Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Unstructured flows

I have not blogged for a while… Too much work, too much involvement in too many decisions with too little time and information. Pretty mind-numbing work.

But it’s time for me to make some of my neurons and synapses to work.

During last couple of weeks, Carole-Ann (www.edmblog.com, www.twitter.com/cmatignon) attended the Gartner BPM summit. One of the key things she conveyed was a fair amount of discussion around the issue of “unstructured flows” and how the industry is addressing them. Besides the fact that there is no unanimity around what to name these flows, there is of course no real agreement on how important they are, and how relevant to problems they are.

I will try to give a first reaction to this in terms of the implications to decision management.

I will assume a very simple distinction between “structured flows” and “unstructured flows”
- “Structured flows” are those that can relatively easily be described in control flow diagrams, with explicit exception management – and by “easily” I mean in a way that can be explained based on a diagram in a way that does not require writing down additional details or having exceptions described through another formalism (something that tends to happen with business exceptions).
- “Unstructured flows” are those that cannot be described that way. They tend to be composed of micro-flows (pre-defined or constructed on the fly) that are stitched together at run time through the recognition of patterns in events.
This may or not correspond to what the rest of the industry sees as distinctions. If not, then just consider these definitions to be specific to this blog.

While I did not attend the conference, I am confronted on a daily basis with this exact issue. Among other things, I am currently responsible for the Enterprise Architecture group at my company, and involved in the architecture and implementation of large enterprise applications – most of which involve both “structured flows” and “unstructured flows”.

One key characteristic I see is the following:
- “Structured flows” tend to cover a large part of the automation of these enterprise applications – but focus on essentially those flows that are fairly clear, require little human intervention, and by virtue of being easy to automate, end up becoming a “must-have” but no longer a differentiator.
- “Unstructured flows” tend to focus on those difficult cases that are – at that point of maturity of the application – not fully automated, and where the interplay between humans (or at least not predictable events) and flows presents the big differentiator in the application – in terms of risk and/or value.

We can take many examples where that is the case.
Take fraud management:
- Automated “structured flows” capture the essence of the known or highly predictable fraud – and catch a large part of the fraud attempts
- But it takes “unstructured flows” to have humans intervene in helping qualify the complicated cases (high value customer, high amounts, etc…) and in identifying new fraud modes
Take insurance underwriting:
- Automated “structured flows” cover anywhere in the 60%-85% range of applications – and almost everybody has it
- But it takes humans involved in “unstructured flows” to deal with the “referrals” which is where the delicate dealing of special cases can help maximize the value/risk ratio

What is the implication of all this for decision management?

Decision management has already been largely involved in improving the relevance of “structured flows” to the business needs and constraints. Up to a large extent, the success of BPM in large enterprise applications can be traced to its ability to isolate the key business decision points, and automate the execution of these decisions in a repeatable and efficient way.
Business Rules Management Systems provide that key mechanism to separate from the flow logic the decision logic in a way that is manageable by the business and controllable by IT. They allow the “structure flows” to cope with the complexities of policies, procedures and practices specific to industries, sectors, enterprises, departments, etc.. And they are at the core at the success of many large scale enterprise applications.

In this kind of applications, the roles are clearly differentiated (even though BPM vendors will argue they handle decision management – they don’t): typically, BRMS handles the decisions, “structure flows” handle the execution of those decisions.
Generalizing it – and referring to a number of on-going discussions around CEP, BPM and BRMS (http://www.edmblog.com/weblog/2008/11/an-attempt-at-demystifying-cep-bpm-and-brms.html and http://architectguy.blogspot.com/2008/11/more-on-cep.html):
- CEP detects business events from the flow of system and application events
- Business events trigger “structured flows”
- Which delegate decisions to BRMS
- And then carry on the execution of those decisions leveraging various integration capabilities

Bread and butter stuff.

Dealing with “unstructured flows” introduces both challenges and opportunities in terms of decision management. Some of these – and I do not intend to be complete here:
- Decisions are taken by clearly outlined “decision services” – implemented through BRMS etc – as well as by less formal (in the sense of software-codified) services – humans in particular; either separately or in conjunction.
- Decisions and actions are stitched together through micro-flows that are triggered through complex event inter-play.
- Since decisions will take into account more informal steps, understanding them and managing their performance becomes significantly more difficult

The last two points are essential.

True decision management for “unstructured flows” will require:
- Understanding events, understanding event correlation and the translation of system/application events into real business events – this is what event management (I hate to try to use the CEP term) should cover.
- Making every effort to understand decisions at large: both the parts codified in BRMS, translated from predictive analytics or simply extracted from policies, procedures, as well as the parts not yet codified there and less formal.
- Including significant collaboration aspects as part of the context of decisions.
- Tracking the performance of the decisions been made to identify both potential for further automation of the informal parts, and to improve the usage made of the corresponding high cost resources.
- Simulating the decisions – including putting to work knowledge gained through the tracking of the decisions made in the informal parts of the decisions.
- Progressively optimizing the unstructured flows through experiments (champion / challenger)

Counter-intuitively (maybe), “unstructured flows” will provide more challenges and more opportunity for decision management technologies and products.