Top-Down, Bottom-Up, Middle-Out, Outside-In, Chicken, Egg, whatever

Ismael Ghalimi, on his IT|Redux blog recently posted that BPM 2.0 is Middle-Out. This was in response to another blog from Christopher Koch at CIO Blogs.

In Christopher’s article, he discussed that the business-side proponents from the historic business process re-engineering days now have technology on their side, BPM. Meanwhile, IT has SOA on their side. He concluded with a comment that BPM represented a top-down approach, while SOA represented a bottom-up approach.

Ismael picked up on that last comment to stress that BPM should not be a top-down approach, but rather, a middle-out approach where the process analyst is able to begin at the meeting point of IT and the business and work outword in both directions, one toward the business, the other toward the technology. He goes on to state that SOA and BPM are two sides of the same coin.

First off, it’s unfortunate that any controversy around SOA and BPM even exists, and I hope the analysts and columnists out there don’t try to fan the flames. Most SOA pundits I know completely understand the relationship between BPM and SOA, and how they should be inseparable. Any attempt to break them apart is a chicken and the egg discussion, and not worth the effort. Simply embrace both, and be done with it.

As for the whole top-down versus bottom-up discussion, here’s another case where the terms are used in so many different ways that it’s just making things confusing. Top-down versus bottom-up traditionally has to do with one thing: scope. Just because something may be driven out of the lines of business instead of IT doesn’t imply that it is top-down, and the same holds true in reverse. The middle-out discussion from Ismael has nothing to do with scope, either, it has to do with the business and IT operating as a team for a collaborative solution. David Linthicum discusses outside-in SOA with the increased number of externally hosted services available. Again, this has nothing to do with scope, it has to do with the physical location of the service processing. While Dave has good things to say, this does create confusion when an organization is simply trying to scope their effort.

If we agree that the fundamental concept is scope, the challenge is then choosing it appropriately so that strategic benefits can be achieved. The business side can easily have their focus on a particular problem of particular LOB that can lead to a bottom-up approach. Likewise, IT has a cross-cutting position that can allow it to take a broader view, seeing things from a top-down perspective, or vice versa. So how does an organization go about choosing the right scope? The key is understanding the business. What makes this difficult? In my opinion, it is projects. Why? Projects, as soon as they are defined, automatically limit the scope of the analysis. Trying to perform analysis that goes beyond the scope of the project is the worst nightmare for a project manager. From a bottom-up perspective, analysts need to try to get away with as much as they can to understand the business beyond the scope of the project at hand. A business process analysis approach can help do this, and can be justified in the name of creating a more usable, appropriate solution. This will help move us up a bit from the bottom. At the same time, organizations need to be performing analysis without any particular solution in mind. Akin to a top down approach, an organization can simply attempt to document business processes at a department or division level and wait for the results to determine what projects should be put in motion. This allows them to focus on opportunities for strategic improvement, rather than continue to put band aids on current pain points.

The gist of this long post is that BPM and SOA are inseparable. Likewise, any enterprise adoption will involve both bottom-up opportunities and top-down opportunities. By managing those efforts and ensuring that everything keeps going in the same direction, your chances for success will go up.

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