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BPMN is not just for automation

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

BPMN is an acronym that stands for “Business Process Model and Notation.” It is maintained by the Object Management Group; a well-known standards consortium for the computer industry. If you have not heard of BPMN, then some of OMG’s other standards might ring a bell, like CORBA and UML.

BPMN is meant to be a standards-based notation to represent business processes graphically. The standard allows for extensibility, so that an organization can create their own xml namespace that can be utilized in the BPMN xml to further describe the model. By associating custom metadata to existing objects in the BPMN, the doors are suddenly open for adding attributes that could be passed to what could be referred to as a “BPMN-compliant process engine.” This process engine would know how to parse not only the BPMN standard namespace, but also the proprietary data that comes with the custom namespace. Suddenly, what looks like documentation of a business process can become much more. It can be documentation that is executable. This allows software to control the orchestration and collaboration that is described directly in the BPMN for any given business process. Utilizing the BPMN standard in this way can be an extremely powerful option for the “digital transformation” in many organizations.

BPMN begins as documentation

As a self-proclaimed “automation evangelist,” I confess that I often think about the automation possibilities when viewing a BPMN model for the first time. But I am proud to say that I do this less and less over time. That is because I believe that one of the greatest overlooked superpowers of the BPMN standard is not the “automation” possibilities, it is the powerful documentation that it creates.

Figure 1 – “Order Fulfillment and Procurement” example from OMG document “BPMN 2.0 examples non-normative document

Take this example shown in Figure 1. Chances are that if you knew nothing about the BPMN standard, you could still look at this process model and have a fairly good idea of what is being described in the process. That is because BPMN was designed to be easy on the eye, and very human readable.

For instance, I know that this process starts when an order is received. I know that the model flows from left to right because the arrows (“sequence flows”) point in that direction. The model also suggests that the process can end in more than one way. There are also boxes with rounded corners (“activities/tasks”) that represent work that needs to be done to achieve the end state.

BPMN soon becomes communication

In the end, BPMN is a means of expression. The author uses BPMN to describe how a business process works, from origination to completion. Typically, the original author is a subject matter expert/business analyst, the real “owner” of the business processes of an organization. If that SME/BA did not have the BPMN knowledge required to author the model themselves, then someone with the title of “Process Analyst” might be transcribing for them.

Notice that I did not say that the original author is more likely to be a software architect, or a software engineer.

Let us think about the point at which this model might have been created in a typical software development lifecycle. If this project was following an Agile methodology, then you could see where this would appear in an active JAD session before Sprint 1 takes place. Most stakeholders that have ever participated in an SDLC are familiar with JAD sessions. Now, think of how this model might change over the course of the sprints, and how valuable each of those versions of the model might be for new participants and stakeholders to onboard the project. Think how valuable this documentation would be when presenting it to an executive board that is funding this project.

If automation is applicable, it will simply present itself

All the examples I just described do not necessarily have to end with a software engineer adding implementation details to the model for deployment to a BPMN-compliant process engine. Is there value in that type of automation? Absolutely there is! Summit58 specializes in showing organizations how to do this in an efficient manner. But there is value in modeling and value in visualization.

BPMN is an exercise in communication, and I would encourage all subject matter experts and business analysts to learn the standard. Those that are curious about the standard can read it directly from the OMG site. You can also access the BPMN 2.0 standards course for free that is provided by Camunda Academy where you can learn at your own pace with videos and exercises.

And did I mention that drawing is fun?

Please don't hesitate to contact us at if we can answer any questions for you or if you would be interested in personalized training on BPMN for capturing your processes. We can also help you review your existing BPMN processes to improve them. If you do end up considering automation then we can help with that as well.


Chris Allen is a Principal at Summit58. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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