Can BPM Continue to Ignore Project Management?

Chintan Jain

For purebred process experts, the term project management has some strong connotations.

Processes are neat and clean, often complex, but almost beautiful when they endlessly flow from start to finish. A process is a work of art that people can enjoy forever. A well-developed process is like a highway system that smoothly moves traffic exactly where it needs to go without any bottlenecks. Watching it work from above is like watching a symphony orchestra play, but with an unseen conductor. The initial phase to create a process takes a lot of time, but is well worth it in the end when the infrastructure starts to handle its hundredth, thousandth, and hundred thousandth item.

Whereas projects can sometimes give the feeling of cheap scaffolding, unrealistic expectations, quickly assembled structures, and lots of guesswork.


The Difference Between Process Management and Project Management

Process management helps to coordinate a predictable and repeatable set of tasks. A process can be coded, no matter how complex it gets. It always functions the same way given certain conditions. A process can handle any number of items going through its workflow as it collects and distributes data. A process can be controlled to the point where it can be managed entirely by a machine, with humans only stepping in to check on how things are going.

Processes and projects have some similarities in that they both involve a set of tasks and have a clear end goal, but they have quite a number of significant differences.

Projects happen one time; processes can go on forever. Projects are meant to execute a specific plan once. After the goal is completed, the project can’t be run in the exact same way again. Processes are built precisely so that they can be run as many times as possible. Examples of projects might be working on a new version of a website/product, planning for a big client visit, running an election campaign, or any heist movie you’ve ever seen.

A project tries to be predictable; a process is predictable. Processes can be codified because they’ve been run before, many times. You have enough data behind you to know how different items in the process need to be processed and can handle any exception. However, a project has never been done in the exact same way before. A project manager tries to predict what steps need to be completed at what time periods, but the specifics might change quite a lot in the middle.

The scaffolding is taken down after a project; the scaffolding is the process. Support structures around reporting and processing data for a project don’t need to be permanent or extremely well thought out because they are only going to be used once. You can’t test and find the absolute best way to do something when it’s only ever going to be used one time. You don’t have the luxury of knowing how it will perform based on past experiences. Whereas with a process, you know exactly what will happen in multiple situations.

A project takes a lot of manual coordination throughout; a process requires very little. When you are working on a project, team members need to stay informed of all the activities to know if there will be any changes along the way; they need to be very agile and nimble. However, a process requires almost no communication between stakeholders aside from the actual work. The only coordination required is how to improve the process.

A project needs a human to lead it; a process needs a system. Due to the possibility of change and the need to shift quickly as required, a project needs a human at the head to respond to any incoming data. However, a process is so predictable, that it is much safer in the hands of software that knows how to execute things at a higher volume than humans are capable of working at.


Process and Project Experts Are Two Different Types of People

Process experts are business engineers. They like to look at the big picture and draw up schematics for the optimal way for data to flow through a workflow in order to reduce errors, improve performance, and achieve greater efficiency. Process experts like formulas and are comfortable thinking far out in advance to find the best way to get there.

Project experts also are planners and consider the big picture, but they prefer action. They like to get involved and have their hands on all the levers. For them, the fun is in the perfect execution of the plan, not in building the plan itself.

Because they are so different, process and project experts tend to keep to themselves and don’t cross paths much. Each one recognizes the value of the other, but they have found a domain they fit in and prefer not to move out of it.


Why BPM Needs to Start Thinking About Project Management

The first thing to understand with a client is to figure out as quickly as possible if they are looking for a process or project management solution. The differences aren’t clear to a regular business user, so we have to ask things like, 'Do you have an approval workflow?', or 'Do you usually pass data back and forth through emails?' Only after understanding their situation is a consultant able to recommend an approproate solution.

While those embedded in process technology are keenly aware of the differences between the two worlds, most people in businesses are not. Even after explaining it, many folks see the difference only as a nuance and not as a fundamental separation.

In fact, the key difference between projects and processes has been in how technology addresses them. A high-level BPM tool has a hard time planning out a project because it wasn’t meant to, and users will guffaw at its lack of flexibility. Similarly, if you try to build a process with project management software, you many get frustrated at the lack of features.

Yet, those users are more likely to fault the product (Too rigid! Not enough features!) rather than realize they are in a different category.

Also, more than likely, a manager in a company will be responsible for both processes and projects and doesn’t want to have to change tools multiple times a day for something that seems so similar.


Can One Tool Do Both?

The biggest frustration of not only CIOs and IT managers, but also business leaders is that they have too many applications to run. They are often procuring a separate software solution for every function, department, and location. Any solution which promises to elegantly and completely take care of multiple use cases immediately attracts their attention.

Although the differences between projects and processes are clear, from an operational side, business leaders prefer to have one tool that can help them handle both. BPM experts should consider what it would take to build a process management tool that can also handle projects. The underlying software behind process management is inherently more complicated, therefore it makes more sense for BPM to include projects rather than expecting projects to build sophisticated rule engines as a part of their systems.

While it seems like the universe of business software is set to perpetually expand, in truth we are actually in an era of explosive growth which will be followed by a time of consolidation. As businesses look for solutions that cover many use cases, having separate tools for processes and projects doesn’t make sense for a company if there is a tool that can handle both extremely well. BPM vendors have a great chance to capture this market by seeing how they can fulfill the needs of project managers with their existing products.