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A conceptual framework for understanding


business processes and business process
modelling
Nuno Melo & Michael Pidd
Department of Management Science, The Management School, Lancaster University,
Lancaster LA1 4YX, UK, email: N.Melao@lancaster.ac.uk

Abstract. It is increasingly common to describe organizations as sets of business processes that can be analysed and improved by approaches such as business process modelling. Successful business process modelling relies on an
adequate view of the nature of business processes, but there is a surprising divergence of opinion about the nature of these processes. This paper proposes a
conceptual framework to organize different views of business processes under
four headings. It also aims at providing an integrated discussion of the different
streams of thought, their strengths and limitations, within business process modelling. It argues that the multifaceted nature of business processes calls for pluralistic and multidisciplinary modelling approaches.
Keywords: Business process management, business process modelling, business
process re-engineering, business processes, conceptual framework, modelling
approaches

INTRODUCTION

Recent years have seen an increasing interest in methodologies, techniques and tools to
support the (re)design of business processes under the banner of business process modelling (BPM). Many books, papers and theses have been produced, some of which are discussed in this paper. It is the subject of many undergraduate and postgraduate courses, as
well as the main topic of investigation in several research centres around the world. The hype
around BPM has also been fuelled by the enormous practitioner interest. For example,
Kettinger et al. (1997) surveyed 25 methodologies, 72 techniques and 102 tools. It is a requirement for many ISO 9000 quality programmes (Ould, 1995) and is at the crux of the implementation of many IT systems, such as workflow management systems (for example, see
Georgakopoulos et al., 1995) and enterprise resource planning (for example, see Robinson &

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Dilts, 1999). BPM includes a number of approaches, both hard and soft, which allow alternative process scenarios to be explored.
Although its origins can be traced back to the advent of scientific management around
the early years of this century, it was only with the introduction of business process reengineering (BPR) that BPM has emerged as a distinct field. Both BPR and BPM are based
on the notion that a business process is a fundamental element of analysis. However, there
seem to be almost as many definitions of business process as there are BPR books and BPM
techniques and tools. Most of the published literature provides rather superficial discussions
of this theme, although there are exceptions (e.g. Ould, 1995; Armistead & Rowland, 1996).
Given the prominence of BPR in recent years, such superficiality is a little puzzling. Furthermore, most of the literature on BPM and the nature of business processes is fragmented or
is restricted to a specific type of model and devoid of any thorough discussion of the field as
a whole.
The aim of this paper is to discuss the nature of business processes with a view to understanding how they can be modelled in order to improve their effectiveness. It groups different
notions of business processes under four headings. Although this does not provide a complete classification scheme for business processes, it does provide a useful way of organizing and discussing different points of view about business processes and BPM. It also
suggests avenues for further research.

F R O M R E - E N G I N E E R I N G TO P R O C E S S M A N AG E M E N T

The early 1990s saw great interest in BPR. It was first described in North America by
Davenport & Short (1990) and Hammer (1990). It quickly became popular with management
consultancies (e.g. CSC/Index). Best-selling books appeared (e.g. Davenport, 1993; Hammer
& Champy, 1993), specialist conferences and journals (e.g. BPR Europe Conference, Business Change & Re-engineering Journal) and network discussion groups (e.g. BPR Mailing
List BPR-L) were formed. Its rhetoric convinced many companies that dramatic breakthroughs
in performance could only be achieved by moving away from functional hierarchy towards a
process-based paradigm using the power of IT. BPR became a panacea for many companies
around the world. The remainder of this section provides the setting for the rest of the paper
by discussing certain aspects of BPR that are the rationale for the emergence of BPM.

The paradoxes of BPR


Despite its popularity, BPR has many internal contradictions (Jones, 1994, 1995), which have
led to much confusion. From its early days, different management consultants used BPR as
a way to sell their own proprietary methods (Francis & MacIntosh, 1997; Grover & Malhotra,
1997). Inevitably, this led to confusion and disagreements. Responding to the claims of BPR
and the resulting confusion, the academic community criticized the powerful rhetoric and
vested interests of many consultancies for having no sound theoretical basis. Earl & Khan

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(1994) questioned whether there was much that was new in BPR. Mumford (1994, 1996) asked
similar questions, although focusing on some similarities between BPR and sociotechnical
design. Deakins & Makgill (1997) and Tinaikar et al. (1995) argued that the original
literature of BPR was essentially anecdotal, lacking serious and rigorous research to support
its recommendations and assertions.
The more recent literature strongly suggests that the radical approach to change, as
presented by the early BPR, is being softened by a number of lessons gleaned from both
successes and failures in the course of implementations. Perhaps, the best example is
Davenport & Stoddard (1994), who report on a field study and challenge some of the central
tenets of re-engineering in terms of myths. Their distinctive insight triggered others (e.g.
Burke & Peppard, 1995; Grover & Kettinger, 1995) and is the focus of current trends in the
field. The following summarizes these state-of-the-art issues around which debate has been
centred.
1. Novel vs. established. Hammer & Champy (1993) defined BPR as a conceptually new business model that has little or nothing in common with other improvement programmes.
However, various writers, for example Earl & Khan (1994), Jones (1995) and Peppard & Preece
(1995), have disputed this claim of novelty. Instead, they argue that the original
proposal for BPR linked together existing approaches in a novel way.
2. Radical vs. incremental. Hammer & Champy (1993) presented BPR as the radical redesign
of business processes for dramatic improvement. However, more recent empirical research
(e.g. Stoddard & Jarvenpaa, 1995) supports the view that, although the radical approach works
well in some companies, others, perhaps more conservative, prefer an incremental view, or
even something in between. For example, Cock & Hipkin (1997) compared the incremental
approach of TQM with the radical view espoused in early BPR. Even Hammer (1996), in
Beyond Re-engineering, recognizes his original mistake in asserting that the keyword of the
re-engineering concept was radical. This word, he admits, was responsible for the bandwagon
effect and excitement among managers. He now asserts that the most important word in the
definition is process.
3. Clean slate vs. existing process. Hammer & Champy (1993) stated that BPR has a throwit-all-out-and-start-again flavour. However, Davenport & Stoddard (1994) and Stoddard &
Jarvenpaa (1995) assert that such clean slate change is rarely found.
4. Broad vs. narrow. The original notion of BPR was that it usually involved the redesign of
cross-functional business processes. However, research (e.g. Stoddard & Jarvenpaa, 1995;
Zairi & Sinclair, 1995) revealed that BPR initiatives within a single function can also provide
significant improvements and that this may sometimes be preferable as they are less demanding and less risky.
5. IT-led vs. IT-enabled. Both Hammer (1990) and Davenport & Short (1990) stressed the
centrality of IT in BPR. Emerging research coupled with case evidence offers support for
another perspective IT is an enabler and a creator of opportunities. Coombs & Hull (1995),
Galliers & Baker (1995) and Guha et al. (1997) argued that BPR is possible without this central
support of IT.

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6. Mechanistic vs. holistic. The original BPR literature is heavily dominated by a hard systems approach and by machine metaphors of organization. But an increasing number of
authors call for a more holistic and softer approach in order to take into account strategic
and people issues. Earl et al. (1995) reported on field studies that demonstrated the danger
of a mechanistic approach. Galliers & Baker (1995) argued that soft OR, which assumes
that the world is problematic rather than given, provides one possible way of approaching
BPR.
7. Dramatic vs. modest. Hammer & Champy (1993) claimed that BPR involved dramatic
improvements in critical, contemporary measures of performance. Yet, empirical investigation
(e.g. Grover et al., 1995) reveals that BPR initiatives are delivering much less than they have
promised.
8. Top-down vs. bottom-up. Hammer & Champy (1993) insisted that BPR never, ever happens
from bottom up. Nevertheless, several studies found that the participation, commitment,
ownership and initiative from the front line were vital for many successful BPR programmes.
For instance, Willcocks & Smith (1995) explored some of the human dimensions of such
change.
9. Inspiration vs. methodology. Hammer (1990) and Hammer & Champy (1993) argued that
BPR cannot be planned meticulously. Instead, they believed that BPR depends largely on
imagination, creativity and experience. As with many movements, such inspiration may work
well for the pioneers; however, the next generation may need to see things formalized. More
recently, therefore, the field has seen the introduction of various methodologies and modelling tools to address BPR issues systematically. Kettinger et al. (1997) surveyed a number of
these methodologies, techniques and tools.
In view of these developments, it could be argued that the original concept of BPR is itself
being re-engineered to take a broader perspective. Davenport (1996), one of the pioneers of
BPR, claims that re-engineering is effectively finished, at least in the USA. He argues that, to
most business people in the US, re-engineering is associated with restructuring, with layoffs
and with failed change programmes. He admits that the reason for its failure is that people
do not like to be re-engineered. As discussed earlier, even Hammer (1996) has backed off
from the notion of radical change, instead focusing on the need to be process centred rather
than re-engineered.
Although the use of the term re-engineering may be dying, the focus on business processes
remains important. Business processes may be a natural way for work to be done in organizations in order to create value for internal or external customers. This (for example, see Earl
& Khan, 1994; Ould, 1995) usually implies a distinction between different types of processes
based on value chain concepts, such as the following:

core processes (which have external customers and include the primary activities of the
value chain);
support processes (which have internal customers and concern secondary activities in the
value chain);
management processes (which manage core and support processes).
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Figure 1. From re-engineering to process management and business process modelling.

It therefore seems reasonable to agree with Cypress (1994) that the first generation
re-engineering, which presented BPR as a new, radical, IT-led, mechanistic and inspirational approach, is evolving to a second generation process management. Process management views BPR as a hybrid, contingent, IT-enabled, holistic and systematic approach
(Figure 1). This evolution results from the recognition of an overemphasis on reductionist and
mechanistic aspects, in which crucial issues such as people and strategic issues were simply
ignored.
A process management perspective, as espoused latterly by BPR pioneers such as Hammer
(1996) and Davenport (1995), as well as by their critics (e.g. Kettinger & Grover, 1995; Peppard,
1996), is a continuum of approaches to process improvement. It includes radical (reengineering) and incremental (continuous improvement) perspectives, both of which should
be customized to the problem and context under consideration. The hallmark of process management is its focus on business processes. To support their improvement, the development
of process modelling approaches and tools is an important item in the new research agenda.

R E S E A RC H I N BU S I N E S S P R O C E S S M O D E L L I N G

Reports of research on BPM can be classified in various ways. Here, it is done under three
headings: reports by practitioners; attempts to develop theoretical positions; and discussions
of the nature of business processes. This illustrates that there are many ways of viewing the
activities and tools associated with BPM. In particular, it identifies the importance of suitable
and inclusive definitions of what might constitute a business process.

Reports by practitioners
The first group examines BPM as an activity by matching the typical process stages against
the tools and techniques commonly used by practitioners. Elzinga et al. (1995) derived a

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generic methodology by examining those used by different consultancies. From this, they
discussed a number of techniques and software tools that may help with implementing a particular stage or activity of that generic methodology. In like vein, Kettinger et al. (1997) surveyed 25 methodologies, 72 techniques and 102 tools for supporting business process change
programmes. From this, they constructed a generic methodology, matching its stages with the
available techniques and tools. This leads to a conceptual framework for tool and technique
selection, based on the characteristics of the project. These studies confirm that practitioner
methodologies share many common features, despite the differences in philosophical orientation towards IT, scale of change and people issues. Most consultancies have their own proprietary methodologies and tools and stress a well-defined sequence of stages and activities.
A second group discusses the use of existing techniques for modelling business processes.
The appendix to Johansson et al. (1993) provided a brief overview of different process
mapping techniques with multifarious origins in work study, organization and method studies,
process control, process simulation, business modelling and systems engineering and analysis. Similarly, Miers (1994) discussed and compared a number of techniques and their application in modelling business processes, including flow charts, IDEF0, action workflow
diagrams and role activity diagrams. From an IS perspective, Darnton & Darnton (1997) suggested a number of techniques and skills that should form part of the background of every
business process analyst.
A third group reviews and compares different software tools. Classe (1994), for example,
usefully reviewed 19 tools to support process improvement and redesign, including static,
dynamic, CASE and workflow. She illustrated how these tools are used through case studies
conducted in seven UK companies. She suggested that a contingent approach best describes
current practice, with the contingent adaptation based on a number of factors, such as the
goals of the project, scale and scope of change, the opportunity for IT support, culture, etc.
That is, although advanced modelling may sometimes be important, often simple word processors and spreadsheets are adequate for a BPM exercise. More formal BPM tools are used
not only to provide technical rigour and to test the impacts of alternative designs, but also to
support communication and participation. Similar, although more limited, studies were presented by Spurr et al. (1994), Bradley et al. (1995), Cory (1995), Cheung & Bal (1998) and by
Yu & Wright (1997). Most of these described the features and functionality offered by various
BPM tools and were quickly outdated after publication.
This examination of reports of practice suggests a lack of distinct methodologies, techniques and tools to address the unique demands of modelling business processes. Instead,
practitioners have adapted techniques and tools from manufacturing, industrial engineering,
information systems, quality movement or human resource management and have applied
them to a BPM context.
Although this may sometimes be adequate, it is important to consider the nature of business processes. Childe et al. (1995) reported a fieldwork exploration of BPR experiences, in
which they found that UK companies in general had an adequate understanding of the business process concept and that further research should be directed towards other areas
instead. This paper is not so sanguine about this issue and argues that a better understand-

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ing of the nature and features of business processes is crucial if modelling is to be more
effective.

Theoretical views of BPM


Perhaps surprisingly, there are fewer academic papers on BPM than there are from those
proposing particular methodologies and approaches. An early theoretical view is that of Curtis
et al. (1992), who reviewed several modelling approaches and suggested a conceptual framework for process modelling in the context of software engineering. This framework places business processes in four positions: functional, representing the activities being performed with
relevant flows; behavioural, representing when and how the activities are performed; organizational, representing where and by whom the activities are executed and what physical communication mechanisms and storage are used; and informational, representing entities flowing
through the process, their structure and relationships.
Ould (1995), in proposing the role activity diagram (RAD) approach, also discussed modelling issues and principles, although in the context of role activity diagrams. Scholz-Reiter &
Stickel (1996) and Scholz-Reiter et al. (1999) reviewed state-of-the-art issues on BPM from
an interdisciplinary point of view.
These apart, there are few significant attempts to develop theoretical positions on possible
approaches to BPM, possibly because the development of BPM has been driven by practitioners rather than by academics.

Business processes the core of BPM


Without suitable definitions of business processes, it is hard to develop suitable approaches,
whether theoretical or practical, to BPM. It would, however, seem that providing suitable
definitions is more difficult than might appear to be the case. Most of the literature simply
quotes (or adapts) the vague definitions put forward by the re-engineering pioneers. That is,
a business process is a set of related activities that are of value to a customer.
Moreover, most attempts to take this debate a step further have a rather mechanistic feel.
For example, Armistead & Rowland (1996) dedicated four chapters of their BPR book to business processes, but their strong operations management bias, with its mechanistic emphasis, shone through. Similarly, Kock & McQueen (1996) reported an empirical study of 15
business processes in three companies but chose to stress structural features and information flows, using ideas from industrial engineering and systems analysis and design. Both
studies argued that a business process is best viewed as a transformation of inputs from suppliers into outputs to customers and that this transformation can be hierarchically decomposed
into subprocesses and activities. Although such views are not without value, they do rather
ignore the human side of business processes.
Moving away from such views, Ould (1995) argued that real-world processes are messier
than the inputtransformationoutput view might suggest and that the neat and tidy hierarchy hid as much as it revealed. Instead, he argued that business processes are best viewed

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as networks in which a number of roles collaborate and interact to achieve a business goal.
This still has a less-than-human feel about it, but seems a step in the right direction. Going
further, Scherr (1993) emphasized peoples roles and relationships, but added a new dimension a business process is seen as a set of closed loops of commitments.
Given this diversity of views, what are the implications for business processes? A useful
way to understand business processes is perhaps to regard them as multifaceted. Each perspective on business process is based on a set of assumptions about, for example, the nature
of organizational life, and these, in turn, affect the way in which approaches to BPM are developed. Each world view thus acts as a filter that allows us to see certain things but to miss
others.

F O U R P E R S P E C T I V E S O N BU S I N E S S P R O C E S S E S

Background
This section organizes views of business process around four themes, each with a different
emphasis and each illustrating important features of business processes. Two of these views
are similar to two metaphors found in Morgan (1997), whereas the other two are not really
metaphors, but viewpoints. Morgans metaphors have been widely used elsewhere and in
fields close to BPM. For instance, Peppard & Preece (1995) applied them to BPR, Pidd (1995)
to OR/MS and Walsham (1991) to IS. It seems obvious that views and understandings about
organizations are important when discussing BPM, as organizations provide the arena for
business processes. The four points of view suggested here view business processes as
deterministic machines, complex dynamic systems, interacting feedback loops and social
constructs.
The conceptual framework presented here does not attempt to match each authors definition of business processes with a single perspective. Even one persons views can be multifaceted! Instead, it provides a useful way of organizing different points of views about
business processes and allows a discussion of the assumptions underlying BPMs main
streams. Thus, a richer and wider picture is likely to occur. As with Morgans metaphors of
organization, each viewpoint sheds light on some elements, while it obscures others, and each
has strengths and limitations. However, when considered together, they produce a set of complementary, yet competing, perspectives from which the nature of business process emerges.

Business processes as deterministic machines


The first view regards a business process as a fixed sequence of well-defined activities or
tasks performed by human machines that convert inputs into outputs in order to accomplish
clear objectives (Figure 2). Not surprisingly, this standpoint is very close to Morgans bureaucratic machine metaphor, and it assumes that the nature of a business process is unquestioned, and its design is analogous to a technical engineering activity.

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Figure 2. Business processes as deterministic machines.

This view emphasizes the structure (tasks, activities and areas of responsibility), procedures (constraints and rules of the work to be performed) and goals (nature of the output to
be obtained) of the business process being designed. The main criterion of good process
design is efficiency in the use of money, resources and time, subject to the constraint of satisfying customers needs. Information technology plays an important role in this perspective:
automating, co-ordinating and supporting the re-engineered process. This accords well with
many structured processes found in stable manufacturing-type environments (e.g. order
fulfilment and fast food processes) and many bureaucratic paper-based processes found in
some service environments (e.g. credit application and back-office processes).
The notion that a business process is a deterministic machine can be traced back to Taylors
scientific management, in which manufacturing processes were made more efficient by an
analytical approach. This divided manufacturing processes into well-defined tasks to be performed by interchangeable people. Each task was to be organized optimally by a manager
who would instruct and train the worker in the best way to do the task. This would lead to an
efficient overall manufacturing process.
In this vein, Davenport & Short (1990) defined a business process as a set of logically related
tasks performed to achieve a defined business outcome. Clearly, this notion, along with their
new industrial engineering metaphor, is symptomatic of a mechanistic view. Hammer &
Champy (1993) gave a similar definition, although highlighting customer orientation and crossfunctional activity. This is also the view of Armistead & Rowland (1996) and Kock & McQueen
(1996), whose focus was on the structural and operational features of business processes.
Early criticisms, which argued that BPR is the use of industrial engineering techniques applied
to office and service environments, were therefore inevitable (e.g. King, 1991).

Static business process modelling


As far as BPM is concerned, the view of a business process as a deterministic machine corresponds to the body of work underlying much of the hard and static approaches to BPM. In

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this, the stress is on mapping and documenting the flow of items, the activities, their logical
dependency and the resources needed. In recent times, many techniques from operations
management, operational research and information systems have been repackaged to a BPM
context.
A frequently used technique, adapted from work study, is process flow charting and its extensions (discussed by Johansson et al., 1993; Harrington et al., 1997). The simplicity of its basic
elements activities and decisions makes it easy to understand and communicate. Other
widely used techniques are IDEF0 and IDEF3, advocated for example by Hunt (1996) and
Mayer & DeWhite (1999). These are descendants of data flow diagrams with a functional,
structured approach. Their modelling constructs, inputs, activities, outputs, mechanisms and
controls in IDEF0 and units of behaviour, elaboration, referents, junctions, links, objects states
and state-transition arcs in IDEF3 reveal their mechanistic perspective.
Some approaches included in this perspective are more subtle. For example, rather than
focusing on procedures and data, Ould (1995) proposed a more process-oriented technique
called role activity diagrams (RADs). A RAD allows a business process to be modelled
diagrammatically through roles, goals, activities, interactions and business rules. Scherr (1993)
suggested another approach called customersupplier protocol, based on speech acts
(Winograd & Flores, 1987). Here, a business process model is a network of a set of closed
loops of commitments between a customer and a performer involving four phases, namely
preparation, negotiation, performance and acceptance. Reijswoud et al. (1999) described
a similar approach. Unlike flow charts and IDEF techniques, both RAD and the customer
supplier protocol are more appropriate for modelling business processes that involve the cooperation of several entities and less appropriate for modelling complex routings. Examples
of other approaches include production engineering techniques (e.g. Doumeingts & Browne,
1997) and continuous improvement techniques (e.g. Schonberger & Knod, 1994).

Difficulties with a mechanistic view


Although these approaches have different strengths and limitations, it could be argued that
the mechanistic view has two major drawbacks. First, by assuming that business processes
can only be designed in rational and technical terms, it neglects human and organizational
issues. Empirical evidence (e.g. Willcocks & Smith, 1995) strongly suggests that IT-driven BPR
projects and a lack of attention to sociopolitical and organizational issues are major reasons
why so many BPR projects fail. This does not mean that a concern for technical and rational
issues is not important. Rather, it means that their consideration should not be overemphasized at the cost of the mismanagement of human and organizational issues. Writing on this
same theme, Morgan (1997) stated by placing primary emphasis on the design of technical
business systems as the key to change, the majority of re-engineering programs mobilised
all kinds of social, cultural and political resistance that undermined their effectiveness (pp.
3839).
The second criticism of this mechanistic view is that business processes are assumed to
be static. Static models are simplified representations of business processes at a particular

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point in time. As such, they ignore dynamic behaviour, which may change over time as a result
of resource competition, interactions or other sources of uncertainty. This does not mean that
static models are pointless. In fact, static models are very useful in understanding and representing the structural features of business processes and can be valuable means of communication. However, business processes often display complex interactions that can only be
understood by unfolding behaviour through time.

Business processes as complex dynamic systems


Rather than viewing a business process as an assembly of interchangeable components, this
second viewpoint focuses on the complex, dynamic and interactive features of business
processes. The basic idea is close to Morgans metaphors of organism and flux and transformation, in which an open system adapts to a changing environment in order to survive.
Whereas the mechanistic view focuses exclusively on structure and static objects, this view
emphasizes interaction and dynamic behaviour.
Viewed in these open systems terms, a business process can have inputs, transformation,
outputs and boundaries (Figure 3). A business process can then be defined as a set of subsystems: people, tasks, structure, technology, etc., which interact with each other (internal
relationships) and with their environment (external relationships) in order to fulfil some objective(s). Each subsystem can be seen as a system, which can in turn be hierarchically decomposed into further levels of detail. This in turn implies the definition of interfaces between
subsystems so that they are able to communicate with each other. The view of a business
process as a system, for example, is illustrated by Earl & Khan (1994), who said that the interdependent, interactive, boundary-crossing, super-ordinate goal conceptualisation of process
is essentially a systems view (p. 24).

Figure 3. Business processes as complex dynamic systems.

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The mechanistic perspective ignored important issues such as interactions with the external environment, but this viewpoint pays much more attention to this. Therefore, effectiveness
(e.g. quality and service level) is likely to be a major design criterion rather than solely
efficiency. Another characteristic of this point of view is holism, stressing the behaviour of a
business process as a whole rather than its parts. For example, Hammer (1996) argued that
a sensible view of a business process sees not individual tasks in isolation, but the entire
collection of tasks that contribute to a desired outcome (p. 11, authors emphasis). The use
of multiskilled and autonomous workers/teams to deal with a business process in a holistic
way illustrates particularly well how this holistic thinking can be put into practice. However, empirical evidence, for example Zairi & Sinclair (1995), shows that it is not always possible to
approach business processes holistically, because it may be more risky and require more
resources than simply analysing a single component or set of components.

Discrete event business process simulation


Business processes are dynamic because of the interaction of their internal components and
because of the interaction of the process with its environment. Discrete event simulation (Pidd,
1998) provides a suitable way to model this dynamic behaviour in terms of entities (e.g. items
and resources) and discrete events (e.g. begin task and end task). The simulation model can
then be used to conduct what if experiments, avoiding the need for building or disrupting the
real-world business process (Melo & Pidd, 1999). Modular, parsimonious construction of
models (Pidd, 1999) may usefully be employed by a modeller who needs to understand
complex business processes. Other, more complex approaches, such as high-level Petri nets
(e.g. Aalst & Hee, 1996), or less known approaches, such as qualitative simulation (e.g.
Nissen, 1996), could also be applied under this stream.
Vreede & Eijck (1998) described a discrete event simulation approach, Dynamic Modelling,
developed at Delft University. This is a problem-solving approach that uses simulation and animation techniques to analyse as is business processes and evaluate future to be business
processes. In particular, they see a business process as a network of interacting objects that
display dynamic behaviour. They argue that a business process can be modelled in terms of
three parent object classes: items (composed of three leaf object classes: message, product
and person); item processors (made of three leaf object classes: actor, repository and link);
and actor actions (composed of two object leaf classes: tasks and decisions). Each object
class has attributes and actions, which in turn are translated into blocks of SIMAN code. The
main strength of this approach is that the objectattributeaction world view represents a
natural way of modelling in the sense that it resembles real-world business processes.
However, the translation of the object-based conceptual modelling to the block-based SIMAN
model is not always straightforward. This problem has been addressed through the development of an ARENA template (Eijck & Vreede, 1998).
Also in the context of BPM, Davies (1997) developed a data-driven simulator called SCOPE
that allows the simulation of information flows for high-volume back-offices. In an analogy with
manufacturing, he argued that office processes behave in a similar way to job shops, as

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documents pass through several functional departments for processing with routings that may
differ. However, he insists that office processes present unique modelling challenges, such as
high volume and mix of items. Furthermore, business processes have a mixed of front (core
processes) and back-office (support processes) components. Each item may require a different process, and there may be constant changes in workload and unpredictability introduced by the human factor. SCOPE is capable of modelling the following elements: items,
teams, shifts, telephone calls, tasks, procedural flows and volumes. Although SCOPE is easy
to use, its main difficulty is that it is rather inflexible because the modeller is restricted to these
predefined modelling constructs and has no easy way of modifying or extending them. Like
the dynamic modelling approach, SCOPE seems to be more appropriate for modelling business processes that display complex flows, but less appropriate for modelling business
processes that involve the co-operation of several entities.

Difficulties with a complex dynamic systems view


If the organic viewpoint is taken to an extreme, it also has weaknesses. First, it may lead to
the neglect of the sociopolitical dimension of a business process, as there is an implied belief
that a business process can only be approached in logical and rational terms. The human
aspect is only regarded as relevant as a resource for executing tasks, that is, the humanity of
the human is ignored. In this sense, this perspective is much like the previous one the nature
of the business process and of its actors is taken for granted. Better process designs are, in
this view, based on an understanding of the logic of complex interactions with a view to
meeting the objectives set for the process in question.
The second problem is that such approaches obviously have a cost. The time and skills
required to build a dynamic computer model of simple systems may not add any value over
simple flowcharts or spreadsheets. Third, it ignores the feedback loops that may determine
the behaviour of many real-world business processes. Nevertheless, this viewpoint reminds
us that different subsystems of a business process interact to produce complex dynamic
behaviour.

Business processes as interacting feedback loops


This third perspective extends the organic viewpoint by highlighting the information feedback
structure of business processes. Like the organic perspective, the stress is on the complex,
interactive and dynamic features of business processes using systems thinking principles.
However, whereas the organic viewpoint focused on business processes with no intrinsic
control (i.e. open loop systems), this perspective claims that business processes are closed
loops with intrinsic control. This standpoint is thus an attempt to understand the dynamic
behaviour of a business process not in terms of individual components but in terms of interactions between internal structure and policies.
The concept of a business process as a network of interacting feedback loops is shown
in Figure 4. This depicts a business process as flows (rates) of resources (physical or non-

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Figure 4. Business processes as interacting feedback loops.

physical) from outside its boundaries through a sequence of stocks (levels) representing accumulations (e.g. materials) or transformations (e.g. raw material to finish product). The flows
are regulated by policies (decisions), which represent explicit statements of actions to be taken
in order to achieve a desired result (Pidd, 1996). These actions are taken based on information, and this is where the notion of the information feedback loop comes into play. Such a
view of business process fits well with the notions of system dynamics discussed by Vennix
(1996) and van Ackere et al. (1993), who stressed the need to understand information feedback loops.

System dynamics
Within the BPM field, the view of a business process as interacting feedback loops is
supported by system dynamics modellers. Whereas a discrete event simulation is concerned
with modelling discrete state changes and individual entities, a system dynamics model of
a business process operates at a more aggregated level of abstraction, in which flow rates
are modelled as continuous variables. System dynamics models can be used in two ways
(Wolstenholme, 1990; Pidd, 1996; Vennix, 1996). First, in a qualitative mode, in which the
structural features of the process are made explicit through diagrams (e.g. causal loop and
flow diagrams). These in turn may become a basis for debate about the process behaviour.
For example, if a process were to be organized along particular lines, then such qualitative
models could provide insight into their potential stability. Second, system dynamics can be
applied in a quantitative mode by transforming the diagrams into a set of equations, so that
a simulation of the process can be conducted. This allows a modeller to provide quantitative
estimates of system effects.
Surprisingly, there are few reports of the application of system dynamics modelling in a
BPM context. The few research studies conducted in this area have been primarily concerned

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with justifying the use of systems dynamics in a BPM context and illustrating the potential
of its different uses, but going little further. This may suggest two things. The first is that the
BPM community may not be entirely convinced of the value of systems dynamics models.
The second is that this area remains relatively unexplored and thus presents rich opportunities for further research. For example, van Ackere et al. (1993) discussed the difficulties in
controlling the behaviour of logistical processes resulting from commonly occurring feedback
and delay structures using the classic beer game to do so. They then showed the value of
continuous simulation in redesigning the structure of business processes in terms of decision
processes, physical processes and information channels. Fowler (1997) made a similar
argument.
Stevenson (1993) and Wolstenholme & Stevenson (1994) took a rather similar line, but
showed the value of both qualitative and quantitative system dynamics in mitigating the
misperceptions of feedback loop structure using the ITHINK system dynamics software. A
more critical line was followed by Davies (1996), who attempted to show the relevance of both
qualitative and quantitative system dynamics to the BPM field. He concluded by asserting that
challenges for the future development of business dynamics centre on ease of use, integration with other methods, and education (p. 241) in order to challenge some of the scepticism
about system dynamics. It might also be argued that the application of system dynamics to
BPM is limited by the difficulty of deriving generic implications of different internal structures
for the organizational design.

Difficulties with a feedback loop view


As with the previous perspectives, the view of a business process as interacting positive and
negative feedback loops has its limitations. First, when this perspective is taken to an extreme,
there is the risk of considering the human factor as only an instrument to be controlled or as
an instrument exercising control. System dynamics methods can be used in a sensitive, interpretive mode, but the method itself carries no such guarantees. Indeed, it could be argued
that its roots in control theory and the apparent ease with which models may be constructed
could encourage an unthinking dehumanization of business process modelling.
Secondly, as Lane (1995) commented, there is still too much belief and too little evidence
(p. 617). Also taking a critical stance, Davies (1996) wrote, system dynamics is easy to know
but impossible to apply (p. 241). That is, system dynamics approaches are easy to understand at a superficial level, but may be difficult to use properly. Wolstenhome (1993) suggested
that system dynamics methods should be used in a qualitative mode as a means to elicit different views, to foster learning and to generate commitment. As far as BPM is concerned, this
may well be a sensible way to proceed, especially when time and difficulties in quantification
are critical constraints to the modelling exercise.
Perhaps these comments suggest that researchers might profitably devote some of
their efforts into engaged research (see Nandhakumar & Jones, 1995) in which they attempt
to use system dynamics methods in real-world business process modelling as action
research?

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Business processes as social constructs


Instead of seeing a business process as a predictable machine or as a dynamic organism
pursuing clear objectives, this fourth perspective emphasizes business processes as made
and enacted by people with different values, expectations and (possibly hidden) agendas. This
implies that business processes need not exist in the objective and concrete sense as in the
previous perspectives. Rather, they are abstractions, meanings and judgements that people
put on the real world, which result from a process of subjective construction of the minds of
people. The focus here is on subjective and human aspects of the business process.
From this standpoint, a business process can be defined in terms of different perceptions
constructed by various individuals and groups as a result of different frames of interpretation.
These frames, shaped by beliefs, values, expectations and previous experience, act as filters
enabling people to perceive some things but ignore others. For example, a production manager
may regard an order fulfilment process as a way to ensure that the orders are manufactured on
time, while a marketing manager may regard it as a way to satisfy a customers needs.
The existence of multiple (and often conflicting) views about what is going on and about how
the process is being and should be carried out means that a different view of change is
required. It implies that changes should result from a process of negotiation of conflicting interests, difficult though this process may be. The view of a business process as a social construct
fits well with strategic, less tangible processes, in which human activity is the major driver, such
as health, social and educational services. This view comes across quite strongly, for example
in Tinaikar et al. (1995), who called for a more humanistic social constructionist perspective in
an attempt to encourage the adoption of an alternative conceptualization of business process.
Soft business process modelling
It should be no surprise that this view of business processes as social constructs is closely
linked to a soft strand of thinking about BPM. Unlike the previous viewpoints, soft models are
sense-making interpretive devices developed to generate debate and learning about how the
process is being and should be carried out. It should be noted that the technical view is not
entirely ignored. Indeed, techniques may be called in this perspective if the organizational
context requires it.
Several authors suggested the application of Checklands soft systems methodology (SSM)
to provide a more balanced approach to modelling business processes. For example, Galliers
(1994) observed that little attention has been given to exploring the role of soft modelling
in dealing with process issues and then goes on to outline an SSM-based approach to
undertake IS strategy/process change studies. Taking a more practitioner perspective, Patching (1995) showed how SSM provides a high-level, process-based language to approach
business process change from a holistic point of view. In the same vein, Chan & Choi
(1997) illustrated how SSM can be used to provide methodological support and an analytical
framework as well as to deal with ill-defined situations in a business process setting.
In these studies, SSM is used to represent a business process as a would-be purposeful
human activity system consisting of a set of logically interconnected activities through which

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Figure 5. Business processes as social constructs.

actors convert inputs into some outputs for customers. In addition, the business process
operates under certain environmental constraints, and monitoring and control is executed by
process owners. Moreover, the purposeful activity of the business process can be seen from
different angles (Figure 5). Soft BPM also relates to the humanistic view advocated by
Mumford (1994), in which a business process is seen as a set of interacting sociotechnical
systems. The objective is an integration of both social and technical needs through a participative approach. Unlike SSM, sociotechnical design places little stress on the cultural and
political environment.
The social constructionist viewpoint, when considered as the sole basis for modelling business processes, may also have its own difficulties. First, the stress on cultural feasibility may
impede the attainment of more efficient and radical designs. Secondly, this perspective alone
is unable to provide an objective, quantitative assessment of business process changes.
Finally, although it recognizes the political environment, it offers no way of dealing with it other
than the need to conduct several analyses of the type suggested by Checkland & Scholes
(1990). There have been a few reports, for example Lehaney et al. (1999), linking a constructionist view, using SSM, with hard modelling tools, but the benefits from doing so are not
yet clear in practice. Nevertheless, this does seem to be an avenue worth pursuing further.

D I S C U S S I O N A N D F U RT H E R R E S E A RC H

This paper stresses that BPM can be seen as a collection of methodologies, techniques and
tools supporting the analysis and improvement of business processes. It has been argued
that, to achieve greater modelling effectiveness in BPM, it is crucial to understand the nature
of business processes. For this purpose, this paper proposes that a business process may

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N Melo & M Pidd

Figure 6. Business process views vs. paradigms.

be viewed from different and competing angles deterministic machines, complex dynamic
systems, interacting feedback loops and social constructs.

Relating the perspectives with each other and with the paradigms
It is important to note, however, that these perspectives are not independent of each other
and that it is difficult to identify clearly where one perspective begins and the other ends. Figure
6 attempts to visualize these relationships and shows that these perspectives are best
regarded as inter-related facets of a multifaceted reality. The easiest linkage to grasp is,
perhaps, between the complex dynamic systems and the feedback loop perspective. Both
focus on the organic and dynamic features of business processes. However, the latter view
extends the former in an attempt to consider information feedback structure. Both perspectives are related, in turn, to the mechanistic view, as they all tend to overlook social considerations if taken to extremes.
On the other hand, the links with the social construction view are more difficult to perceive,
as it attempts explicitly to consider what other perspectives missed out the human nature
of business processes. However, it is still possible to establish relationships with the complex
dynamic systems and the feedback loop perspective in the domain of SSM. All have in
common systems ideas, although they are used in different ways. Whereas in the complex
dynamic systems perspective, systems ideas are used to represent real-world business
processes, in the social construction view, systems thinking is applied as an intellectual device
to reason about peoples perspectives. In the feedback loop view, the use of systems ideas
is not so obvious, because it can be used in both a positivistic and an interpretive way.

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As mentioned earlier, each perspective has its own strengths, but also limitations when taken
to extremes. When combined, however, they provide, like metaphors, a range of complementary ideas from which one can better consider the nature of business processes. The combination of views proposed in this paper lead us to state that business processes have a mixed
and apparently conflicting nature. They have technical and social, tangible and intangible,
objective and subjective, quantitative and qualitative dimensions. Supporting this view, Grover
et al. (1995) reported on a large-scale survey of the implementation of BPR, in which they
found that business processes are best seen as dynamic sociotechnical systems. In the
broader field of IS, Checkland & Holwell (1998) used the well-established SSM-based action
research approach in an attempt to carry out a conceptual cleansing of the field. They argued
that real organizations have a mixed nature as both social units, rationally pursuing welldefined objectives, and (changing) social constructs, in which individuals or subgroups have
different interests and agendas. Or, as they neatly put it, simultaneous would-be purposeful
machines and quasi-families (their stress) (p. 221).
Figure 6 also shows that each perspective makes different philosophical assumptions about
the nature of business processes and the relationship between the modeller and the business
process being modelled. For example, the roots of the mechanistic view in hard, technical
systems lead to an ontology in which the nature of the business process is objectively given,
is external and is composed of a number of discrete and tangible things. Epistemologically,
the role of the modeller is independently to abstract the real-world business process in order
to propose a cost-effective design that meets the objectives given. Similarly, in the complex
dynamic systems perspective, there is an implicit belief that business processes are out there
and consist of external, although interacting, entities. The role of the modeller is to understand, external to the real-world business process, the complex set of interactions by mimicking its dynamic behaviour in order to propose a design alternative that meets the objectives of effectiveness and efficiency.
Unlike the other perspectives, the social construction view regards the nature of business
processes as problematic, subjective and non-material. The modeller, more a facilitator than
a technical expert, cannot appreciate real-world business processes neutrally and needs to
work with the perceptions and meanings of the people involved in the process. The ontological and epistemological positions of the feedback loop viewpoint are more difficult to discern
because of its hybrid nature. However, there may be a heavier inclination towards the positivistic stance as a result of its roots in control theory. Finally, it must be pointed out that the
philosophical stances suggested here should not be regarded as rigid. For example, there is
no reason why the dynamic complex systems perspective should not be applied in an interpretive way, although this may be uncommon.

Implications for practice


What are the practical implications of these four perspectives on business processes and
BPM? One practical problem with contingent frameworks is that what seems beguilingly simple
on paper turns out to be rather difficult in practice, and a framework based on these four per-

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spectives is no exception. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to regard it as useless, just because


it may be hard, at this stage, to prescribe how it may be used by practitioners. There is a parallel with the approach to problem structuring in management science suggested by Pidd
(1996), using the ideas of Goffman (1974) and Schn (1982). Problem structuring is an
attempt to define the issues to be tackled in the modelling process. Pidd suggests that problems should be viewed as social constructs which, like beauty, . . . are defined in the eyes of
the beholder (p. 72). Problem structuring, then, is a process in which different frames are
applied and various problems are named, in order to provide a handle for their resolution.
Thus, problem structuring is a process of exploration in which multiple perspectives are useful,
and it may be that the same ideas apply in the early stages of business process investigation. It is unlikely that many management science practitioners will gladly dive into the detail
of Goffmans sociology; nevertheless, it does provide useful insights that can be used to guide
thoughtful practice.
Perhaps the same is true of the four perspectives presented here? Few BPM and IS professionals will bother to delve into the detailed assumptions that underlie the development of
the perspectives. Nevertheless, the multifaceted view does provide useful insights for practice. For example, if the BPM project focuses on the analysis and improvement of technical,
well-defined processes, then the techniques and tools underlying the mechanistic perspective
may well be appropriate. If the business process being analysed displays unpredictable,
complex interactions, then discrete event simulation techniques may be suitable. A business
process with a feedback loop structure would seem to call for systems dynamic approaches.
On the other hand, if the focus is on human, problematic processes, then the methodologies
under the social construction umbrella would seem to deliver a useful contribution.
To aid practitioners further in selecting the methodologies, tools and techniques appropriate to the process under study, this paper also discussed the strengths and limitations of
different BPM approaches. In general, static approaches are useful for understanding and
communicating the structure of business process, but they lack a time dimension and, if
used in isolation, may ignore sociopolitical issues. Discrete event simulation approaches are
invaluable for understanding complex process interactions, yet they are resource consuming
and, used blindly, may neglect sociopolitical considerations. System dynamic approaches are
helpful for modelling business processes with feedback loop structure; however, they may
be rather mechanistic. Soft approaches are useful for addressing sociocultural issues, but
they lack the ability to provide an objective, quantitative assessment of business process
changes.
In addition, the results of this study stress the importance of pluralistic and multidisciplinary
modelling approaches. Willcocks & Smith (1995) suggested that many process improvement
programmes end in failure because the methodologies adopted are partial in their approach.
Commenting on the re-engineering fiasco, Davenport & Perez-Guardado (1999) argued that
process change programmes are better approached from different fronts in a multifaceted way
and illustrated this using an ecology metaphor. Hence, IS professionals can use these viewpoints to construct more powerful modelling approaches. By thinking about alternative views
on business processes and using different BPM approaches, the modeller should be in a better

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position to capture the full richness and complexity of the situation, avoiding the limitations of
partial analysis.
Thus, any practical methodology should include provision for more than one viewpoint. For
example, the complex dynamic systems view could be strengthened by the social construction view, with simulation to provide a quantitative assessment of process changes and
with SSM to ensure social and cultural feasibility. Wastell et al. (1994), Wood et al. (1995),
Ackermann et al. (1999) and Warboys et al. (1999) proposed a number of approaches aiming to
link hard and soft modelling tools. Although their pertinence to a business process context needs
to be established, these examples do provide evidence of interest in such a methodology.
Implications for research
The findings of this study also have important implications for research. This paper contributes
to the BPM literature by proposing a conceptual framework aiming to classify alternative business process views and to discuss different approaches to BPM. Of course, more viewpoints
could be considered, but these seemed to us the most relevant ones emerging from the literature at the time of writing. It extends the conceptual framework of Curtis et al. (1992) by
giving a place to soft modelling and by considering BPM from an holistic and multidisciplinary
perspective. It also relates to Checkland & Holwells (1998) investigation by providing the
theoretical underpinnings of the different schools of thought within BPM.
It is interesting to note the significant similarities between BPM and the discussion of IS by
Checkland & Holwell (1998). First, serious research in both fields is in an early stage, BPM
being younger than IS. Second, in both fields, theory lags behind practice. This is undoubtedly true for BPM, as the field has seen the introduction of many methodologies and tools
(often from consultancies), while serious research is only now emerging. Third, different
assumptions made about the nature of organizational life lead to different approaches in both
BPM and IS. Finally, the dichotomy between hard (the dominant) and soft (the emerging)
approaches seems to characterize most of the research in both fields.
The objective of this paper has been to derive a taxonomy of business process viewpoints
and to provide an account of the different streams of thought on BPM. It has argued that such
a framework will contribute to a clarification of the nature of business processes as well as
to an integrated discussion of a fragmented field. It has brought together a wide and diverse
literature, including OR/MS, IS/IT, software engineering, operations management, industrial
engineering and organizational research. Our conclusion is that business processes have a
multifaceted nature and, consequently, many BPM projects would be better off if they incorporated pluralistic and multidisciplinary approaches. An interesting avenue for further research
is to extend and develop fully the practical aspects of this framework.

AC K N O W L E D G E M E N T S

N. Melo is supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology under
PRAXIS XXI.

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Biographies
Nuno Melo is a PhD student in the Department of
Management Science at Lancaster University. His research interests include business process modelling and
simulation.
Mike Pidd is Professor and Head of the Department of
Management Science at Lancaster University. He is wellknown for his work in computer simulation and is also the
author of Tools for Thinking: Modelling in Management
Science, which discusses the links between hard and soft
approaches in management science.

2000 Blackwell Science Ltd, Information Systems Journal 10, 105129