It’s About Process (or Ability to be Responsive) -- Part II

Part I of this blog series introduced the notions of workflow automation and business process management (BPM). It also tackled the similarities and subtle differences between the two related software categories.

Microsoft, for example, informally demarcates the Microsoft Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) focus on "internal processes" from Microsoft BizTalk Server's "external BPM" use. Namely, the first tool (somewhat of a BizTalk spin-off) is used for automating processes within an enterprise (and its enterprise resource planning [ERP] system), whereas the latter is intended for inter-enterprise process orchestrations across several disparate enterprise applications.

BPM Suite Components

Full-fledged BPM system components thus include visual process modeling: a graphical depiction of a process that becomes a part of the application and governs how the business process performs when companies run the application.

They also feature Web and systems integration (SI) technologies, which include displaying and retrieving data via a Web browser and which enable companies to orchestrate the necessary people and legacy applications into their processes.

Another important BPM component is what's been termed business activity monitoring (BAM), which gives reports on exactly how (and how well) the business processes and flows are working (for more information, see TEC's article entitled "Business Activity Monitoring - Watching The Store For You").

Optimizing processes that involve people and dynamic change has been traditionally difficult, and one barrier to optimization has been the lack of visibility and ownership for processes that span functional departments or business units, let alone different enterprises. In addition, the industry often changes faster than information technology (IT) departments can update the applications set that the business relies on to do its work, thus stifling innovation, growth, performance and so on.

But today, the pervasiveness of Web browsers and the emergence of simpler application integration technologies such as Web sevices, simple object access protocol (SOAP), extensible markup language (XML), business process execution language (BPEL), etc. have enabled IT staff to deploy technology that supports the business process across functional, technical and organizational silos.

In the broadest sense, BPM components address the issues of the following: process modeling, documentation, certification, collaboration, compliance, optimization, and automation (i.e., via a workflow engine that is rule-based).

Again, highly functional, top-of-the-range BPM suites use graphical (visual) process modeling tools that enable business users and business analysts (i.e., those people that are most familiar with the process) to implement and manage the process definition. To complete any transaction, the BPM suite must also call on various siloed legacy applications that hold necessary information, for example, customer, inventory or logistics data.

But to the ordinary user the complex process that runs over many enterprises and various systems should appear seamless. End-users should be spared the effort of hunting down the scattered information themselves, since the underlying BPM platform provides tools for:

  • Business analysts to model (and change) the business processes and define the business rules that control how those processes behave;

  • IT departments to integrate the necessary legacy systems;

  • Joint teams to build applications for the end user that enforce the processes and rules; and

  • Management to review process performance (e.g., the required time to resolve client return exceptions) and even adjust process parameters in real-time (e.g., increasing the dollar value threshold during peak periods to trigger management review and approvals of client returns).

Therefore, the most vital BPM attributes would be the following: being event-driven, orchestrated, intended for both internal and external processes/customers, and leveraging human-centric workflow and business analytics.

With the leading BPM platforms/suites, everyone in the company will be working on the same shared data and process model, so changes to the process can be put into action very quickly. This is because these sophisticated platforms provide integrated process modeling, real-time process monitoring, and Web-based management reporting -- all working in unison to support rapid process innovation.

BPM -- Much More than Integration

BPM is often used to integrate multiple enterprise applications and various internal and external users into a new process, but it goes way beyond mere integration. Whereas traditional enterprise application integration (EAI) products help companies to move data between applications, BPM adds interaction with people and the ability to support processes, which then become as manageable as data.

BPM integrates existing applications, Web services and people in order for companies to quickly change, destruct or construct processes as required. Again, BPM enables a company to more cost-effectively and quickly model and change its business processes to meet the specific requirements of a particular business. Via BPM, people can be involved in two ways:

  1. From a rank-and-file employee point of view -- BPM represents units of work from the business process as tasks, whereby each task contains work instructions, status, priority, due date and other attributes. Workers use BPM to monitor and execute the tasks that are assigned to them or to the workgroup to which they belong; and

  2. From a manager or executive point of view -- Managers and executives use BPM to monitor process performance by viewing graphical reports that summarize task status and alert them to process bottlenecks. They also frequently get involved with tasks by participating in approval or escalation process steps.

Thus, many BPM products provide real-time monitoring and insight into the process operation. The process flow model of BPM allows management the ability to not only easily identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the process, but also to more easily modify the process to improve productivity.

For instance, with industrial (plant-level) BPM deployments, companies can digitize their work processes and close the loop on performance with actual execution data. By applying BPM in manufacturing plants, companies can manage and audit their production more effectively and consistently thus improving their conformance, compliance, throughput, and ability to deliver. They can also empower their workforce by integrating people and their roles and by customizing individuals’ work styles and decision-making processes.

Astute BPM suites that focus on manufacturing can enable companies to close the loop on production process improvement, digitize good manufacturing practice (GMP) tasks, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and work instructions. They can also enable corrective action/exception management, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) monitoring procedures, and also orchestrate high-level processes and manage data between various disparate systems and empower domain experts to solve production problems immediately on the shop floor.

For more information on BPM, see TEC’s earlier articles entitled "Business Process Management: How to Orchestrate Your Business" , "Giving a Business Process Management Edge to Enterprise Resource Planning"  and "Business Process Analysis versus Business Process Management."

Special credit also goes to CIO Magazine’s articles entitled "ABC: An Introduction to Business Process Management (BPM)"  and "Making Workflow Work and Flow for You."  All of the above articles were quite leveraged for this blog series thus far.

What’s the User’s Choice Then?

As said in Part I, the BPM market remains quite stratified, whereby there seems to be a number of powerful and full fledged BPM software packages (e.g., from IDS Scheer, Appian, Tibco, Lombardi, Ultimus, Fujitsu, Oracle-BEA Systems, Metastorm, etc.), many of which can be found in TEC’s BPM Evaluation Center.

BPM is considered one of the most overlooked trends in enterprise applications today. In fact, it is increasingly becoming a native part of the IBM WebSphere (best shown by the recent acquisition of ILOG), SAP NetWeaver  and Oracle Fusion Middleware  platforms and applications, which could be a glimpse into the future of modeling, workflow, re-engineering, and continuous change, all around ERP.

For a typical implementation that leverages a comprehensive on-premise (which is still a dominant deployment model) BPM suite, companies should count on forking out up to US$500,000 to address a few meaningful processes in their organization. Moreover, potential hidden costs include (all on top of already hefty investments in existing enterprise applications):

  • Having to license and deploy multiple development, test and/or production environments to support multiple BPM initiatives;

  • Additional application and database server licenses;

  • Additional staff to provide the care and feeding of these servers; and

  • Internal cost of direct involvement from business users to participate in process modeling, business rule definition, user interface (UI) design, testing and rollout activities.

At the lower end of the market there are a slew of workflow-based software packages addressing specific processes, such as bug or issue tracking systems. While upper-range BPM packages address complex business processes and issue tracking systems typically deal with one simple workflow, a number of workflow (possibly BPM wannabe) vendors like FloWare, Skelta, Red Maple, Web and Flo, Quask, XALT Technologies, ZyLAB Technologies, etc. are addressing a space in between.

How About Workflow (and Eventually BPM) On-demand?

But again, not many of these solutions are delivered in true no-frills software as a service (SaaS) fashion, as they still require significant hardware, software and professional service resources to be deployed on the customer’s site. Also, some business processes, although mission-critical for the company, are not transactional in nature and do not necessarily need to be part of the back-office database.

In fact, trying to capture every step and status of every little case (e.g., a customer’s product complaint or improvement suggestion that needs to be investigated by several employees) would only unnecessarily encumber the ERP or customer relationship management (CRM) database.

Maybe mapping only some critical data between the case management process and ERP database (e.g., for inventory or invoice adjusting purposes), and doing application programming interface (API) exchanges only periodically in a batch fashion might make more sense there.

This brings us to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States (US)-based Webcom, Inc., which is known for its WebSource CPQ (standing for “configure, price, and quote”) on-demand quote to order (Q2O) suite, established with about 50 high-profile customers.  For more information on the Q2O/CPQ market, see TEC's earlier article entitled "Q2O Systems: Solutions for Quotation Management and Pricing Configuration."

Part III of this blog series will delve into Webcom’s particular brand new on-demand workflow/BPM offering called ResponsAbility. In the meantime, your comments, thoughts, suggestions or individual experiences with workflow/BPM solutions are more than welcome.
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