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As stated in the first installment of my Fire and Ice cycle, its ultimate objective is to facilitate preparation of EPCs for BPMN-based automation. However, I strongly believe a different architectural approach to process modeling is needed, too. Here is why.   

Process Classification Framework

Bruce Silver’s book BPMN Method and Style is an excellent treatment of best practices related to this standard. In the 2nd edition, he looks at the relationship between business process architectures and BPMNi. Specifically, he analyzes the popular Process Classification Framework (PCF) and is not very happy about it.  

The Process Classification Framework was introduced in 1992 by American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC). PCF was originally envisioned as taxonomy of cross-functional business processes, intended to facilitate benchmarking of performance within and among organizations. The framework defines process categories, divided into groups of processes, processes and activitiesii Let’s follow one of PCF’s paths to illustrate the classification schema:

  • All what is happening inside an enterprise is partitioned into two broad areas of “operating processes” and “management/support processes”.
  • The operating processes are divided into categories, such as “Market and sell”.
  • The Market and sell category includes the “Develop & manage sales plans” process group.
  • The Develop & manage sales plans group encompasses the “Manage sales orders process”.
  • The Manage sales orders process includes the “Accept and validate sales orders” activity.

PCF encompasses hundreds of activities and covers all work one can imagine in a service or product company. The framework could be definitely improved by partitioning some of the lowest level activities. It resembles also a generic organizational structure in most of its parts and processes are hardly cross-functional. Nevertheless, PCF is probably the most widely known and used process taxonomy nowadays. Therefore, I use it frequently to illustrate process decomposition principles and will do so here as well.

Processes and Activities

What is the basic problem with PCF and similar architectures? In the first place, as Bruce Silver notes, it is the concept of an activity and a process. Please recall the official BPMN activity and process definition. A BPMN activity is a unit of work, performed by somebody or something within a process. In addition, a BPMN activity is a discrete action with a well-defined start and end, performed repeatedlyiii. As for a BPMN process, it is a sequence or flow of activities in an organization, with the objective of carrying out work. 

Let’s have a look at a sample PCF process, namely “Manage sales orders” (please see the picture below). PCF does not include process maps, so I derived one for experimental purpose. Four of the activities can be wired together to form a nice sequence, but this cannot be done with the remaining ones. Processing of back orders and updates should be split into two activities, but that does not help much. Back orders are processed in the same way as regular ones, while order update can happen at any time. Ditto for Handle order inquiries and Maintain Customer account information, as they also can happen independently of order processing progress.

Does it mean such random, parallel activities are redundant and unnecessary? Absolutely not! Although difficult to coordinate with other ones, such activities are essential for execution of processes. The fact they cannot be inserted into process structures, i.e. cannot be depicted on a process map, means simply just that and nothing more.

PCF - Manage Sales Order process

Functional Decomposition

As my simple experiment indicates, the Manage sales orders PCF process includes one “true” process and several autonomous activities. It does not matter whether we talk about a BPMN-like process or not. Most definitions of a process stress its internal structure, logic or sequence of activities. In my sample, some of them are clearly not related to others in this sense. In a nutshell, many PCF processes are really no processes at all.    

The other problem I see with the PCF framework resides in the second word of its name. PCF is not really based on classification, as lower level elements are not subtypes of the element aboveiv. Instead, it is based on functional decomposition method. A function is usually defined as a set of related activities that supports a particular aspect of an enterprise. Each higher level parent function is partitioned into many lower level child functions, until a satisfactory level of detail is reached. The relationships between child functions are not considered. Simultaneously, all child functions and only those functions are required collectively to realize their parent.

The objective of any functional decomposition is to arrive at a set of lowest level, detailed elements, called leaves. They are what really counts in the end, while all the levels above have secondary importance. PCF is no exception and it is essentially an inventory, a hierarchically organized catalogue of what is or should be done in an enterprise. On its lowest level, it encompasses activities of various types, such as:

1. Discrete, repetitive and structured activities related to each other
2. Discrete, repetitive and structured activities executed randomly
3. Continuous activities without clear beginning or end
4. Relatively infrequent activities without predetermined structures

End-to-End Processes

PCF provides generic building blocks, i.e. activities, required to produce goods or deliver services, to take care of requisite resources and to manage work within an enterprise.  Therefore, it is a valuable tool to support allocation of responsibilities and design of organizational structures. At the same time, its constituent discrete activities can be used to configure truly cross-functional, End-To-End (E2E) processes in a bottom-up manner. The next picture illustrates how PCF hierarchy can be used for that purpose.

PCF and a sample End-2-End process

The sample Order-To-Cash process is assembled out of activities picked from overall pool and located in several branches of the PCF hierarchy. It begins with Accept sales order and ends with Post receivable entry activity. Each of the discrete activities within its scope is a mini-process and can be partitioned further into tasks, glued together by process logic.

Other E2E processes, such as Idea-To-Market, Market-To-Order or Source-To-Pay, can be also assembled in the same way. If this is done for the whole enterprise, the end result would be a set of E2E processes, surrounded by parallel, auxiliary activities; much like a bunch of sharks is flanked by pilot fishes. Obviously, E2E processes would be portrayed on process maps, but the ad-hoc, random activities do not belong there. The only model where such activities can be defined, together with their more fortunate brothers and sisters, is the decomposition hierarchy.


Decomposition hierarchies lost favor with business process analysts long time ago. Business process analysts preferred to use hierarchies of process maps instead and functional decomposition became a forgotten art of managing complexity. Nevertheless, I am convinced functional decomposition and activity hierarchies, such as PCF or other ones, are the missing link between BPMN and enterprise-level BPM, as well as Enterprise Architectures. Moreover, they are also indispensable for proper structuring of BPMN processes in larger-scale efforts. I shall provide proof in the next installment.

See also my other posts on BPMN topic:


  • i - See Bruce Silver, BPMN Method and Style, 2nd Edition, Cody-Cassidy Press, 2011
  • ii - The most well known is a generic, industry-neutral PCF framework. In 2008, APQC and IBM worked together to enhance the cross-industry PCF and developed a number of industry-specific process classification frameworks.
  • iii - Bruce Silver, ibid, p. 10
  • iv - Top levels of a framework such as SCOR (Supply Chain Operations Reference model) or VRM (Value Reference Model) are truly based on classification.
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