the discipline and the traditional technology – is somehow still as relevant as it was 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. Talk to any CIO, and s/he will tell you that s/he is focused on digital transformation. And not just, “let’s digitize this piece of paper.” Most CIOs, and other executives, are focused on transforming to become digital businesses that can compete against the Amazons, Googles, Ubers, etc. Executives have seen too many examples of how not being digital – or moving too slowly on digital transformation – can drive a company to extinction. They don’t want to become the next Blockbuster, Borders, taxi company, etc. You get the drift.

Will BPM ever truly die? Probably not. But will it ever see its glory days of 2007 – 2010? My bet: No. And I’m willing to wager anyone who believes otherwise. We can start a pot – a betting pool – and wager something. Doesn’t have to be money, we can wager donating time or volunteering somewhere.

My prediction is that over the next few years the BPM discipline will become about as relevant as the business process re-engineering discipline. Design thinking, business model canvas, customer-centered design will all take the place of the BPM discipline. Traditional BPM technology and software vendors will morph into digital transformation platforms – or something along those lines. Why? Because that’s what CEOs and CIOs are willing to pay for.

Anyways, that’s my two cents. Well, maybe a bit more than two cents, but needed to get it out.