BPM in the cloud: Identifying benefits, addressing concerns

BPM in the cloud is no longer just pie in the sky.

True, actual use of cloud-based BPM is far from widespread right now. Gartner Inc. estimates that only about 40% of organizations worldwide use public-cloud or private-cloud services to support 10% or more of their processes, based on recent end-user surveys.

But plenty of other companies are thinking and talking about taking a cloud computing approach to BPM. “The question about ‘What is the cloud and why should I care’ is giving away to ‘Where, when and how do I take advantage of the cloud in my business?’” says Jeff Kaplan, managing director of the THINKstrategies consulting firm.

This article focuses on helping BPM specialists and other business and IT managers answer that question.

What’s driving the desire to move BPM to the cloud? Mobility, for one thing. “People are recognizing that cloud-based solutions can better support business processes because many people are working remotely,” Kaplan says. “To coordinate their activities, and to support those processes, they have to be tied to more ubiquitous resources. Cloud supports that from a communication and collaboration point of view.”

Another benefit: Because of its “on-demand” qualities, cloud computing can significantly enhance process efficiency and agility, Kaplan says: “In today’s world, we have to be much more reactive to changing and fluctuating business pressures. The cloud gives us that flexibility.”

Finally, there’s cost. “Cloud offerings tend to be a lot cheaper” than traditional solutions, says David Linthicum, founder and CTO of the Blue Mountain Labs cloud consulting firm.

Even with all those advantages, though, cloud-based BPM isn’t on every company’s must-have list, says Linthicum, who is also author of “Cloud Computing and SOA Convergence in Your Enterprise: A Step-by-Step Guide” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2009).

He sees the most deployments in midsized enterprises, those with roughly $1 to $10 billion in annual revenues. “Bigger enterprises are experimenting, but they’re very conservative,” he says. “I think of them as the arms-folded-in-front-of-them kind of guys when it comes to the cloud. They want to control things, and they want the information in their data centers.” Smaller companies, on the other hand, simply can’t afford the investment.

Asked which processes early adopters are moving to the cloud, Linthicum replies: “Operational things. Transaction-oriented things. Functions where you are processing a lot of information very quickly.” Companies that do business with many outside entities are also turning to the cloud as an efficient intermediary. And the cloud is well-suited to data analytics and application development on Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS).

Procurement can also work well on a cloud-based BPM platform, says Neal Lohmann, co-founder of the CoVis Inc. consultancy. “If I’m Staples, I don't have to have my own ordering software,” says Lohmann, also a former MetLife vice president for business transformation practices and enterprise business architecture. “I can buy process as a service from a third-party company and integrate it on my website. I’m buying it as a service, developed on a BPM platform."

Not surprisingly, vendors are developing products to help meet growing interest in moving processes to the cloud. “Increasing numbers of cloud-based solutions include process-design capabilities,” Kaplan says. Many have begun including flow-chart technologies that allow users to chart out and collaborate on business processes.

For instance, some customer relationship management (CRM) solutions let users map out business processes associated with capturing and managing contacts. “It’s the same with BI,” Kaplan says. “You can chart out how you capture and use information, then disseminate the insight from that information.”

And you can expect plenty of additional development in this space. “Literally every day, new innovations are being brought to market,” says Kaplan, whose consultancy specializes in cloud computing. “Because we live in this open source-oriented world in which people increasingly enjoy sharing and trading their latest ideas, these innovations become available to borrow on a more regular basis.”

Of course, moving processes to the cloud has a few potential drawbacks. The biggest one, in most people’s minds: security. But many experts say security-related fears have been overblown. “The paranoia out there is a little exaggerated, based on what I’m seeing,” Linthicum says. “There haven’t been that many cloud-based hacks.” Cyber-attackers still tend to focus on physical data centers, where the vast majority of information still resides, he says.

Moving into the cloud with a reputable cloud or Software as a Service (SaaS) vendor can actually make organizations more secure, Kaplan argues: “If they select a proven cloud or SaaS company to provide the functionality they’re looking for, they’ll end up with more skills and experience than they’ll ever have on their own.”

In addition, a growing number of cloud-based solutions can operate entirely behind an organization’s firewall, Kaplan notes. “There’s a tether, so to speak, back to the mother ship for updates and enhancements,” he says. “So it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition”—that is, either on-premises or in the cloud. Cloud and SaaS vendors haven’t yet effectively promoted that capability, he says, but it’s a safe bet that they’ll soon begin doing so.

Meanwhile, simply using some common sense can go a long way toward preventing problems, Linthicum says. For instance, “Don’t put things in the cloud that are a high security risk,” he says. “And be aware of laws that you may be breaking by putting certain information out in the cloud,” particularly in Europe.

Kaplan recommends using a carrot-and-stick approach to overcome another potential hurdle to successful cloud-based BPM: employee resistance to change. “Start with the stick,” he says. Let people know about competitive pressures, customer expectations and other factors driving the change.

“Everything in our personal lives is available on demand. Increasingly, that same attitude and expectation permeates our professional and business worlds as well. People must think along the lines of how they can get things done quicker and more effectively. Now they’ve got the tools to take a different approach—and if they don’t, they could be left behind.”

And the carrot? “To put it in more positive terms, you can capitalize on having applications that are not only easier, but maybe even more fun to use,” he says.

Ultimately, advises Linthicum, it’s important to take a long-term view. “I’m telling people to look at a five-to-10-year horizon,” he says. “In a few years, we’re going to quit talking about cloud computing and these will just be remotely hosted platform—which is really what they are.”

READER FEEDBACK: Security is among the biggest concerns about moving business processes to the cloud. But experts in this story (and others on ebizQ) say such fears are largely out of proportion to the actual threat. Have you kept your processes out of the cloud because of security concerns? Or, if you're already embraced cloud-based BPM, how confident are you that your information is secure? Let us know what you think. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Anne Stuart, ebizQ's editor from mid-2010 to mid-2013, is now senior editor for SearchCloudApplications.com at ebizQ's parent company, TechTarget. She is a veteran journalist who has written for national magazines, daily newspapers, an international news service and many Web sites. She’s specialized in covering business and technology issues for 20 years. Based in Newton, Mass., she can be reached at astuart@techtarget.com. Follow Anne on Google+ and at annestuart_TT on Twitter. For general questions about ebizQ, please e-mail editor@ebizQ.net.

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