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If you asked people in the 1950’s to predict how computers would be used in the future, what might have they said? Popular images of the time included robot maids, robot doctors and nurses, personal helicopters that would automatically fly you to your destination, and all-knowing robots that respond and execute our voice commands at work and at home.  While the 50’s prognosticators went overboard on the helicopters, many of their predictions are coming to fruition.

We have accomplished amazing feats with factory automation.  You have to look hard to find human beings in many factory assembly lines.  However, when it comes to the automation of business processes, technology adoption is moving slowly.

Why?  Because factory automation deals with machines that execute templates.  All known possibilities are accounted for. When it comes to complex business processes involving people, unpredictability, and things that go bump in the night, workflow applications have a mixed rap.  Lots of workflow projects have either been abandoned or failed to make it through the gauntlet of user acceptance.  Simple workflows that are supposed to cost X dollars end up as complicated workflows that cost 4X dollars.

Software vendors have added other challenges of implementing successful workflows by building more complex and feature-rich platforms called BPM (for business process management).  So while factory workflow thrives, white collar business workflow is way behind in automating the work performed by its white collar work force.

In this two-part article, we’re going to talk about what BPM is and why it’s such a hassle to implement.  In the end, we might be able to help you know what questions to ask before you can determine whether BPM makes sense for your organization or if BPM is too difficult, risky, and expensive to implement.

Defining BPM

Let’s first take a stab at defining three essential workflow terms: business process, BPM, and BPM Suite (BPMS):

  • An event-driven, end-to-end processing path that starts with a customer request and ends with a result for the customer. Business processes often cross departmental and even organizational boundaries.
  • A management discipline that treats business processes as assets that directly improve enterprise performance by driving operational excellence and business agility.
  • The software incarnation of BPM is the BPM suite, which Gartner defines as an integrated collection of software technologies that enables the control and management of business processes. BPMSs deliver both short-term benefits (such as cost and time savings and compliance) and long-term advantages, including visibility into cross-functional processes, the agility to meet changing market and user needs, and even revenue growth.

BPM systems typically include a set of services and components like the following:

  • Business process modelling tools to help you analyze and define how your business process works,
  • Prototyping tools that allow proposed workflows to be simulated and tested under different scenarios of use
  • Workflow design tools to enable you or your expert developers or application consultants to create the workflow steps in your BPM application, and
  • Reporting and analysis tools to reveal how well the workflow that you’ve built in your BPM system actually performs.

BPM systems handle complex processes that can support multiple contingencies and business rules that use data from multiple data and application platforms, e.g., an invoice processing application that evaluates who needs to sign off in the approval process based upon the requesting department, invoice total, budget categories, and date; checks a shipping and receiving database; and updates an accounts payable database.

However, they do have their limitations no matter what a vendor will tell you.

There Is No One BPMS to Rule Them All

BPM could be thought of as a management of workflow. Workflow handles the automation of the business process, while BPM handles the complete lifecycle of the business process. Therefore, we should take a look at different types of workflows out there to get a better idea of why there is no single optimal BPM product. We will separate them into three: rules-based, ad hoc and case management.

Rules-based workflows are used for pre-defined processes, like processing a payment for a monthly utility bill.  Rules-based workflows require little or no worker discretion, are highly controlled, and are easily automated.  Other examples of rules-based workflows are invoice payment, processing purchase requests, applications for membership, service requests, claims processing, and HR onboarding.

Ad hoc and case management are workflows that aren’t so pre-defined and structured.  On the simple side are ad hoc workflows, where the user decides on a case-by-case basis the steps and people who will be in a workflow.  Ad hoc workflows are used for simple routing workflows.  On the complex side, there is case management.

Forrester defines case management as “A highly structured, but also collaborative, dynamic, information-intensive process that is driven by outside events and requires incremental and progressive responses from the business domain handling the case.” Some examples it cites include patient records, lawsuits, insurance claims, and contracts.  The data for each case “includes all the documents, data, collaboration artifacts, policies, rules, analytics, and other information needed to process and manage the case.”

To see how a workflow is related to a BPM system, let’s take a look at an example of a simple workflow for a request/approve process.

In this case, it’s a request to customer support for a partial refund.  The workflow starts with an event – a customer inquiry to customer service.  Here’s how it goes:

Customer inquiry > Log call for tracking > check records > work with engineering > work with sales, credit order processing > respond to customer > report to management.

In order to process this request, specific structured data (typically from a database) and unstructured information (typically documents, emails, or pictures) is required.  The structured data includes customer number, phone number, model number, serial number, date of purchase, sales representative last and first names, purchase price, and cost.

The unstructured information includes email from engineering, email with sales on what to credit, and a spreadsheet analysis.

The BPM system for this workflow application will need integration with a customer database, an email system, and a document management application.

In a nutshell, different categories of workflows require different BPM or workflow capabilities.  This is why there are BPM tools that focus on human-centric processes and others that focus on systems-centric processes. While most BPM vendors think of themselves as having a jack-of-all-trades platform, none of them are there yet.  Each BPM product excels in certain areas and is weak in others.  In short, in order to acquire a workflow system, you’ve got to know your requirements well enough to know what is essential and what would be nice to have in a workflow and BPM product.

Do you feel like you have a better idea of what BPM is now? Okay, it’s time to move on then. In our second part, we will talk more about making the decision to get a BPM system, some common pitfalls that businesses fall into, and how to find the right product and vendor.