Maximizing the Value of Business Process Management

The benefits of business process management (BPM) can be remarkable. However, capturing the inherent complexities and dynamic nature of business processes is often a tremendous struggle. Work processes tend to evolve iteratively in response to various situations. Often struggles ensue when IT and business managers convene to apply BPM technology to these changing workflows. Business users feel penned in by seemingly rigid workflows, while IT managers are faced with supporting endless workflow “exceptions”.

To initiate BPM projects, organizations typically start out with detailed process maps that visually capture the flow of activities or business rules that cause different paths to be followed. While these maps initially prove valuable for promoting understanding of internal activities, they quickly lose value as the complexity of tasks increases. What’s more, new rules and issues often crop up before the initial processes are ever deployed. Thus, process maps are never actually complete because change is always occurring.

To avoid these challenges, many companies are adopting a new adaptive discovery approach, which allows automated processes to be deployed, without requiring complete process maps and definitions. Adaptive discovery compresses the scope of up-front discovery efforts. The BPM team still includes business and IT representatives who define tangible aspects of a process. Business teams are also aligned with process experts. Business managers provide detailed knowledge of the process, business environment, and the impact of the flows and rules they are creating while process experts define the flow, rules, and recipients of work on the fly as needed. These individuals are responsible for ensuring that the process can change and adapt quickly to support unique business needs.

This approach involves understanding the following components:

Roles The definitions of user responsibilities that enable work to be assigned in a flexible dynamic manner.
Rules Logical expressions that define either the routing of work or the execution of specific activities within the process
Steps The discrete tasks that are performed in some sequence to execute the process
Forms The user interface that people use to complete their work activity on a process
Integration The system connections from within a process where work is performed in existing applications on behalf of a process (The growing trend is for process integration activities to be performed using Web Services or other similar software components)
Data Model The core set of data that is used in the process.

From a development standpoint, the above components are ordered from the most volatile (roles) to least volatile (data model). As a result, they also reflect the logical distribution of responsibility between IT and business. IT “owns” the infrastructure and develops, deploys, and manages the consistent technical aspects of processes, such as data, forms, and integration. Business managers “own” the dynamic business aspects of processes, such as flow, rules, exceptions, and user roles, through process experts. Responsibility for the other items (rules, steps, and forms) may vary based on the specific details of the process, the capabilities and user environment of the BPM product that is being used, and the specific skill sets within the team.

Typical BPM development requires defining any exhaustive list of rules and decisions before any automation occurs. An adaptive discovery approach requires much less time and effort spent on dynamic process details such as exception handling. IT generally automates approximately 60 to 70 percent of activities up front, while enabling the business manager to change processes within the BPM technology. This gives business teams added flexibility while freeing IT to focus on higher level activities instead of continually modeling processes.

Organizations simply adjust process flow and responsibilities dynamically, without requiring changes to the core process definition. This is a key capability of BPM. Each of the components of a BPM solution listed above should be able to be managed independently. Changes to one does not cause “changes” to the other components. They may be used differently, in different sequence, but they do not themselves change. In this way, it creates a lower risk level in distributing responsibility for managing change.

The BPM system can be programmed to adapt as new contingencies arise, proactively involving a process expert without requiring additional development resources from IT. As the process is followed, the system detects when the BPM system does not have the information about what should happen next in a process or who should perform the next work step. In these instances, a message is sent to a process expert, who uses his knowledge about the business and context of the incident to create a rule that defines what happens next and why.

Once he defines the rule, he applies it against the current case. Now that the rule has been identified, it can be applied to future cases to determine routing or task assignments. As more exceptions are defined by process experts, the system learns these possible rules and routes so that virtually all activities can flow smoothly without involvement from the process expert. In this way, complex processes are handled without impeding the development and implementation of the overall BPM system.

As a note, some systems advertised under the BPM label do not support this level of componentization. These systems may require some or all of these changes to be made in development tools by developers. In that case, you are really operating under a traditional development model.

A large cellular company has greatly benefited from BPM by using a non-traditional approach. They created a process team that includes 10 people. The team has two or three traditional developers who focus on integration, but is primarily composed of business analysts who manage rules, roles, process flows, and reporting without programming. In just over two years, they have released more than 40 business critical process applications to do everything from manage contract fulfillment to enhance Sarbanes-Oxley compliance activities. Their backlog is filled not with minor application change requests—these are handled quickly by the business analysts—but by requests for new processes as others in the company want to share in the experience. In fact, nearly everyone in the company now uses BPM in some way and talks about it positively. In talking with them, it is clear that they feel they could never have done this with traditional application tools and approaches.

Instead of getting bogged down in the minutia of each work process, many businesses are utilizing this new approach to improve operational efficiencies. This adaptive discovery model enables organizations to achieve BPM benefits today and adapt process behaviors as needed. By compressing process discovery and allowing for non-programmatic process changes, companies derive maximum value from BPM technology.

About the Author

Rashid N. Khan is the President of Leadership BPM, a consultancy leveraging hiss 14-years of real-world BPM experiences spanning hundreds of customers. He was the Founder /CEO of Ultimus , a BPM pioneer established in 1994. Prior to Ultimus, Rashid was the Founder /CEO of Sintech, a leader in computerized mechanical testing. Rashid holds two BS degrees from MIT in Computer and Political Science, a MS in Computer Science from UC Berkeley, and an MBA from Harvard. He has published numerous articles and a book "Business Process Management: A Practical Guide.

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