Windows Workflow Foundation


Based on some recent speculation, forum discussions and off of the back of yesterdays confirmation that OpenText have acquired Metastorm, I wanted to talk about the topic of whether it is inevitable that BPM and ECM will eventually become one technology offering.  There are lots of opinions on this topic and some think that both will merge and others think that whilst there is currently overlap, they will continue as separate and in some cases competing technologies.

So ECM, stands for Enterprise Content Management.  Microsoft’s Sharepoint is an ECM tool in that it allows you to organize your enterprise content / digital assets centrally which is useful for collaboration.  ECM’s not only allow you to organize your digital content but also generally provide basic process automation using this content and in the case of Sharepoint, that means using Microsoft Office and Workflow Foundation.  The later two, the workflow and UI for interacting with the process is where we start to move into the BPM realm.  But not really.  This tends to be the main argument that ECM and BPM will merge, that both technologies offer a workflow solution.  The problem with this however is that BPM as a field is misunderstood in a lot of cases.  BPM does not only mean just process automation using a workflow engine, there is so much more to the field of BPM.

ECM is about content and how it is organized and made available to an organization, some process automation is thrown in to ensure that this content can be moved around the organization but is limited. BPM is the consistent improvement of how a business is run (via its many processes), which is applied not only to automate processes but to raise visibility of how the business is run, via process activity monitoring, business intelligence, dashboards etc.  BPM is not all about content, yes BPM generally creates the content and may consume content, but BPM has had document management support for years, so this isn’t new.

Systems Integration, or EA (enterprise integration) is another area of technology that has a far closer relationship to BPM. By using programming frameworks like Java or .NET or using enterprise service bus components that implement a message orientated integration feature you can integration almost anything, out of the box, with BPM servers.  This being the case, enterprise integration remains its own independent technology even though the vendors are offering BPM products that cover the two.

I do think it is inevitable that some vendors will attempt to further develop their products with ECM features as to offer up an ‘all in one’ ESB, BPM, ECM server but for the most part I believe these will be still be sold as seperate products with simple API’s and thus mean that they remain competing technologies (as the products tend to drive what technologies are grouped). In the case of Microsoft, with Biztalk, Sharepoint and Office, I believe they have the right strategy and I do think OpenText will keep its BPM and ECM products separate but closely paired (makes sense from a sales / licencing perspective)

There are of course benefits to storing and organizing documentation and process models in an ECM like is done with some Business Process Analysis tools but this is the case with any project documentation and as such ECM, with its ‘Enterprise’ clue should be seen as an enterprise wide repository not specific to the process management realm.

In summary, whilst the two technologies are overlapping and I do see content management as important to BPM (think open XML document formats and web services), I do believe that the two will not become one, but content management will become one of the many area’s of the BPM space (along with rules management, process automation, activity monitoring, systems integration etc) – in what form is still to be seen.