Purpose - To construct, test and illustrate a sophisticated and theory-based architecture for analyzing business process management systems (BPMS) used for business process change. Design/methodology/approach - Exploration of business process modeling-based BPMS via a meta-survey of academic and business literatures. Two main dimensions are used based upon semiotics and a block-based BPMS pyramid architecture. Each block is a core technology required for the functioning of the BPMS and include: the subject being modeled; the software formalism; the IT infrastructure; the modeling language and notation; and the underlying technical infrastructure. Findings - Theoretically explains and empirically illustrates each core technology in the proposed architecture then does the same for the architecture, its arrangement as a whole and its interrelationships. Recognizes the lack of a theoretical basis for business process modeling constructs and the dangers that this generates. Explains why automatic BPMS require formal construct transmission from subject modeled to modeling hardware and software. Research limitations/implications - The architecture's core technologies span numerous disciplines so each set of literatures introduces the component concepts and their bases but is not exhaustive. Originality/value - This paper proposes a considerably more sophisticated framework for BPMS analysis than is currently available; it is theoretically and not just empirically based; it uses a novel method of theoretical justification concerned with the transmission of modeled properties and characteristics between several technological media; and it illustrates the innovative analytical use of this architecture and the practical use of BPMS with three different case vignettes. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.