Business Process Modeling as a Starting Point for Information Systems Design (Part 1)

Paul J.M.  Mallens
Paul J.M. Mallens Professor, Delft University Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Paul J.M. Mallens
Jan L.G.  Dietz
Jan L.G. Dietz Professor, Delft University Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Jan L.G. Dietz

Introduction

As information system engineers we ask ourselves the question how to give business communities the systems they really need and to make sure that these systems can be adjusted in time and in the right way?  How can we keep information systems in line with an evolving business?  What is the optimal application of information and communication technology (ICT) in a given situation?  How to guarantee that we do not miss a window of opportunity that new technology is offering us?

In order to address these issues, it is not enough to have an optimal way of design and construction of information systems.  We need a clear portrait of the business process that is to be supported by the information system in the first place.  The management team’s critical agenda is to translate new views on the business mission into changes in business processes, in order to create a business system that implements the desired way of doing business.  The information systems are to support these processes.

In order to align the two systems, we need a clear model of the business system, showing the business process in a way that is free of its support by information systems.  It is crucial to be able to abstract from ICT and to obtain an understanding of the business process itself -- considering, at the same time, that the current ICT realization may block our capacity to see new opportunities.

Apart from having a concept to model business processes, we will need to have a way of modeling information systems that matches this understanding of the business process.  Is there a route that shows how information systems connect to business processes?  And which business and ICT concepts fit into this picture?  How, for example, are business rules related to a business-modeling scenario?

Modeling Business Processes with DEMO

In this article, we begin a three-part series in which we explain our view on this matter.  This view constitutes a basis for the alignment between business and ICT in general.  In doing so we will introduce DEMO, Dynamic Essential Modeling of Organizations [1,2,3].  DEMO is a (re)engineering and development methodology that offers concepts and modeling techniques for business processes.  DEMO is developed to give the information systems designer an appropriate view on the business process.  DEMO provides the modeling instruments for representing the essence of business processes.

Many people see business rules as stemming from the business process level and as being a way to specify the workings of the information system [4, 5, 6].  This implies that business rules are seen as a means to solve the alignment question.  Key questions still remain, however, related to how one can understand the business process in a structured way that helps us understand information systems-related rules.  What does business process modeling tell us about business rules?  Can we find business rules in the business process model, and does the business process model offer a starting point to harvest and set rules at the level of information systems?  How do business rules relate to the information handling -- the facts created and gathered by the organization under study?  How can one objectively and decisively distinguish between original and derived facts?

In this article series, we will focus on the understanding and modeling of business processes in such a way that, on the one hand, states the relationship with business objectives clearly and precisely and that, on the other hand, abstracts one completely from the supporting information systems (thus from any ICT issue).  In doing so, a business-level notion of rules and facts is put forward.  In a later article we plan to address the same questions from the information systems perspective while using the same DEMO modeling concepts explained in this article series.

Business Systems and Information Systems

In the literature, a "business process" is commonly defined as a chain of organizational or inter-organizational activities that are necessary for accomplishing a product or service.  Examples of this definition are "an ordering of work activities across time and place, with a beginning, an end, and clearly-identified inputs and outputs" [7] or "a set of activities that, taken together, produce a result of value to a customer" [8].

DEMO fits in a fairly new and promising perspective on business processes and information systems, called the Language/Action Perspective, or L/A Perspective for short.  Contrary to the prevailing notion that communication is exchanging sentences, expressing some proposition with regard to the world, the L/A Perspective assumes that communication is a kind of action in that it can create commitments between the communicating parties.  To communicate then is to perform language acts [9] or communicative acts [10], like 'requesting' or 'promising.'

The major difference between DEMO and other L/A approaches (like BAT [11] and Action WorkFlow[12]) is that it is built on additional principles and theories.  An example of such an additional theory is Stamper’s Semiotic Ladder [13], which helps understanding information and communication in a way that is used to explain the difference between a business system and an information system.  (This will be illustrated in the next section.)  One of the principles of DEMO is that, for the purpose of re-design and re-engineering the business processes of an organization, one needs to have an understanding of its 'construction' and 'action.'  So, instead of applying the common black-box model, DEMO applies a white-box model to understand organizations. [see sidebar]

Before going in more detail on DEMO modeling concepts we will first discuss what kind of systems we need to study in an organization and how we can discern between these systems on the basis of a clear view on the concepts of information and communication.

Three Kinds of System

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It is a widespread and common practice to apply information systems modeling techniques like Data Flow Diagrams and UML-models for modeling business processes.  A serious drawback of these techniques, however, is that they do not distinguish between business processes and information processes.  When one wants to adapt an information system to changing business requirements, one needs a foothold at the business level -- a clear view of the business process that is not clouded by ICT issues or concepts.

So, there is a need to capture the essence of the business process separate from and prior to the modeling of the information systems.  In a similar way, information systems are to be distinguished from the underlying technical ICT infrastructure.  Most modern approaches to information systems modeling do make this latter distinction.  In all, we discern three kinds of systems that are pertinent to the field of business information systems:

  1. Business systems,
  2. Information systems (or applications), and
  3. Infrastructural systems.

At any point in our business analysis it needs to be clear what we take under study and what not.  Before going into detail in explaining the business system, first we will elaborate upon the basis for discerning the above three types of systems.

Three Aspects of Information

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The key to how to distinguish between business processes, information systems, and ICT infrastructural systems stems from how we look at communication and information -- the key concepts in our domain.  First, every piece of information has a way in which it is expressed -- a form -- meaning that it has some perceivable structure carried in some physical substance.  We will refer to the form as the forma aspect, indicated by the color blue in Figure 1.  Any piece of information is carried in some substance and is expressed in some language.  The notion of language has to be taken broadly.  It includes, for example, pictographic and other non-verbal languages.  The forma aspect roughly corresponds to the semiotic levels syntactics and empirics together [13].

The way the expression is to be understood is the 'informing' property of a piece of information, which we refer to as the informa aspect, indicated by the color green in Figure 1.  Thus, the informa is the meaning of the forma, and it refers to the common and shared view of the world at hand.  For example, how managers in a company interpret a certain fact is based on their knowledge and mutual understandings.  The informa aspect roughly corresponds to the semiotic levels semantics and pragmatics together [13].

There is a third property of any piece of information, one which is not taken into account by traditional information systems designers but which is most valuable for understanding business processes.  This property is the 'intention' with which people communicate.  Examples of intentions are requests, promises, questions, and assertions.  Some of these intentions aim at establishing new facts -- for example, requests and promises.  If that is the case, we say that there is a performa aspect to the information, indicated by the color pink in Figure 1.  The performa of a piece of information consists of the commitments that are raised between the people communicating.  It is determined by both the intention and the proposition communicated, and it is further dependent on the current norms and values in the shared culture of the communicating subjects.

Three Perspectives on Organization

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The distinction between these three aspects of information gives rise to a corresponding distinction between three perspectives on organization, called respectively the essential perspective, the informational perspective, and the documental perspective.  Each of these perspectives can be taken on separately by the business analyst, to gain a clear view of one particular system at work in the organization.  This is summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Three perspectives on organization
Business system ~ the essential perspective Looking from the essential perspective, one is only interested in the performa aspect of information -- one is studying people who are communicating in order to make each other act.  One sees the social actor in the organization providing the services of the organization.  They perform the objective actions, and they also coordinate their activities.

Examples of coordinating actions are the requesting or promising of (objective) actions, and the stating or accepting of results intended.  The sum of these actions constitutes the essence of the business process.  Performing all of these actions implies having the authority and the competence to do so and also taking the responsibility to carry out the tasks related.  The objective actions result in changes that are expressed as facts.
Information system ~ the informational perspective Looking upon the organization from the informational perspective, one sees actors that handle information in a rational way.  Often this rational actor role is played by information systems, agents, or what have you.  They execute actions like gathering, remembering, providing, and computing knowledge in support of the above essential actions and their results.

Since no new facts are created in informative conversations, we consider informative acts to be performed by rational actors, and thus to belong to the informational perspective on organizations.  These rational actors constitute the information system.
ICT infrastructure system ~ the documental perspective Lastly, looking upon the organization from the documental perspective, one sees actors that perform formal tasks that support the informational process.  This formal actor type executes actions like producing, distributing, storing, copying, and destroying documents, containing the aforementioned knowledge.

The documental actions are not concerned with the content of the information but with the way the information is presented, the forma.  These actors are part of the infrastructure.

Figure 1 summarizes the above division in three kinds of systems stemming from three perspectives on information and communication as discussed so far.

Figure 1. Information aspects, actor types, perspectives, and systems types

In the next installment of this article, we will focus on the essential perspective when introducing the modeling concepts for the business system and its processes.

References

  1. Dietz, J.L.G., Understanding and modeling business processes with DEMO, in: Proc. ER’99, Annual International Conference on Conceptual Modeling, Paris, November 1999.
  2. Dietz, J.L.G., DEMO: towards a discipline of Organisation Engineering, European Journal of Operational Research, vol. 128/2, January 2001, North-Holland.
  3. Van Reijswoud, V.E., J.B.F. Mulder, J.L.G. Dietz, Speech Act Based Business Process and Information Modeling with DEMO, Information Systems Journal, 1999.
  4. Hay, D, Anderson Healy, K, et al, Guide Business Rules Project, Final Report, October 1997.
  5. Mallens, P.J.M., Business Rules-based application development, Database Newsletter, volume 25 number 3 May/June 1997.
  6. Herbst, H, Knolmayer, G, Petrinets as derived process representants in the BROCOM approach, Wirtschaftsinformatik 38, 1996 4.
  7. Davenport, T.H., Process Innovation: Reengineering Work through Information Technology, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1993.
  8. Hammer, M., Champy, C., Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, Brealy, London, 1993.
  9. Searle, J.R., Speech Acts, an Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge MA, 1969.
  10. Habermas, J., Theorie des Kommunikatives Handelns, Erster Band, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1981.
  11. Lind, M., G. Goldkuhl, Reconstruction of Different Business Processes: A Theory and Method Driven Analysis, in: Dignum, F., J.L.G. Dietz, Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Communication Modeling, Computing Science Reports, Eindhoven University of Technology, 1997.
  12. Medina-Mora, R., T. Winograd, R. Flores, F. Flores, The Action Workflow Approach to Workflow Management Technology, Proc. 4th Int. Conf. on CSCW, ACM, New York, 1992.
  13. Stamper, R.K., Applied Semiotics, in: Proc. of the ICL/University of New Castle Seminar ‘Information’, New castle, 1993.
  14. Mintzberg, Structures in Fives: Designing effective organizations, Prentice Hall International, London, 1983.
  15. Winograd, T. A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work, in Computer supported Cooperative Work: A book of Readings. Irene Greif editor, Morgan Kaufman Publishers Inc., San Mateo, California 1988, pages 623 -653.

For more information the reader is referred to the website www.demo.tudelft.nl

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Standard citation for this article:


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Paul J.M. Mallens and Jan L.G. Dietz , "Business Process Modeling as a Starting Point for Information Systems Design (Part 1)" Business Rules Journal Vol. 2, No. 1, (Jan. 2001)
URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2001/b027a.html

About our Contributor(s):


Paul  J.M. Mallens
Paul J.M. Mallens Professor, Delft University

Paul Mallens started his academic career at Delft University only 3 years ago after working in the IT industry with a business rules company called USoft.

In their research they both focus on the issue of alligning business and IT. Key challenge for them is to develop methodology that bridges the gaps that exist
between business needs and ICT capacity and between theory and practice.

Jan L.G. Dietz and Paul J.M. Mallens,
Delft University of Technology,
Faculty of Information Technology and Systems,
P.O. Box 356, 2600 AJ
Delft, The Netherlands.

E-mail: j.l.g.dietz@its.tudelft.nl
and p.j.m.mallens@its.tudelft.nl

Read All Articles by Paul J.M. Mallens
Jan  L.G. Dietz
Jan L.G. Dietz Professor, Delft University

Jan L.G. Dietz is full professor in Information Systems Engineering at Delft University of Technology. Being an IT practitioner since 1970, he became a Doctor in Information sciences in 1987 and started as professor at the Maastricht University.

In their research they both focus on the issue of alligning business and IT. Key challenge for them is to develop methodology that bridges the gaps that exist
between business needs and ICT capacity and between theory and practice.

Jan L.G. Dietz and Paul J.M. Mallens,
Delft University of Technology,
Faculty of Information Technology and Systems,
P.O. Box 356, 2600 AJ
Delft, The Netherlands.

E-mail: j.l.g.dietz@its.tudelft.nl
and p.j.m.mallens@its.tudelft.nl

Read All Articles by Jan L.G. Dietz
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Business Process Modeling as a Starting Point for Information Systems Design (Part 3)
Business Process Modeling as a Starting Point for Information Systems Design (Part 2)
Business Process Modeling as a Starting Point for Information Systems Design (Part 1)
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