I recently returned from IDS-Scheer's latest ProcessWorld conference in Florida, an event I always look forward to - I've attended this meeting each of the past five years. It's a gathering I would recommend to readers of DM Review and BI Review looking for a refreshing perspective to the data-focused world we live in. While I spend the bulk of my time tackling issues related to information management, the process approach to business intelligence - or vice versa - has always closed a pragmatic loop for me, because modeling business processes as a starting point is the least abstracted approach to optimizing the way businesses work. In the most simplistic chart, the process-centric approach tends to be top down, while data centric is often bottom up.The process-first focus has plenty of relevance for BI practitioners today because of the operational emphasis that has arisen in the last many months. IDC was the first market research firm to grasp this trend at its own conferences. That was a couple of years ago, about the same time BI Review ran its first story on elevating data into business processes that were not just back-office automated, but addressed human-to-human and human-to-system workflows. You have to look for these stories, many of the organizations doing this kind of work don't want to talk about it since it touches more than a few proprietary and competitive buttons.

But it is safe to say that much of the data community prefers to steer wide of the process topic by and large. The biggest conferences are still largely data-centric, and the largest market research firm we know still segregates its BI and process events. Now that the weaknesses of tactical and operational business intelligence have been exposed, that mistake may not last long into the future.

"People, processes and technology" (note the distinction between "process" and "technology") has been the mantra of the industry for many years, so going forward a question becomes whether we interpret these terms as a single or separate entities. More to the point, do these three terms relate in a hierarchy or do they represent different entry points to addressing a business problem? The usual answer to this question is, "We're getting closer," but given the volume of information we address today, the widespread approach is dependent on Information Technology and its ability to organize things and "fix" problems.

As it applies to process, sexy is in the eye of the beholder. Some companies have aggressive programs in place, but I'd wager most have none. Much of the best work done in the process field has been relatively un-automated and has taken place on whiteboards. As technology has become more relevant, staffing improvements have followed and process libraries and directories have become more common. (IDS-Scheer is also behind a process curriculum now taught at seven universities, a story we'll report in the upcoming issue of BI Review.) In service of this growth market, business process pure-play vendors like IDS, Lombardi and Savvion - with top-down or project-centric approaches - have frankly done more to address organizational and operational inefficiencies than companies or vendors that address a problem by throwing data at it. Forgive my heresy, but until we document and get better at extending or optimizing business processes there will be limited relevance for operational business intelligence.

This is where things start to get confusing, because technology vendors of many stripes who have seen the emerging process mindset now offer some kind of process modeling tool, and technology aligned with process thinking has matured. It's worthy of note that both Oracle and SAP have embedded IDS-Scheer's tools in their enterprise platforms. HP takes a separate, more automated, data-centric "process-aware" approach to business intelligence with its BI partners. On the human-facing side of workflows, enterprise content management vendors (such as FileNet, Interwoven, Vignette) have long claimed ownership of manual workflows with their less structured and form-based application approaches. Business rule-oriented vendors such as Corticon and Fair-Isaac are also meeting the process discussion head on.

I used to notice more business than IT people at process conferences. The same business folks tend to come year after year but as attendance has grown we're now seeing a plurality of IT folks who realize we've done more with data and less to squarely address fragmented and entrenched processes at their root. The audience shift is in part unfair, since the functional approach to management structure still largely skirts (and ultimately causes) the visibility, flexibility and timeliness issues business executives complain about. Building extended business processes is certainly as much the work of business as it is an IT chore, and we're not at a point where we can automate our way out of the problem.

Colin White of BI Research took a deeper dive into this topic in his excellent column, A Process-Centric Approach to Business Intelligence, published recently in DM Review. Colin's essay deftly clarifies different mind-sets by breaking processes into categories of those that are transactional, collaborative, business intelligence and planning-oriented. It is highly relevant to readers trying to close their own loop, at least philosophically.

It is no fault of Colin's that the title of his article addressed the mind-sets of most of our readers; I fully expect to see A BI-Centric Approach to Business Process Management on a future agenda at IDS-Scheer's annual meeting. It's equally true that process-centric conferences are just getting around to the subject of data and BI from an execution standpoint. What is mostly interesting is that subjects like service-oriented architecture (SOA) are creeping into both data and process-centric gatherings but from totally different points of view. Data and process people are expanding their horizons to include both topics, and we are addressing that theme - along with a third circle of integration - in the pages of DM Review and BI Review. In the meantime I suggest getting to one of these process conferences if you can. You will never grasp the full irony - or opportunity - until you see the shoe on the other foot.

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