Not Your Daddy's IBM

"Big Blue."  That's the image of IBM I grew up with - bloated, rigid, complicated.  Come on, you've heard the joke, "How many IBM engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb?  More than you can afford!"  And I've seen this first hand in the past with IBM Websphere Process Server (WPS). 

In 2006, I supported a major enterprise BPM evaluation for a large federal agency.  Several vendors were brought in, including Big Blue, to demo BPM functionality.  I have to admit, the functionality and depth presented by IBM the federal customer - they literally shook their heads with disappointment.  At that time, IBM was force fitting the WPS product to be a human-centric BPM platform.  I described it as a "headless horseman" - nice integration functionality under the covers, but missing the required interface for users to interact with their tasks and workflow.  The end result of the evaluation:  IBM lived up to its Big Blue image and the agency decided that Big Blue was not the right platform for their fledgling BPM initiative (which would go on to become a multi-million dollar, multi-year BPM program).

Fast forward three years later.  I think IBM got the message.  Somehow they transformed themselves from "Goliath" to "David."  IBM is placing very large bets on WPS leading them to the BPM promised land and has invested heavily to make the platform more business-friendly and accessible.  This might not seem a big deal for those of us in the BPM world - we've seen plenty of cool tools from vendors that are geared towards the business.  But this is IBM; a company not known for making cool things.  Is the mainframe cool? Is DB2 cool?  Maybe my dad still thinks those technologies are cool, but the current generation of Web 2.0 whiz kids don't.  Actually, I just yawned while typing "DB2" (seriously).

So, what has me thinking IBM is so cool nowadays?  This week, during their annual user conference, IBM made three key announcements that caught my attention:

  • Business Space - The head has finally been sewn on to the headless horseman.  Business Space is a new WPS component that allows teams to create highly-interactive and collaborative user experiences around business processes.  What's so cool about it?  It really is a mashup environment that allows business users to create and modify their own user experiences.  This addresses one of the major complaints from BPM developers: rigid out-of-the-box experiences that have to be thrown out in favor of custom development using Spring or Struts in order to create rich user experiences.  By using a mashup and widget approach, Business Space could save development teams significant development time and provide process users more control and flexibility over their user experiences.
  • BPM BlueWorks - At this week's IBM Impact conference, IBM unveiled its first foray into SaaS-based BPM.  The BPM BlueWorks offering will allow customers to model, document, and define business processes in the cloud.  Best part of all - its free.  Now that's cool.  By providing a free process community/wiki in the cloud, IBM is demonstrating that "Big Blue" is accessible to the masses.  BlueWorks will go head-to-head with tools like Lombardi Blueprint and Software AG AlignSpace - much smaller competitors that IBM would have ignored or laughed at three years ago.  While I don't expect IBM to push the rest of WPS into the cloud, BlueWorks will help expand the market for BPM skills and customers.
  • Cloud Burst - Okay, this is outside of my BPM comfort zone, but I think its pretty cool.  Larger BPM initiatives always struggle with managing a dizzying collection of databases and app servers across dev, test, staging, and production environments.  One of my customers lost several employees (the employees quit) due to frustration standing up and tearing down increasingly complex clustered BPM environments (across several BPM projects running in parallel).  Although Cloud Burst does not specifically target BPM environments, BPM initiatives should explore using tools like Cloud Burst to streamline the deployment and configuration process. 

Why It Matters

IBM has upped its game in BPM and is becoming a stronger human-centric BPM contender.  Business Space and BPM BlueWorks paint a new face on IBM that will attract more business-oriented customers that we're frightened by the previous generation of tech-heavy IBM BPM offerings. 

Sound Off

I want to hear from you.  Let me know what you think about IBM's new BPM offerings.  Do you think these new offerings will help IBM develop a more business-friendly image?  Do these products change your impression of IBM?  Post your thoughts in the comment section or feel free to shoot me a quick e-mail at


re: Not Your Daddy's IBM

Very informative article. I am particularly impressed with IBM's Business Space WPS component that will allow business users create and modify their own user experiences. One of the major issues with existing BPM tools is the limited capability of out of the box form designers. Most of the time, organizations who want to really invest in BPM often have to create customized Jsps in order to add rich internet application interfaces. I'm assuming Business Space will allow users to create RIAs from out of the box features. This feature will go long way in reducing BPM implementation time and also significantly reduce cost. But in reality is it possible to have a BPM tool that offers it all to everyone? Can we ever have pure organizational Agility where there is a true separation of IT systems from the business processes they support. Can we ever get to a point where we simply use orchestration and choreography to move business processes around to meet business requirement changes?

re: Not Your Daddy's IBM

What do you think the improvements to WPS BPM means for the FileNet P8 BPM product? My prediction at the time of the acquisition 3 years ago was that eventually the FileNet BPM would either become part of the WPS product, or would die a slow and horrible death -- it looks as if it might be the latter. With IBM's BPM push behind WPS, should customers continue to build new applications on FileNet, or look at WPS as a viable alternative for human-centric processes?

re: Not Your Daddy's IBM

Although I agree with your comments that IBM continues to make very positive improvements in their BPM suite, I have to entirely disagree with the underlying assumptions and statements that lead you to the conclusion.I have been a BPM practitioner using IBM software since 1995, long before the term BPM was coined. It was called BPR, workflow, process engineering, and all kinds of other words.Although IBM may not have produced what some people think are cool products in the past, IBM has and continues to make products that can actually solve business-critical challenges in a reliable, robust and scalable way. Whereas many other vendors are good at showing a glitzy demo and making a small departmental system work, with IBM products it is possible to actually make end-to-end business process work across an entire enterprise and even between enterprises. This may not be the stuff that the kids today find as cool as putting a Web 2.0 application together that gives me a 404-page-not-found error as soon as more than 20 users are accessing it at the same time. But these are the products that you can actually rely on when it comes to building mission-critical systems that a business needs to safely and securely perform its work and in the process leapfrog its competition that is still struggling to scale its glitzy departmental BPM "solution" bought from a single-purpose vendor.Furthermore, in the past 15 years I have, as a BPM consultant, implemented numerous human-based BPM systems using IBM products. WPS is the third generation of a long-term, over 15-year old BPM story in the IBM product family. Its predecessors, FlowMark and MQ Workflow may not have been cool in their days, but with those products as well as with WPS (even with its 6.0 version) we have been able to create human-based workflow/BPM solutions that have been able to recoup our client's investment sometimes in as little as 2 months, and most of them were able to get a positive return on their investment in 6 to 9 months. So, to say that IBM just discovered the human-workflow side of its products is at best a vast understatement.No doubt that Business Space is a great front-end to the WPS and Business Monitor environment and it will make it easier for IBM (and us) to show business users the value of BPM. I just find it very interesting that analysts (whether it is Forrester or others) focus so much on the user-facing part of a BPM solution and tend to not look "under the hood", which is truly where a BPM suite shines. Any vendor can write a glitzy user interface, but who other than IBM can claim to truly allow the management and monitoring of end-to-end business processes with all the "uncool" stuff that comes with it, like integrating disparate applications, accessing records in all kinds of data stores (and DB2 is the easiest one of them all), calling transactions on the mainframe, UNIX and Windows systems that no one was able to integrate before, as only the end-to-end business process management platform provides the business case to do so.

re: Not Your Daddy's IBM

Good question Sandy. I think IBM has settled on WPS as its go-to-market BPM Suite. Of course the FileNet team is still in the mix primarily for content management and imaging workflow. But it looks like IBM has doubled down on WPS. You can definitely see it based on the amount of BPM innovation (read R&D investment) going in to WPS versus how much is being pumped into FileNet at the moment.