Sunday 1 June 2008

Talking at cross purposes, or being deliberately misled?

Ever had one of those conversations where you debate something for a while then it dawns on you that each party has been talking about something different? It has happened to me quite a few times recently.

One example was in relation to Business Process Modelling (BPM), which is something I grew up with and in my mind is about, well, modelling business processes. It’s a discipline that business analysts have been involved with for a years, and while the technology to support it has moved on, and arguably some of the methodologies too, the fundamental principles haven’t changed that much for a long time now. Then someone asked Freeform Dynamics to design a research study to figure out the level to which organisations had adopted BPM. When I argued during an internal project start-up meeting that you couldn’t really ask someone about when and how they were taking something on board that they had been doing for a decade or two, it turned out that the ‘BPM’ we were being asked to investigate was actually 'Business Process Management' and was based on a definition which included the technical side of things – workflow rules engines, SOA orchestration, and so on. Not quite the technology-independent business view of BPM that I was taught earlier in my career, but as soon as the misunderstanding was cleared up, we could design the research accordingly.

Another example was prompted by a report I read the other day claiming that Software as a Service (SaaS) is now a mature and pervasive model. This was reminiscent of claims made during a number of other conversations I have had recently with SaaS advocates, that I have been struggling to reconcile with the findings of our own research. The latter has shown quite conclusively that while larger organisations are starting to make selective use of SaaS for delivering business application functionality, 'pervasive' is certainly not a word that applies in this area. Then I realised that some of the advocates were throwing a whole bunch of stuff into their definition of SaaS (or the related S+S model) that I would never dream of including when discussing the delivery of business application functionality. Internet search, traditional ISP services, and even things like consumer content services, online help and automatic updates associated with desktop software can sometimes be lumped together when referring the 'SaaS market'. Again, once the ambiguity is cleared up, you can see where people are coming from, and make a judgement on the usefulness (or otherwise) of what they are saying.

I guess we at Freeform are particularly sensitive to precision when it comes to discussing market activity, as primary research designed to figure out what’s really going on behind the buzzwords and the hype is so central to what we do. The experiences I have outlined, however, highlight how easily people can be misled by imprecise or ambiguous definitions if they are not on their guard. And with so much vested interest and evangelism driving the market, the temptation for some to spin and exploit our ever changing vocabulary is significant, so we all need to careful about what is behind those stats and definitions.