October 5, 2009

On business functions

While reading the book Business Process Management – Concepts, Languages, Architectures (Mathias Weske, 2007. ISBN: 9783540735212) I was once again confused by the term business function which is used differently by different authors in different contexts. In this blogpost I’ll describe my attempts to come to grips with this term. Before diving in, though, I must say that the above book is interesting and very well written. I like the structure and style of writing. I particularly like the fact that quite a few pages are spent giving an overview of (selected parts of) the field from a historical perspective. Given the strong focus on IT, I wouldn’t recommend this book as a first introduction into the field of BPM, though. However, the books seems very useful for IT-professionals who wish to gain a deeper understanding of conceptual analysis of business processes (e.g. IT managers, process architects, developers, JBoss specialists, etcetera).

To divein: to understand the concept of ‘business function’ we must come to grips with the words ‘business’ and ‘function’ first. To me, the word ‘function’ has a mathematical connotation. In mathematics, a function is a special type of relation which couples an element from one domain to exactly one element from another domain. For example:

f:x\rightarrow x^2 + 1

is a function that maps real numbers to real numbers. I.e., f is a function that transforms a real number into exactly one other real number. It seems hard to apply this notion of functions to business functions, regardless of the definition of the concept 'business' (which is an interesting discussion in itself; it probably does not mean a product-market combination as is common in the field of strategic management). It is likely that 'function' in 'business function' should be interpreted along the lines of "something that achieves a specific goal".

Weske starts his exploration of the concept of business function with Porter's Value Chain Model (see e.g. Wikipedia). In this model, activities are characterized as being either primary or secundary/supporting.

Weske claims that these activities are typically dubbed business functions in BPM literature; a value system consists of a value chain which contains business functions. Business functions can be detailed further using the concept of business processes. This seems similar to the way the business function concept is used in e.g. the NOVIUS method for architecture as well as the ArchiMate language.

In ArchiMate a business function is defined as "a unit of internal behavior that groups behavior
according to, for example, required skills, knowledge, resources, etc., and is
performed by a single role within the organization
". This definition implies a second meaning for the business function concept, as illustrated by the following ArchiMate fragment:

this snipplet shows that a business function (A) can consist of one (or more) business processes, and also illustrates that business processes can use business functions (B). An example of the former would be the observation that the business function "financial settlement" has a "collect premium" process. An example of the latter would be the observation that the "collect premium" process uses a "billing" business function.

As always, using terminology can be tricky. I guess that both interpretations work in practice and have no strong preference for either. Has anyone encountered other uses of the word 'business function'?
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