BPM vs SOA – Why so hard?

7 Jan

Just wended my way through the blogosphere from Joe McKendrick’s discussion of EDA and SOA to a transcript of a conversation on EBizQ about the relationship between BPM and SOA.  I’m still struggling to come to terms with the issues that people have in this space given that I believe that service-orientation is all about structure – i.e. what gets done – whilst processes are all about implementation – i.e. how things get done – but a few things stood out in the conversation that I really disagreed with.

Firstly there was a general consensus that SOA was a technical ‘thing’ whilst BPM was a business ‘thing’.  A representative comment here would be this statement from JT Taylor:

“And the reason is, is because SOA, first off, as I’ve think we’ve agreed is a very technical approach to delivering a collection of services.”

Any regular reader of this blog will know that I wholly refute this kind of argument – at the end of the day SOA – or service orientation as I prefer to call it – is a conceptual model that allows us to attack complexity and increase adaptability through componentisation.  I strongly believe that this conceptual model has equal applicability in a business context – lowering transaction costs will open  the door to greater specialisation but such opportunities will rely on an ability to componentise the business in order to understand what services make up a total offering to customers.  In this context service-orientation – as a discipline – has much to offer.

The other major thrust that I took issue with was the assumption that you start with business processes and then try and find services from these.  Another representative set of comments from JT Taylor (who was supported by the other participants, I must stress – his comments were just the most quotable in this context):

“I guess my opinion is that the business processes should govern the organization behavior and systems should support that. So I would actually start from the process angle first and then take the SOA approach as an implementation approach.”

I’ve discussed before why I think that this is a poor model but basically I believe that we need to first separate what gets done before we start to get into the detail of how to do it.  As a result I believe that the appropriate place to start is with higher level abstractions – call them business capabilities, business services or whatever – which capture metadata and information about the structural properties of an organisation and their required outcomes – before you start looking at how you implement them.

More broadly, however, I believe that the relationship between SOA and BPM is essentially fractal based on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ dimensions I’ve discussed.  Essentially the questions are:

  • What do organisations offer their consumers? um services.
  • But what implements those services? um. business processes.
  • And what do business processes consume? um services.
  • And.. um where was I again?

Again to stress the point: services describe what the organisation does and to what level (in terms of metrics and commitments) whilst business processes describe how each individual service is implemented and the commitments met (and the model is fractal).  That’s why I believe that the notion of starting with BPM (which is a technology-oriented view of business processes, btw) is upside down – what’s the service you’re implementing again….?

Happy New Year, btw.


4 Responses to “BPM vs SOA – Why so hard?”

  1. Neil Ward-Dutton (@neilwd) June 21, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Hi Ian,
    Came over here from twitter, and your response to Joe McKendrick.
    This post reminded me of something I posted back in 2008: “Which comes first, process or service?” – http://www.mwdadvisors.com/blog/2008/05/which-comes-first-process-or-service.html
    It’s a bit depressing that we’re still going round and round this argument – but I suppose not too surprising. Some commentators only see the world through technology glasses. It’s up to people like you and I to try and show the bigger picture, I guess!

    • ian June 21, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

      Hi Neil – I completely agree. It felt really retro tweeting something about bpm vs soa. I find it endlessly annoying that people take such simple minded views and don’t step back even a little to see the bigger picture. I was surprised that Joe picked it up to be honest – I thought he would have been around that loop enough. Must have been a slow day, lol. As you say, though, people like us must stick together to keep the darkness at bay 🙂

      • johnbendie June 29, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

        Hi Ian,
        It\’s good to see someone bothered about these seemingly endless array of conflicting terms.

        Anyway, I think the problem is about questioning the foundations upon which most of these approaches where developed and those that seek to implement them for enterprises.

        To quote you \”What do organisations offer their consumers? um services.\” I don\’t completely agree as not all businesses are about services as their main value proposition.

        We must realize that enterpreneurs and their managers think very differently from most of those trying to implement SOA or BPM for them.

        Services at the soa level are actually technical because they deal with software technicalities

        IMHO BPM has the closest reasoning to executives. SOA is one approach to managing the implementation of a chosen BPM strategy which in today\’s modern environment should be a customer focused one. There are other approaches like MDA. And these approaches have foundational technolgies that make the approach feasible like Oracle\’s SOA suite.

        Here also \”I believe that service-orientation is all about structure – i.e. what gets done – whilst processes are all about implementation – i.e. how things get done\” you seem to get it wrong like I did. SOA was actually conceived as a way of software reuse and not a way to approach business strategy!
        Even though a service strategy is a viable approach to business. So separate the two service concept in your mind.

        All these inventions are created by manufacturers to make their software implementation projects more feasible for them misleading us to think they were actually conceived to help executives in harnessing new markets though those inventions can help.


  2. ian July 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Hi John,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. While language seems to be an issue I think we actually agree. I personally don’t view service-orientation as purely an IT thing and have used business capabilities as a business architectural approach to looking at an enterprise as a set of interdependent components with clear responsibilities. This is analogous to a service based approach to business. I feel that the concept of a service is not only applicable to IT and was always personally a bit annoyed that it got hijacked in this way by the vendor community. Perhaps my particular view was influenced by the work I did in financial services a few years ago where many ‘business capabilities’ were exposed to other ecosystem participants via services on the web.

    In this context setting out the structure of your organisation (i.e. your capabilities) can be undertaken using a service-oriented mindset – in this way of thinking processes then become about one dimension of the implementation of such capabilities. I agree that this isn’t how most people think in the context of SOA and BPM but I believe that separating structure from implementation is the key to business adaptability and better sourcing strategies.

    I also take your point about not all businesses being about services – I obviously failed to express what I intended there! What I meant was that even physically-oriented businesses (like manufacturing) can express certain of their capabilities to their partners as a set of services to be integrated. I (sort of) discussed this a bit in a later post if you’re interested: https://itblagger.wordpress.com/2010/11/10/what-does-it-mean-to-think-of-your-business-as-a-service/



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