I just got back from the IBM Impact conference this week, and three things immediately stood out for me when contrasting it from last year's event. First, there was less branding of the event as being about “SOA,” though SOA was woven through just about every presentation. (Last year's event, by the way, was called “IBM Impact SOA.” Second, and somewhat predictably, there was a lot of discussion about cloud computing. And, third, there was even more discussion around business process management, or BPM.

BPM typically has been a science and art addressed in other places, but not with IT-leaning audiences such as you would find at the IBM event. So the fusion has finally arrived.

The second day's keynote was drenched in BPM, as a matter of fact, and the speakers made the connection between business requirements, BPM and IT systems.

The insurance industry is playing a leading role in BPM initiatives, and Dr. Richard Ward, VP of clinical programs and medical informatics at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, joined an opening keynote panel to describe how BPM and technology were converging to better automate and deliver outlying processes, or address the unstructured aspects of processes.

At Blue Cross, for example, there are two sets of processes that are crucial to the business—short-term, repetitive tasks, such as claims processing, that can be better automated to cut costs, and those that are more informal or require manual legwork. Blue Cross's challenge was to apply BPM approaches and tools to better address the numerous “ad-hoc activities” that are part of the company's offerings, including wellness programs. “The programs are not easy to manage,” Ward said. “We need to foster collaboration across a diverse group of participants.”

Often, Ward pointed out, businesses have thrown up their hands and stayed away from attempting to bring ad-hoc or one-off processes, such as partner engagements, under the BPM umbrella. “Many businesses think processes such as these cannot be improved,” he said. However, BPM tools are getting flexible enough that more informal processes can be better systematized.

While systematizing repetitive tasks, such as claims processing or even call centers, is a no-brainer, many activities have been seen as beyond the scope of BPM capabilities. This is changing, and BPM is increasingly gaining visibility.

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