I had a great call with Gartner yesterday that helped shift my views on social BPM ever so slightly, but enough to inspire a blog. The discussion centered around blending classic content collaboration with a realistic social strategy.

It is clear from the blogosphere, conferences and (most importantly) customer conversations that many enterprises are trying to get their heads around these ideas and to enable their people with technology.

Everyone accepts that there’s great business benefit from supporting and capturing business process conversations but people are still trying to figure out how to take advantage of the combination of new technology and ’social comfort’ without creating cycnicism and chaos. Or worse…too much structure that kills creativity. Of course, a false start is perceived as worse than no start.

Nothing new

Most important to keep in mind, the social conversations are happening and always have been. As I said a while back, absent technology, this will be done in diverse ways that are fragmented and not reusable or directly actionable. This makes for far fewer contributors to the conversation, and fewer people gaining benefit.

It isn’t so complicated to open up the discussion to allow more participation and gather more points of insight. Where this gets tough (and why all the conversations) is trying to classify the primary types of social interaction that are useful and should be enabled. And to avoid getting caught up in the hype and the latest craze. These are four candidates for technology-enabled social conversations that quickly come to mind:

  • Process that MUST be done repeatedly the same way (i.e. regulatory, compliance, higher-volume transactions)
  • Process that SHOULD be done repeatedly the same way (i.e. customer service) but has room for creativity
  • Processes that SEEM fluid or unstructured (i.e. consulting, non-admin parts of sales) but have structure behind them that must be followed (and talked about)
  • Conversations that are tangential to business and process but still important ways people establish communication capability (i.e. the truly social–like weekend planning)

If I were to map this idea, it would be a continuum like this, with the diagonal as arbitrary (but getting the mix wrong is a problem):

It becomes clear at a glance that ownership and management across such diverse concepts is the challenge.

Finding an owner

There is a perception in analyst circles that BPM vendors are focused on the flows and mapping of process but not on understanding the less-structured part of work, the part that is at the discretion of the people involved.

Conversely, in the purely social space, there is little conversation about collaborative ways to improve process. The natural boundaries of each niche makes it hard to bring this together into one conversation. Companies are spending to put multiple systems in place but aren’t likely to achieve their goal of enabling social business process management by doing so.

Adam Deane writes about this topic in his recent blog “Enterprise Activity Streams“…how long will it be before a tweet launches a business plan? Not long, I believe.

The challenge for the decision makers is obvious. In their own take on the issue, Deloitte makes a very strong call to action but acknowledges, “Skepticism with social software persists, in part, because social software evangelists are their own worst enemy. They have failed to effectively communicate how social software can drive real operating benefits.”

My view is that nothing is black and white. All business activity flows through structured and unstructured realms constantly, just as it flows from human work to automation and back. Whether you call it adaptive, social or collaborative, there is a need to organize and harness the power of this capability and existing technology can enable this.

As always, your comments are welcome.