BPM governance: The foundation for true business transformation

In some ways, business process governance gets no respect.

Governance isn't the high-concept, "sexy" part of BPM that promises to radically improve the way business is conducted—it's the necessary practical counterpart of BPM that focuses on obtaining and documenting results. In this article, we'll look at best practices for BPM specialists who are looking to do that important job effectively.


According to analysts and consultants, the problems with BPM governance exist both at the conceptual level, where those envisioning BPM projects need to provide governance plans that can support implementation, and at the granular level during and after implementation, where it's vital to ensure that what's proposed or planned actually works—and that it actually gets implemented.

Among the biggest challenges of this subject is that there's no universally accepted definition for what constitutes BPM governance, says Clay Richardson, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. In Forrester parlance, process governance, or BPM governance, involves establishing methodologies, skills, and best practices for consistent delivery of process-improvement projects and programs.

In recently surveying some 45 companies about their BPM practices, Forrester researchers found that companies reported having many new project opportunities, but no method for weighing which projects would reap the best results. "A big part of governance is to come up with that methodology and what the key metrics are to select BPM projects," Richardson says. Similarly, Forrester found that many companies had portfolios of completed projects, but hadn't defined metrics for evaluating the benefits gained.


"Part of governance is to build a best-practices guide," Richardson says. A guide might include selected best practices such as setting standards for new BPM projects and for prioritizing among projects. Its recommendations must both reflect leadership support and address business and IT concerns. Says Richardson: "That's a critical piece that is also missing in a lot of cases."

Setting up and exercising governance properly involves more than simply jotting down modeling frameworks and general advice. It's also a demanding organizational task that requires not only people who have clear responsibility for specific deliverables but who are also empowered to act and enforce, warns Thomas J. Olbrich, co-founder of the Taraneon Consulting Group.

Many companies want to be seen as having process governance, but in too many cases, they don't actually undertake any governance activities, Olbrich says. He cites numerous reasons for that imbalance.

For one thing, starting a BPM initiative completely from scratch is rare. "In most cases, you will already have your processes in place and afterwards you put your governance on top," Olbrich says. "This will either be a lame compromise, so as not to be disruptive, or it will be so abstract that it doesn't serve any real purpose."

Another issue involves determining which processes will be subject to governance. "What we tend to see is that where governance is established, it mostly concerns process operations and does not extend to the early lifecycle phases of design and implementation," Olbrich says.

That fact may reflect the perception that governance generally viewed as a stable, or even rigid, instrument that's difficult to apply to the more volatile and dynamic development phase. In fact, the pre-implementation process that Taraneon does in its Process TestLab is an effort to exercise governance over design, Olbrich says: "It seems to be what a growing number of companies feel is missing."


However, simply having governance without being able to apply it—and, when necessary, enforce it—will ultimately prove futile. "The way to exercise governance is tied to the demands and requirements of the processes," Olbrich says.

For example, if you have high-volume, highly distributed processes, you need a different type of governance than required for a one-step, locally run process. In addition, many companies define governance only for their core processes, expecting to extend the effort to other processes eventually. "But, of course, they never do," Olbrich says. "The challenge lies in the fact that governance itself is a process, which, because of its objectives, makes even higher demands on process management than other processes do."

Simply getting started with governance can be challenging as well. For instance, "we know that the average process-reengineering project will require about 40% of project time on [process] discovery, finding out what the current processes are and how they work," Olbrich notes. When you're investing that much effort on documenting where things stand, it can be tough to justify spending even more on governance.


Another common disconnect in BPM governance, in Olbrich's view: the question of authoritative documentation. For example, the documentation for each phase of a process lifecycle frequently involves different content. Design documentation will vary from operations documentation—if the latter even exists, as employees often choose to modify or ignore the methods prescribed in the design phase."We had a case some years ago at a financial institution where we found out during a process audit that 90% of [actual] working practices did not conform to the documented processes," Olbrich says.

Furthermore, audits performed in the Process TestLab indicate that about 92% of tested processes contain logical errors, with an actual average rate of around 120 errors per process, Olbrich says: "That's 120 reasons why a process would not work or cannot be implemented."

Even after those errors have been corrected, when future process-users are allowed to try the process, "this usually leads to the discovery of any number of misunderstandings in the process design," he says.

Unfortunately, in the absence of such rigorous testing, what usually happens is that "these things only come up either during or after implementation, which makes correcting these errors extremely expensive and time consuming," Olbrich says. That can create disillusionment among executives who are unwilling to trust process methods or to invest in topics such as process governance. Likewise, he says, employees may instinctively mistrust any projects involving major change, because they believe, based on past experience, that such efforts don't really provide improvement.


If that isn't enough to think about, there's also the desirability of having a lifecycle framework for BPM governance. According to Forrester's Richardson, when you're talking about lifecycle in terms of BPM governance, you need a plan to take you from design to build to deployment and beyond.

Governance needs to include "facilitation," along with incentives to give it staying power, says Alyssa G. Martin, Dallas executive partner for Weaver, an independent certified public accounting firm in the Southwest. She defines facilitation as a method for moving processes along and providing guided monitoring to improve performance.

"Facilitation is a piece of governance; it is about what governance is accomplishing," she says. "With process improvement, an idea isn't really implemented until it is fully adopted. Governance must set a tone of authority and include a monitoring element to ensure that BPM is achieving the desired benefits—and that its success is sustainable.

One way to ensure sustainability: "Continue the responsibilities of the team that has been in charge of launching the BPM project for some time after implementation, maybe four to six months," Martin advises. In that situation, team members will monitor and help enforce the process changes. You may even want to consider rewarding the initial team when specific results are achieved.

"One mistake I see teams make is that when they communicate the change, they think they are done. Or when they have rolled out the training, they think they are done," Martin says. But those are the first steps in implementation, not the last, she continues: "Embedding that change into workflow and measuring adoption and following that change—that is when you are done." READER FEEDBACK: What has your experience been with BPM governance? ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Alan Earls, a journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business, is based in the Boston area.

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