Over the last few years, business process management has been a major focus for vendors and buyers in the area of IT-based business integration. Vendors have been banging the drum loudly about its necessity while buyers have been attracted by its overt charms. However, the last year or so has seen a gradual shift in buyer perceptions at least, with concerns beginning to mount about business process management's capability to deliver real business value and return on investment.

The Background

There are a number of acronyms that have emerged to describe the ability to manage business processes and the underlying IT implementations with a view to being able to easily integrate them. BPI (business process integration) and BPA (business process automation) seemed to be fairly self-descriptive terms, but typically the IT industry selected the slightly more vague business process management as the accepted nomenclature. The idea behind business process management at its most basic is fairly simple - business process management is about being able to integrate and manage business processes from the business viewpoint, with all the IT implementation details concealed and automatically redefined to match the needs of the process changes.

At this level, business process management is seen as the holy grail, a way to decouple business departments and executives from having to be slowed down or held back by the IT department. Surely, with business process management, a business analyst can simply draw a flowchart of the modified or integrated business process and push a button, and the IT resources all shuffle around and fall into place automatically to execute the desired process.

The dream is highly seductive, but in fact it is some way from reality. This does not mean that the industry will not eventually achieve the desired promised land, but at this point in time in the development of the technology, it is important that buyers go into business process management with their eyes open.

Business versus IT Perspective

The first reality check refers to the enormous gulf found in the marketplace between IT and business viewpoints. This is ideally illustrated in the way that business process management has emerged. Initially there were two discrete areas of the software market - workflow and EAI (enterprise application integration). Workflow vendors concentrated on working with customers to understand their processes and procedures, and then offering tools to help with the IT-based automation of the linkage between the various steps or work tasks. EAI vendors provided tools that made it possible for IT applications and resources to be integrated, making it possible to increase levels of automation and bring together company-wide resources into a single view (for example, delivering a single customer view).

However, the EAI vendors quickly realized that they had a problem. Most major IT budget expenditure was controlled by business units rather than IT; and, as such, it became necessary to find a sales message that appealed to business executives. Then, it was realized that because EAI technology allowed companies to link their IT components together by presenting these rules-based linkages through a GUI (graphical user interface), it was possible to claim that this was integrating business processes through a non-technical flowchart approach. Thus, business process management was born. Of course, this was basically a marketing con, at least in its early days. It may be true that as long as there is a one-to-one relationship between IT components and business processes or subprocesses, then EAI plus a GUI could indeed claim to be a form of business process management. However, this is rarely, if ever, the case. A business process will drive pieces of functionality in a range of different components, and those same components will provide different functionality for other processes. Workflow vendors have been quick to shout about the fact that the EAI is not really process-oriented, but their own approach is somewhat weak in its own support for IT component integration.

The EAI market's lack of awareness of the true business perspective is also evident in many other ways. For example, many companies already use tools such as ARIS for business process flowcharting; however, EAI vendors rarely include support for importing these flowcharts into their own business process management. This is a classic symptom of a failure to understand and appreciate the requirements from the business perspective in the technology. Another example is that of long-running tasks. EAI vendors are accustomed to dealing with automated, IT-based operations that have lifetimes of no more than a few seconds, and this is generally reflected in their business process management offerings. However, in real business process terms, it is quite possible that a particular process (e.g., processing a customer complaint) might last weeks. Typically, business process management software from EAI vendors cannot cope with this situation, although the workflow vendors will almost certainly do so.

It may seem obvious from these discussions that companies looking for business process management should therefore look to workflow vendors for solutions rather than EAI vendors. However, the reason that the EAI-driven business process management is vastly more popular is that a workflow solution is usually a major project, with detailed studies of the processes across the company and then a major infrastructure investment to deliver the solution. In contrast, business process management from the EAI vendors is more incremental, with the promise being one of integrating processes and subprocesses as required on a step-by-step basis. In addition, real process integration has to deal with the issue of integrating the underlying IT components eventually; therefore, EAI will usually be required anyway.

Company Maturity with Respect to Processes and IT

The other issue that significantly affects the business process management buyer's experience is the level of maturity of the company concerned. Business process management is all about integrating and managing business processes and being able to reuse subprocesses as much as possible. The benefits promise to be substantial. However, what many companies take for granted is that they know what their processes are! Business executives love the idea of working at the process level, while IT departments see that they could deliver much greater business value and hence justify greater levels of investment. However, once the software has been selected and brought in, the company may be in for a nasty shock.

In order to be able to integrate and manage business processes, it is important that these processes are actually defined somewhere and, perhaps more importantly, that the way they are currently delivered by the various IT components is also clearly understood. This may seem obvious, but many companies have embarked on a business process management initiative and made significant investments only to discover that this information is just not written down anywhere. As a result, a huge investment of resources can often be required to try to gather this information. Some companies who got heavily involved in the business process reengineering fad of the late '80s may have a reasonable set of documentation, but even this may well have become outdated as people are remarkably reluctant to keep such records up to date.

The key here is for companies looking at business process management to be very focused and clear on which processes they want to integrate and what benefits this will bring. Buying business process management based on the returns when all the processes are integrated and accessible at the business level may seem like a good investment, but in all likelihood will prove seriously disappointing.

Implementation/Operational Challenges

The implementation and production operations of business process management suffer from a set of problems closely related to the business/technology divide discussed previously. By its very nature, a business process management solution will require a detailed understanding of the way different business processes and subprocesses interact combined with a precise knowledge of the way that IT systems have been developed to fulfill the needs of these business services. It is, therefore, essential that in the solution specification and design stage of the business process management project both these areas of expertise are represented. Once the project has been deployed and is operationally live, this need becomes even more critical. For instance, consider the problem of offering a help-desk facility to users of the new, business process management-integrated business service. Problems may arise because of some problem with the software or hardware, or due to some aspect of the modifications to the business processes. To resolve these problems, it will be crucial to have skills available from both the business and IT camps.

However, this is an area where numerous customers attempting business process management projects have run into trouble. The problems are twofold. The first and perhaps the most easily remedied problem is directly attributable to the business/technology divide. The business-skilled people will find it difficult to appreciate the IT perspective, and vice versa. It becomes difficult to optimize the design, implementation and problem resolution due to the fact that each department can only see matters from its own point of view. The resolution tends to be to try to find those hybrid professionals who have their feet in both camps. These people are difficult to find; but once they have been located or trained, they can be invaluable.

The second problem, although seemingly somewhat trivial, is often extremely difficult to resolve in a timely fashion. This problem stems from the fact that in organizational terms, the two disciplines are usually completely separate. The IT organization holds the technically skilled people and the business units hold the business and operational analysts. Companies frequently run into turf wars when they try to staff a business process management project, where one department refuses to relinquish control of its own resources and instead looks to the other department to hand over headcount/warm bodies. One company moving into business process management experienced a six-month delay to the project because it could not resolve the issue of where the multidisciplined help desk would report and how it would be staffed. Some companies even set up a separate organization specifically to hold the shared skills unit. To reiterate, this may seem like a problem that should never even occur, but the reality is that these types of internal politics can seriously impact delivery of business process management solutions within a company.

Business Process Management Reality

Is business process management just a mirage? Is it the case that the products and tools offered today can never show a reasonable return? If it is so difficult to get this enterprise-wide, process-oriented view overlaying the IT implementation, then why bother with business process management at all?

Actually, there are companies today that are having some success with business process management. Also, as time goes by, the vendors are sorting out some of the functional issues already discussed. Workflow vendors are partnering or building EAI capabilities, and EAI vendors are trying to take a more process-oriented view or partnering with/acquiring workflow vendors.

Companies having the most success with business process management have generally adopted the following principles:

  • Bind the use of business process management to specific project needs.
  • Ensure a sound EAI base already exists to deal with IT component integration needs.
  • Be realistic and clear about the expected returns.
  • Allow sufficient planning time to understand the existing processes and subprocesses and how the underlying IT components map to them.
  • Assemble mixed-discipline teams with business and technical departments represented prior to vendor selection, during implementation and after rollout (e.g., for help desk).

The point about ensuring that the EAI base already exists is worth reiterating. Some companies have tried to move straight to business process management without setting up the EAI infrastructure first, but this has proved to be disastrous. It is hard enough to cope with the new discipline of business process management, but if this is attempted at the same time as trying to take on all the complexities and paradigm shifts of EAI, then failure is almost certain. Instead, it makes much more sense to deal with the EAI issues first because it will be required by any business process management implementation. Then, business process management can be tackled without the added complication of unfamiliarity with the underlying EAI technologies.
However, successful exponents of business process management point to the fact that there are very real benefits to be gained once the problems have been handled and the project is successful. These benefits span the more obvious ones such as a quicker time to market for new business initiatives, a higher degree of reuse with resultant increase in quality and reduction in costs, and a cleaner interface to business partners that does not expose the internals of the company IT implementation. However, they also include some other benefits that can almost be more important than all the others put together. Business process management ensures that the operational processes that run the business are handled distinctly, with all the IT implications concealed. Therefore, the processes achieve a greater degree of visibility and manageability than ever before. Because the processes and the process flows are now all tracked at the highest level in their IT implementations, it becomes much easier to measure them and provide executives with the operational information they need to run the business efficiently and effectively. Senior management now has the ability to get critical business performance information at their fingertips, giving them the levers and buttons to truly manage the business. The paybacks are reduced business risk, increased competitiveness and greater business success.

Business process management is still relatively early in its life and is not without problems. There is much confusion about all its aspects, from its intent to project implementation and production operations. However, with a disciplined approach and a clear understanding of the challenges and goals, it promises to deliver great returns to businesses - and it may even one day turn out to truly be the holy grail. 

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