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Dust Off Your 'Shelfware'

There's new hope we'll tap the process know-how trapped in Visio.

Have you ever considered what it would mean to have a universal, technology-independent standard for describing a business process? Such a standard would promote shared understanding of processes across business and IT, or between departments, merging companies and trading partners. And it would encourage best practices and process reuse. More than that, it could revolutionize the way we build executable business processes.

In all the debate over business process modeling standards, we forget that we already have a de facto process description standard: Microsoft Visio. Something like two-thirds of the process models that exist in the world today—the tangible end product of all those meetings, interviews, walkthroughs and tumultuous turf debates in search of the next incremental improvement—are Visio diagrams. The problem is they're only that—diagrams meant for human understanding, not true process models that can be executed and optimized. Instead of consigning that knowledge to shelfware, wouldn't it be better to unlock it for use in new and better processes?

Visio process diagram archives are rarely leveraged in the rollout of new automation initiatives. The analysis they represent isn't discounted; it's just too expensive to extract. At a minimum, mining this insight in some automated way would require standardizing the semantics of process activities, flows and events, and mapping user-defined Visio shapes and annotations to that standard. Such a standard would have to be implementation-neutral. But if the Visio diagrams were rich and expressive enough, and standardized with an XML schema, they could potentially be converted by simple mapping to true process models, allowing simulation, analysis and even execution on BPM engines.

This could trigger an explosion of new executable process implementations by leveraging the past work of process improvement teams in IT modeling and design. Harnessing the vast archive of legacy Visio in that effort would increase the effect tenfold.

But is that even possible? Pieces of the puzzle are falling into place, beginning with an expressive but implementation-independent diagramming standard. The Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) from BPMI.org (now part of the Object Management Group) is such a vendor-neutral standard. It even provides mappings of its various shapes and line types to BPEL, the process execution language standard favored by software infrastructure vendors such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. The only problem is that the BPEL process architecture, in which all activities are assumed to be Web services, isn't the one favored by a majority of BPM system vendors. Sure, all BPM vendors officially "support" BPEL, but most use it for short bursts of application integration, not for the end-to-end process. For that, they follow the Workflow Management Coalition's (WfMC's) rival architecture and its associated process description language, XPDL. What's new is that the standards bodies have finally put their heads together to propose a new BPMN schema that allows diagrams to be mapped to BPEL or an updated version of XPDL.

Another piece of the puzzle is layering BPMN (and its implementation mappings) onto Visio. There are two ways this is happening. One is through enterprise architecture modeling tools such as Popkin and Casewise that can ingest Visio diagrams, map their shapes to those used by the modeling tool (including BPMN) and, after analysis and optimization, generate skeleton BPEL models to be finished by developers. The other way works within the Visio environment. Visio add-ins such as Process Modeler from ITP-Commerce support not only creation of BPMN diagrams directly within Visio, but full validation and mapping to a choice of XPDL or BPEL.

The third piece is the hardest: capturing legacy Visio drawings in a semi-automated way. You can save a Visio drawing as XML, and in principle you can write simple stylesheets to extract the shapes and lines, and map them to corresponding BPMN shapes. The mapping is somewhat manual, since it depends on the original Visio user's intent, but a mapping defined for one process should work pretty well for others created in the same organization. You'll need to do some tweaking to clean up the BPMN for conversion to an executable process.

Standardization of a schema for BPMN will complete the cycle. You'll be able to go from process capture in legacy Visio to execution on a process engine with a fraction of the cost and effort required today. Process teams, dust off that old Visio shelfware! Your labors could have a new lease on life.

Bruce Silver is President of Bruce Silver Associates (www.brsilver.com). Write to him at [email protected].

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