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So you’ve heard about the benefits of business process management (BPM) technology and believe your organization is well-positioned to achieve them. But you’re in a small or midsized business (SMB) where the entire IT department consists of one guy who maintains ten systems and also provides desktop support whenever the phone rings. Where do you start?

This column, which reflects what we’ve learned in our consulting practice at Macedon Technologies, addresses some of the key considerations SMBs can make to get value out of investing in a BPM suite (BPMS).

Business analysts can often contribute more value to BPM than to situations involving traditional systems. Rather than drawing models and throwing them over the wall to developers, business analysts can work with artifacts that evolve into the actual systems. As these analysts become more familiar with the tools, they can reduce what developers must do and take more ownership for producing the software.

Process discovery, also known as “as-is” process modeling, is one particular analysis activity that many companies want to skip. Many stakeholders believe that once they know their current processes aren’t working, they don’t want to spend any more money on those failed ways of doing business. However, figuring out how work is currently being done—and not just how managers think it’s getting done—is an important part of figuring out the future (or “to-be”) process.

Skipping this step often results in gaps that are more difficult and expensive to fill in after the system is partially built.

Talking to workers about what they’re currently doing also pays dividends when it comes to organizational change management. Taking time to understand the current approach adds credibility to the effort and increases the level of buy-in after you’ve explained how the new system will improve their working lives.

Most new systems are deployed in the cloud. To quickly re-hash millions of other articles about the cloud, its benefits include:

Having systems hosted externally minimizes infrastructure costs.

Outsourcers take responsibility for up-time, patching, backups and maintenance, reducing the time that your own IT people must dedicate to the system.

Modern cloud-based commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products support the latest security standards; many have undergone certifications that even the U.S. federal government considers trustworthy for system deployment.

Fees for cloud-based software come out of operating, rather than capital, budgets—and that makes your accountants happy.

When it comes to integration, a key mantra is: “Replace where it’s easy.” Modern BPMS environments include features such as document management and portal interfaces, which can make them a central landing place for employees. Existing systems can often be ported over to the new architecture fairly easily, reducing complexity and licensing costs.

If integrating with existing systems is essential, there are specific patterns that facilitate secure communication between the cloud-based BPMS and the systems residing on the company's internal network. Ideally, all integration should be designed to use industry-standard approaches such as web services.

However, if legacy systems don’t support web services, you can build the web services that the automated process needs rather than requiring the BPMS to talk directly to the back-end database. This separation of interface from implementation makes other components of the system easier to replace later; it also simplifies communication with legacy systems from the cloud.

Pick a simple process to attack first; that way, you’ll get a quick win for your SMB. A process that requires minimal (or no) integration—and that can be deployed quickly—offers plenty of benefits. Such processes are relatively cheap to implement, minimally risky and quick to show that the new approach compares favorably to traditional IT system development.

Simple process wins are also valuable for gaining momentum for process improvement in general. When you combine fixing pain points with delivering solutions much faster than the old approach did, stakeholders throughout the organization will take notice. Moving the first system from an academic idea to a deployed solution also teaches everyone involved how process improvement works in practice and provides useful lessons learned that can be used to tackle a bigger project for the second system.

In addition, low-complexity applications can deliver high value. Many simple processes can be developed and deployed in as little as 30 days. Examples include: Trouble-ticket and defect-tracking, document approval cycles, timesheet and expense entry, ad-hoc tasking and human resources self-service functions such as ordering business cards and processing employee reviews. Compiling a list of high-value, low-complexity processes and then reviewing the costs and benefits of each is a good way to identifying the first systems to implement.

Opportunity cost is an often-overlooked way of quantifying the benefits of BPMS implementation. Small- and midsized businesses are often understaffed, meaning that your workforce may not have enough time accomplish some valuable activities. So if your core employees are stretched too thin, consider automating the low-value/high-time tasks so that they’ve got more time to spend on higher-value tasks. Re-prioritizing your human resources can serve as a stronger benefit of process automation than justifying return on investment (ROI) by removing people from payroll.

If your organization hasn’t used an Agile approach to development, BPM offers a good opportunity for trying it. Agility is a common benefit of BPM, and Agile allows the team to prepare for change. After all, change is what process improvement is all about.

Deploying systems incrementally (or at least demonstrating them to key stakeholders incrementally) allows you to learn from early implementation decisions and adapt as the project is underway. That model greatly increases the likelihood of ultimately reaching a system that earns everyone’s approval.

Many small and mid-sized businesses get into BPM because they’re on the verge of growth and suspect that their undocumented, manual or outdated processes won’t scale to meet changing demands. It’s important to avoid the mindset that “this particular person does this particular job.”

Instead, describe all steps in terms of roles, which two or three or 10 people might end up filling in two years. Also consider questions such as: "What would happen if we had to execute ten of these in one day, instead of our current volume of one per day?" When analyzing that kind of scalability scenario, you may find that making design changes now can minimize staffing changes later.

Business process management and its supporting technology, BPMS, offer many benefits for small and mid-sized businesses. Making the right decisions as you start your BPM program significantly impact just how well those potential benefits are realized. Make flexible technology decisions, choose the first project wisely, plan for change and invest in analysis throughout the project. Everything else is just an implementation detail.

READER FEEDBACK: Has your SMB taken on a BPM initiative? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Austin Rosenfeld is founder and CEO of Macedon Technologies, a consulting firm specializing in BPM. Previously, he was a product architect at Appian and ran the BPM consulting practice at Amentra.

More by Austin Rosenfeld, CEO/Consultant, Macedon Technologies



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