Remember that commercial where two guys are walking toward each other, one eating chocolate and the other eating peanut butter, and then crash into each other, forcing their favorite foods to “merge”? In the ad, they’re confused at first until one of them actually tastes the combination and voila – they discover a match made in heaven.
Sometimes in technology we overthink things and fail to see natural connections that might enable IT and business to taste great together – or at least find mutual benefit. (We’re not going to insinuate which is chocolate and which is peanut butter.)
We’ve seen it recently with business process management, service-oriented architecture and integration. Taken alone, each of these has a simple definition and role in IT and business. But taken amid the multiple architectures, frameworks and solutions, it is hard to know how to fit the pieces together, even though there are natural synergies.
Let’s start with just one of these, business process management, and look at what it is and how it might work with these other areas. We recently attended a Gartner summit on architecture and, while simplicity is not usually Gartner’s trademark, we have to give kudos to analyst Michelle Canterra, who gave a great, straightforward definition of BPM. She called it “the work” we do.
That’s it. The work. We’d take that one step further and say it’s how we do that work. It’s identifying the work that could be more efficient and then basically mapping the ideal way for that work to be done across people, technology and processes.
It helps to align BPM (and any technological framework) to the end goal – business impact. So, for a more formal definition: BPM is a systematic approach of streamlining tasks and activities in order to achieve a specific organizational goal, typically to deliver value to customers and drive more revenue.
Since we threw Gartner a bone, we’ll do the same for Forrester, whose definition is also good: the discipline of BPM strives to coordinate people, and process information and technology to streamline and continuously improve business processes that create customer value while raising the overall quality of the work.
Even with our attempt to simplify BPM, it can still be challenging, if for no other reason than that it requires close coordination between IT and the line of business. As with any IT initiative, if the business side does not feel “pain” or understand why you need to do something, your chance of getting funding or approval remains low. And, let’s face it, some of us don’t actually like peanut butter with our chocolate.
So, start with a simple process that can quickly show increased efficiency and business impact. (This is true, by the way, with just about any new IT initiative, as incremental changes are always easier to both absorb and implement, not to mention fund. With identifying the process, get business buy-in that they have pain or goals around that process and then set specific goals of what success would look like.)
Let’s say your company is doing manual invoicing, which many companies still do, in spite of a huge market spend in basic-to-enterprise ERP and accounting systems. How could you start automating invoicing across the technology, people and process? Does it require new technology, or, for an easier fix, is there an existing system you could leverage for phase one to start the ball rolling?
Once you’ve agreed on the process, outline what the results should be. Maybe time to invoicing goes from two weeks to three days, which would expedite time to payment, meaning your company would have more cash flow. It could also provide other benefits, such as the accounts payable manager becoming more of a customer relationship manager instead of an envelope stuffer.
Many good business process modeling tools allow you to map the process and engage the business side early by leveraging simple Web-based technologies. Many of these tools are delivered as software as a service, meaning you do not need to install any software or hardware in your infrastructure, and the maps and processes are easily shared via Web-based tools.
Once you have the process mapped, there is an important question to ask: What data is involved and where does that data sit? With invoicing, you are dealing with multiple pieces, such as ordering information, accounting information and customer contact information. This information is most likely scattered across disparate applications, servers, etc. To make this business process work, you need to make sure the data is available.
Here is where service-oriented architecture and integration come into play.
Think of SOA as just a way to bring together disparate information into a streamlined fabric of shared services. Many people simplify it to just call it a Web service layer that everybody can plug into. If the process you are automating and improving crosses multiple information sources, departments and systems, then establishing a shared repository or “service” where all the people and systems can gather the same version of that information is ideal.
If, in contrast, you have just two application sources within that business process, then application integration might be the answer. There are an increasing number of plug-and-play or SaaS-based application integration solutions that provide data transfer, transformation and synchronization across two applications. Application integration allows different applications to share information even though they “speak” different languages.
No matter which of these approaches you choose, a combination of both, the goal here is ensuring a consistent data flow to support your new business process.
Going a step further, let’s take that invoice process beyond your organization to a multi-enterprise business process. You’ve coordinated the data and the information within your company, but now you need to automate the process of sending the invoices to your customer community externally. This is what we call business-to-business, or B2B, integration.
B2B integration allows you to send and receive messages electronically across disparate systems, formats and companies, enabling both organizations to work directly from their existing procurement systems and internal business processes. The integration solution does the transformation of the message – in this case an invoice – to align with the required standards and formats for each company.
As this market matures, business integration is also folding in many aspects of business process management, enabling companies to dictate sophisticated business rules or security policies as part of a multi-enterprise transaction. For example, if a company must adhere to strict compliance mandates such as HIPAA or PCI DSS, a business integration process should be able to maintain compliance with data protection, encryption, security auditing, access control rules and other orchestration.
BPM is a great place to start. However, it should not be done in a vacuum, because it fits together perfectly with other initiatives, including SOA and integration. Integration provides the interoperability and real-time exchange of information related to the business process, while SOA enables centralized services and access..
While no single solution does it all, an enterprise should look for vendors that are moving in this direction through either organic growth or partnerships. In the end, what matters is that together they are all allowing you to “interact” with applications, users and information in a more systematic, aligned way that delivers value to customers and drives revenue.
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