BPM+ Virtual Coffee
5 min Intro to BPMN

A short introduction to the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN)

Presented by

Denis Gagne, CEO & CTO at Trisotech

Good day everybody and welcome to our BPM+ Health Virtual Coffee session. The topic for today is a five-minute introduction to BPMN. So, without any further ado, let me go ahead and do this quick introduction. BPMN stands for Business Process Model and Notation and it’s a standard published by the Object Management Group, which is a Standard Development Organization. BPMN is an open standard, meaning that anybody can go and access the specification. The URL is here. You can go and download this specification.

BPMN offers a single visual process knowledge artifact for both humans and machine. On the one hand, it offers a visual story of what needs to be done, and on the other hand, for machines, it offers a portable execution semantic for automation. So, it enables this duality for us.

Why BPMN matters?

Because BPMN offers an unambiguous format for modeling processes. It also offers a file format that can be interchanged between the different vendor products, and it provides a common and readily transferable set of skills that are learned by subject matter experts. I’ve been arguing for many years now that this third point here is the most important. The BPMN standard is being taught by many different organizations. There are plenty of books, I think there’s over 100 books on BPMN. People can easily learn BPMN and, whenever someone from your organization leaves, and he is a BPMN expert, the next BPMN expert can be found in the market. So, this is a very important factor for all organizations.

What is BPMN?
  • BPMN is fundamentally a language for describing operations. It basically prescribes the next task to do.
  • It’s a mean to an end. Meaning that we should model for a purpose. Whether your purpose is for documentation or for automation, this will drive how you use BPMN.
  • It’s a tool not a solution. Meaning that you require domain knowledge and modeling skills to properly create BPMN models.

What is very nice about BPMN is that there are only four basic shapes that you need to know:

  • Whenever you see a circle in BPMN it means an event. There are various types of circles but they’re all events.
  • Whenever you see a rounded rectangle shape that means an activity. Again, there are different types of activities, but whenever you see a rounded rectangle, it’s an activity.
  • Whenever you see a diamond, it is about routing. It is a routing gateway, and a little note here is that a routing gateway is not the decision in itself, the decision needs to happen before the gateway. The gateway only depicts the possible routes and the logic for taking those routes.

There is also a whole set of markers and decorators that are used for more expressiveness in BPMN. But if you know how to read these four shapes, you know how to read BPMN, or if you know how to write or draw these four shapes, you know how to draw BPMN.

Going back to one of the first point presented, it is a visual story about what needs to be done next. We have a single artifact that is both for the subject matter expert and for the automation. The shape at the top here is a pool, meaning/representing some external participant. The start event, which is a circle, is the event that triggers the instance. The rounded squares or rectangles are tasks to be completed. The gear marker here says that this is a service task. The arrow shows us what to do next. The next task is a PMML or Predictive Model task (an AI kind of task). Next, we have a CQL task. Next, here we have a little table marker (meaning that this is a decision task), and as I mentioned before, the decision is taken prior to the routing behavior. The x in the gateway mean it is an exclusive choice between the two routes. We then have a case task and a sub process with the plus marker meaning that there is a further breakdown of this activity that is defined in more details. The dog ear document shape represents the data coming in. Where the dotted arrow is a data flow, and the dash line with an open arrowhead is an external communication via message flow. The double circle is an intermediate event, and again another type of circle, a think border circle is an end event. So, circles are events, rounded rectangles are activities, diamond shapes are routings, and the arrows are depicting the flow. BPMN has a token semantic. That means that you have to think of a token traversing a path, and then when the token gets to a routing point, if it is an exclusive choice like here, it will take only one path all the way to the end. So, that’s how the semantic of execution of BPMN works.

Now BPMN, as I mentioned in the introduction, is both for documentation and automation. What’s the difference? Basically, most of the time you are modeling for documentation. Your goal is then to make the diagram as unambiguous and clear at specifying the logic of the process. We do recommend the BPMN Method and Style approach promoted by Bruce Silver. There is a series of books on Method and Style that will help you make sure that your BPMN model captures everything that you wanted to communicate. When you are looking at automation, automation requires explicit specification of the data and their types. That may not be needed when you are doing documentation, but certainly needed when you are doing modeling for automation. Then the BPMN engine will orchestrate the next task to be completed. Getting back to the notion of a traversing token I was mentioning before, the engine basically moves the token for you and either get the next activity completed by some service, or offers it to a use, or group of users, to complete. There is a nice blog post here that discusses the difference between modeling for documentation and modeling for automation. And that is basically it for my introduction to BPMN in five minutes.

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