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At the moment in financial services organizations, not spending today on an IT project is often a more compelling option than even a significant return on the investment tomorrow. This means that the business expects the IT department to be innovative or accept cost reduction as the only viable strategy. Unfortunately, investments in software infrastructure -- even for hot topics such as SOA and BPM -- seem to offer primarily medium-term returns. This makes justifying new investments and even sustaining current investments in this area challenging. What this means is technology innovation must be carefully focused on "sweet spots" where it can pass these more exacting investment criteria. In the case of BPM, the sweet spots emerging are those where BPM has the ability to automate complex manual processes, remove human error and handle process change.

To somebody coming fresh to BPM, this idea of looking for very specific problems to fix may be surprising, as BPM is often positioned as a strategic project driven from the top down with widespread benefits. While it can be argued that the returns of a strategic approach may be substantial, the overall costs will be high and the payback not immediate. Therefore, such an investment is out of sync with the realities facing most financial services organizations today.

Unfortunately, this perception of BPM as "big concept" may make some organizations slow to try BPM in a different and more pragmatic mode. To make matters worse, BPM can be quite confusing, as it is really a combination of concepts from process re-engineering and an approach to describing and formalizing ad hoc business processes as well as a set of technologies.

To complicate matters further, BPM technology is actually applied to two types of problems (and sometimes a combination of the two): the integration of applications with multi-step business processes, and the automation of human workflows. This final distinction has mostly to do with the origins of the vendors selling solutions, who typically come from one or the other camp.

To identify where BPM sweet spots lie, it is useful to boil down what BPM does: BPM automates well-defined processes. It is true that a BPM project often includes the creation of the formal process definitions from the informal, and implicit processes that already exist. However, while much is sometimes made of the ability of BPM software tools to support the capturing of business rules, many business processes still require a lot of work to formalize. This formalization itself forces changes in the way the business operates. And it may be expensive and hard to justify change for changes sake. Therefore, it is clearly much easier to start in areas where the processes are already formalized.


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