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Although I’ve written quite a bit about business process management (BPM) in these columns and in my other writings, I still have managers and business executives asking me to define BPM and asking why they should care about it. Now that we’re back into the flurry of fall product announcements and the summer is but a distant memory, I thought that it might be a good time for a short refresher course.

The first thing to keep in mind when exploring the BPM space is the very breadth of the solutions available. BPM has been linked with everything from modeling tools to message queuing to ESBs and SOA. In fact, there’s probably not a technology product on the market right now that doesn’t pretend to offer some link to business process or BPM. (Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it a bit, but it’s fair to say that a huge number of products are advertising BPM functionality or BPM-related capabilities.)

From my perspective, I believe in a fairly broad and open definition of business process management. I believe that BPM is the integration and management of business processes and resources across application and business boundaries.

For most companies, and in most scenarios, what’s important and what’s different from previous types of integration solutions is that BPM tends to focus on the business process -- not just the exchange of data or transactions—and that these processes frequently cross application, departmental, or corporate boundaries.

Keep in mind, though, that BPM can still be used for scenarios where the business process doesn’t cross application or business boundaries—an organization may simply be using it enable a greater degree of flexibility and agility for business processes and applications that will be required to change constantly.

Beyond the definition, it’s worth thinking about the general types of integration and process flows that exist within companies and the types of processes that BPM solutions are expected to be able to handle (in one way or another). Consider the following overall breakdown of process types:

  • System-to-system
  • System-to-human (and vice versa)
  • Human-to-human

Of course the second and third options can be manual or automated or some combination of both, while system-to-system solutions are generally (but not always) automated. It’s important to recognize these different forms of business processes—from pure system to system to manual, human-centric processes—within your organization and understand exactly what types of process problems you’re trying to solve and what your goals are, before evaluating BPM technologies.


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