There’s more than one kind of database

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By Peter Hilton

And there’s more than one kind of business process software too

What kind of database do you use in your organisation? For most organisations, the answer is ‘more than one’. These different kinds of database make for a good analogy with the different kinds of business process software.

There are different ways to use computer software to store and manage business data. For example, your company might manage data using a number of databases based on a traditional Relational Database Management System (RDBMS), such as Oracle Database, IBM DB2 or Microsoft SQL Server.

Expensive databases are expensive

Sometimes in IT, you get the impression that this kind of ‘proper database’ is the only way to store business data, which would be nice for the product vendors if it were true. There’s an old IT joke about that:

“I wish I could afford Oracle.”

“But why do you want to use Oracle?”

“Oh, I don’t. I just wish I could afford it.”

This joke is fully-customisable: it’s not really about Oracle products, specifically, and there are plenty of other vendors with expensive products that also make the joke work.

When an organisation does end up with an expensive database product, they sometimes spread the pain by buying an even more expensive ‘site license’ so that at least ‘we can use it for everything’. That isn’t how it works out, though: the organisation still ends up with lots of small and cheap databases anyway.

The many small and cheap databases aren’t the open-source database products, which are another story. A large organisation’s proliferation of small and cheap databases are in fact disguised as something else: spreadsheets.

Databases are usually disguised as spreadsheets

However many fancy database servers an organisation has, a lot of business data resides at the other end of the software complexity spectrum, in spreadsheets. What these humble spreadsheets lack in IT sophistication, they have in unrivalled simplicity and flexibility. It should be no surprise that companies of all sizes rely on data in spreadsheets, alongside other IT systems. This is not a bad thing.

There are two important things to note about business data in spreadsheets:

  1. small organisations put everything in spreadsheets
  2. large organisations use more sophisticated databases, but still have lots of spreadsheets.

That’s even a simplification: there are different kinds of database software in between the two extremes as well.

There’s more than one kind of BPM software

The same is true for business process software applications: there’s more than one kind. Although sophisticated BPM systems exist, it certainly isn’t feasible or desirable to manage and run all processes that way. Most of the time, you need something low-cost, simple and flexible, at least to start with.

The two observations about spreadsheets above translate from data management to business process management like this:

  1. small organisations don’t use a Business Process Management System (BPMS)
  2. large organisations deploy a BPMS for key processes, but still have lots of processes that run on simpler tools, or no tool support at all.

Like databases, business process software is usually disguised as something else. That doesn’t mean the existing solution doesn’t work, but there might be a better tool for the job.

Photo: Sara / CC BY-ND 2.0