Beyond Process Automation

Untitled Document In the never-ending quest to work more productively and increase efficiency, many companies have implemented technological improvements that led to incremental gains in their business operations. Many of these initiatives have come in the form of individual applications aimed at improving specific issues within a business. Does this approach result in progress? Yes. Does it have the capability to transform business operations? No.

It is this transformative power that characterizes business process management (BPM). Rather than simply chipping away at progress, BPM enables organizations to boost employee productivity, reduce costs, minimize errors, streamline and automate activities in order to reduce cycle times, and quickly adapt processes in response to changing business conditions. It does this by providing agile and flexible tools for designing, deploying and running processes that bring together people and systems across functional and even organizational boundaries.



BPM further distinguishes itself by enabling organizations to enforce consistency in the way they operate, and also to adhere to the ever-expanding body of compliance regulations and laws.

BPM is coming at a good time for business managers who are under pressure to increase the performance of their operations. These managers are asking themselves three key questions: How is it possible to better understand existing processes and transform them into improved processes? How can they scale a process over time without having to add additional staff? How can a process be accurately monitored once it is implemented?

As you will see, BPM is able to answer all three of these questions.


Evolution of Business Process Management

It should be noted that BPM has its roots in workflow automation technologies that were used to help streamline and coordinate routine tasks and approvals in highly manual processes. Over the last several years, BPM has evolved into a much more sophisticated technology that far exceeds the more rudimentary capabilities of workflow automation. Initially, BPM vendors were focused on process execution and automation, orchestrating both human and system-based activities for complex processes. Over the past several years, it has become apparent that more comprehensive functionality is required to truly "manage" processes, so several inter-related software technologies have come together under the category of BPM suites: the integration of process analysis and modeling, workflow automation, systems integration and business activity monitoring now enables organizations to understand, orchestrate and optimize processes through their entire lifecycle, as well as ensure that process performance information exists that can be used to continually improve processes over time.

First, Understand Your Processes


Organizations tend to over-focus on quickly implementing BPM solutions for the execution and automation of processes to the detriment of proper process discovery and analysis. While there may be tactical reasons for the rapid deployment of BPM into the production environment, greater efficiencies can be realized by "discovering" the current state of the process, then using process analysis and simulation to design the future, desired state. These capabilities make it possible to drill down on each process step to better understand what it does and how it fits within the overall process, and how it helps (or hinders) the objectives of the process. Simply using visual diagramming tools to look at the current and future state processes is not enough to enable meaningful change.

As part of the process analysis environment, advanced BPM suites enable users to store processes in a centralized repository, creating a process knowledge base that can be used to truly understand why processes exist, how they work, and how they fit within the overall goals of the organization. After all, every process should exist to help the organization achieve its objectives, and a process repository is essential for identifying whether or not this is indeed the case. In addition, this allows process information to be accessed by other personnel and groups within the organization who may be looking to improve their processes and are evaluating elements of other successfully designed processes. By utilizing a process repository, critical information that may have previously resided only in the mind of one individual or group becomes permanently available to the entire business.

Automation is the Key to Scaling Your Business

As organizations grow, their operations tend to become more complex, and tasks that were easy to maintain previously become more and more time consuming as the volume of work increases. Management has two options to deal with growth: either find ways to become more efficient or add people. BPM offers a way to increase employee productivity, so that as business increases, the number of employees does not have to increase proportionally. The key is using a process engine to orchestrate each running instance of a process, coordinating and routing individual process instances through the defined set of human workflow, rules-based automation and system-to-system integration activities. The process engine can also balance workloads using queue management, as well as ensuring each instance is progressing through the process using deadline timers.

Fear is natural among employees who feel threatened when they are told their business processes and job duties are changing. The advent of automation, in particular, is chilling because it is typically associated with reduced head count. With this in mind, it is important that employees understand that BPM is not about eliminating their jobs, but enhancing their value to the company. BPM provides the ability to eliminate redundant and highly repetitive tasks, so that employees can focus on higher-value activities. This also enables the business to grow without having to add a proportional number of employees, so the goal is not about replacing workers with software but instead about increasing employee productivity. Once they understand that BPM enables them to take on new and productive responsibilities, their fear will dissipate.


Do You Really Know How Well Your Business is Performing?

After making sure that processes have been designed correctly, then using a process engine to manage the process, the next logical step is to monitor process performance. Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) is designed to provide real-time insight on processes, by pulling process execution data and comparing the data against key performance indicators (KPI's) in each process activity. When key performance indicators are outside of their defined thresholds, alerts are generated. These alerts are available through graphical dashboards, and they can also be delivered via email - in addition, alerts can be used to trigger remediation activities and sub-processes. Through KPI alerts and performance dashboards, users can view the status of individual orders going through the process, as well as view overall performance of the process.

Using BAM in conjunction with process analysis, it is possible to create a process optimization loop, where performance results are compared against process simulations to find where further refinements of the process will enable improved performance. It is important to remember that BPM is not a "once-and-done" solution - rather, it is focused on continuous improvement and adaptation based on changing business conditions.

What To Look For In A BPM Suite

Given the evolution and expanded meaning of BPM, customers should consider the major capabilities below, which have been cited by various technology analysts as key BPM suites functionality, when short listing BPM products.

Process design and analysis - Process modeling tools should provide functionality that allows both business analysts and process developers to work collaboratively on process design. From the business side, the modeling environment should allow process design to include relevant business meta-data, such as process and task objectives, the roles of people interacting in processes, manual vs. automated activities, cost and task time information, and key performance indicators that will allow for proper monitoring of the process. From the IT side, the modeling environment should allow process design to include technical implementation details, such as systems-based integration mechanisms and human-based workflow details; it should also include the ability to create the interfaces that people involved in the process will use for completing work tasks. From both perspectives (business and IT), the design environment should include a process repository that will provide information on processes across the enterprise and process analysis capabilities, such as dynamic visual and contextual mapping of processes, a simulation engine and ad hoc reporting.

Standards-based integration - Because BPM systems interact with multiple applications, they need the ability to use standards-based integration protocols to connect with external systems, applications and data sources. In addition, they should comply with prevalent industry standards and BPM specifications such as BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation), XPDL (XML Process Definition Language), and BPEL (Business Process Execution Language). Integration with EAI products, directories such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), and external business rules engines will also aid integration efforts.

Process orchestration - The process engine that is part of a BPM suite needs to be able to manage both human workflow and systems-based activities equally well. This means having functionality to balance workloads using queue management, deadline enforcement of time-critical tasks, rules-based automation capabilities, and system-to-system integration mechanisms. In addition, look for the ability to effectively deal with long-running processes, scale to meet high-volume applications and incorporate group collaboration activities within processes.

Business activity monitoring - BAM capabilities within BPM suites provide organizations real-time access to process performance information, while also monitoring key performance indicators so they can monitor the status of their processes to make them more efficient and to improve customer service.

Information management - BPM-run processes must be able to access relevant information to properly perform their various tasks and activities. Because such information often includes structured data as well as unstructured content (images, emails, documents, etc.) the ability to handle both directly within the process is crucial to BPM effectiveness.

Templates - As with workflow and other technologies, templates accelerate deployment. Vendors that offer out-of-the-box process flows for vertical industry business processes like mortgage loan origination, or horizontal ones like invoice processing cut customers' time-to-market and customization costs.

Summary

BPM helps customers improve the efficiency of their business operations and the productivity of their employees, while providing the ability to control processes consistently and reliably across multiple organizations, systems and applications. With BPM suites, organizations now have the ability to manage and optimize processes using an integrated set of analysis, modeling, orchestration and monitoring technologies.


About the Author

Brett Stineman is Senior Product Marketing Manager at EMC Corp.

More by Brett Stineman