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BPM: Theory to Practice

Tim Huenemann

Workflow, Workflow Everywhere

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When configurable workflow systems came on the scene, it was a welcome addition to the choices of either custom software or inflexible packaged applications. Generations of BPMS platforms have added more and more capability and flexibility. But no part of the industry has stood still where workflow is concerned...

Workflow Everywhere
ERP's have developed more configurable workflow capability. Content management platforms have rivaled and overlapped with BPMS's for years. It seems like every packaged application under the sun has added some level of workflow configuration. Some applications even push the boundaries of a BPMS.
A quick rundown of types of packaged applications where I have reviewed configurable workflow functionality:
- CRM and SFA
- HCM/human resources management
- Recruiting
- Training/learning management
- Contract lifecycle management
- Travel & expense management
- Service/repair management
- Logistics/transportation management
- Configure/price/quote
- Supplier management
- PLM and engineering management
- Fantasy football league management (just kidding on that one)
I'm sure you could add a couple more based on the industries and corporate functions where you have experience. I've probably missed a few myself.

The Effects
What happens when an organization has many of these packaged applications? It's often very easy to add workflow functionality to the applications. And it's seamless for the user experience to add on a couple steps to the current work; users remain in the same application. So the path of least resistance, especially with decentralized architecture and control, is to add more and more workflow to these apps.
For the rest of your systems, where you didn't start with a packaged application (and filling in the gaps between packaged applications), there is usually custom software, or perhaps BPMS or ECM-based systems.

The Problem
So what's wrong with this picture? For some users, this can lead to a frustrating and confusing set of isolated platforms. What about users that end up getting workflow tasks in four or five different systems?
When you consider the management aspects - trying to get metrics, analyze things end-to-end, and make the right process changes - things are manageable (literally) until the view becomes more holistic and crosses different departments and applications. It's hard to manage a process when end-to-end it crosses multiple workflow systems.

Fix it with a BPMS?
In most organizations, it's just too simplistic to say, we'll get a BPMS platform and make it our enterprise standard for all workflow and process management. You need to deal with all the other systems. Yes, you can often integrate most systems into a BPMS with a "portal-like" front-end. But there is extra cost, often significant. And for users who work primarily in one or two systems, introducing a BPMS can create an awkward switching between core applications and the BPMS. This is the flip side of the previous user problem discussed above. Are you really going to make extensions to existing functionality in a central BPMS instead of the native applications, and make users jump back and forth? Or even migrate existing packaged app workflow into your BPMS? Sometimes this makes sense, but often it doesn't.

What to Do
An organization's BPM strategy needs to take into account the existing system landscape and address various scenarios for how and where to implement automated workflow. The key is to create a comprehensive top-down strategy and develop a business and process architecture. Define the high-level capabilities and processes and develop a well thought-out architecture and governance model that guides the use of workflow systems in the entire enterprise.

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This blog offers a true “practitioner’s perspective,” with issues and commentary based on real-world experience across many industries.

Tim Huenemann

Tim Huenemann is the senior principal for business architecture and process management at Trexin Consulting. He has more than 20 years of experience in process management and business-focused IT. In his consulting work, he helps organizations execute business strategy by implementing effective process management and IT solutions. He regularly translates BPM theory into practice, and practice, and more practice. Contact Tim at tim.huenemann[at]trexin.com.

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