Internal medicine for what ails you

It is one of those elusive goals, like the paperless office. It is something managers have long dreamed about, but it has remained frustratingly beyond their reach: a better way to manage paper and electronic forms and the clunky business procedures needed to complete much of government's work. For example, Norfolk, Va., has approximately 4,000 employees and more than 3,000 paper forms, nearly one for each employee. The forms cover everything from parking permits to pet licenses. Managing these processes manually had become inefficient and unproductive, said Hap Cluff, the city's information technology director.

Even worse, managers and staff could not track the status of critical information about particular transactions or the efficiency of the overall process. Forms were supposed to move from person to person, department to department, employees doing what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it. But who knew if that happened? Without status information, officials couldn't know the status of a permit or application at any particular moment.

For law enforcement agencies, the inclusion of many different organizations — agencies, jurisdictions, courts and prosecutors, for example — exacerbate the situation. Each organization has unique forms and methods for completing them.

"Law enforcement agencies have well-defined processes, but they are incompatible" with one another, said Ted Sisk, director of criminal justice solutions at Northrop Grumman. "They define data fields in their forms differently. The way they exchange data may be different."

Sisk recently implemented a multiagency information exchange in the Puget Sound area of Washington state using business process management (BPM) technology from Intalio Inc.

Government officials increasingly are using BPM to automate work processes, particularly forms-based ones. BPM systems allow officials to enter data once and then use it for several purposes, whether the task is approving building permits, authorizing purchases or hiring new employees, among others.

BPM also allows managers to streamline processes because officials no longer have to wait for employees in one department to finish working before they start their work. Different departments can work simultaneously.

Although its use is growing rapidly, BPM is still a new discipline in the government sector. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

What is BPM?

BPM is the practice of designing, executing and optimizing the operation of cross-functional business processes that incorporate systems, processes and people. "It is really about coordinating and orchestrating the actions of people and applications around a set of tasks," said Ken Vollmer, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

A BPM system is software used to improve the effectiveness of an agency's core operations. The software enables you to manage the business processes by coordinating the interactions among information systems and the people responsible for performing the myriad tasks that make up the business processes. In addition, the BPM system monitors the activity and provides data about the status of each process, enabling managers to change processes when necessary.

What is a business process?

A business process is a series of related tasks required to complete a job or fulfill a request. A letter from a member of Congress requesting information, for example, is a common situation that triggers a correspondence-tracking process. "A request comes in," said Don Cartrette, a government-sector business process specialist at HandySoft Global. "Such requests usually have a fairly quick deadline for preparing a response. It has a deadline, and things need to be routed around to different people to put together the correct response."

A business process will likely have subprocesses, tasks that must be done to fulfill the request. A county's building permit process, for example, might trigger subprocesses that check zoning or initiate environmental reviews. Each subprocess can be viewed as a business process to be managed through BPM. Organizations typically define their business processes in general terms initially and flesh out the details in subprocesses.

Almost everything an agency does — hiring people, paying them, assigning work, doing the work, ordering supplies, sweeping the floors, emptying the trash — is a process or a combination of processes. Managers typically focus their BPM efforts on the processes that create bottlenecks and delays or consume excessive workforce and financial resources.

Why is it difficult to automate business processes?

Business processes are particularly difficult to automate because they involve not only information systems but also people. They are more complicated than automated electronic transactions that can be processed through a Web site.

First, typical business processes involve multiple information systems — such as databases, e-mail systems, and office and financial systems — that may not be interoperable, but those systems may have to exchange data. Second, multiple people have various responsibilities throughout the process, such as looking at the work or approving it.

"It gets complicated because you are dealing with multiple system-to-system interactions, plus you have people involved," said Dave Kelly, senior analyst at Upside Research. "No matter how well you automate a process, there will be exception handling." Although it is possible to completely automate some processes, such as scheduling a driver's test or granting a routine filing extension, other processes require human interaction at various points.

Why is BPM important to government agencies?

Government managers have seen that past investments in automation have increased productivity, but the gains are eventually limited by the inflexibility of existing business processes. Only by addressing those underlying processes can officials obtain greater gains.

Forrester Research analysts identify four major benefits of BPM for government agencies:

  • Shorter cycle times. "BPM has the potential of reducing cycle times by implementing an electronic system for routing tasks that will enable many opportunities for parallel processing, which eliminates delays in routing information from one person to the next in a serial fashion," Vollmer said. By combining automated expert systems and business policy-based rules engines, BPM can cut the time for some processes from days or weeks to hours or minutes.
  • Improved management control. BPM "improves the level of management control by implementing a high degree of process automation and enforcing strict processing guidelines that limit opportunities for unauthorized access or modification of data," Vollmer said. In addition, providing information about the status of processes at every step along the way gives managers the ability to spot and fix problems early.
  • Increased productivity. "Higher levels of process automation [with BPM] also translate into the need for less manual effort for many tasks," Vollmer said. "In addition, less human activity also means less potential for introducing errors into key processes." Sisk added that "people are getting to see more meaningful communication through real-time data sharing. This lets them do whatever they would do more efficiently."
  • Enhanced customer service. BPM "helps the organization provide its customers with what they want, when they want it," Vollmer said. "This is accomplished through fine-tuning internal processes to minimize delays and wasted efforts."

Norfolk officials improved customer service, too. To accommodate a major new development initiative, city council members demanded a satellite building permit office. "By linking people, data and process flows across locations, e-Work [the BPM solution from Metastorm that the city uses], enabled the Building Construction Services Division to issue permits outside of its main office in downtown Norfolk for the first time, not just to be a place to pick up forms," Cluff said.

Who will use a BPM system?

The short answer is everybody who is involved in a business process. Typically, the IT staff maintains the systems and network infrastructure used by BPM programs. Users, however, must be closely involved in the creation and deployment of the system. They provide critical understanding of existing business processes. Furthermore, they should be involved in any business process redesign that results from BPM.

In Washington state, "everybody is involved — IT and the agencies that want to share information," Sisk said. "We formed a governance committee to determine what data and what processes to share. If somebody didn't have well-defined processes, we would run [joint application development] sessions to discover the processes."

How much do BPM products costs?

Organizations can get into BPM on a small scale, such as investing in systems to automate one process in a department or workgroup, for as little as $10,000 to $20,000. For large organizations, the cost will run $150,000 or more, Kelly said. In terms of software, "BPM is cheaper than [enterprise resource planning] systems but not as cheap as buying shrink-wrapped products" to handle one specific task, he said.

On the other hand, BPM creates savings in a number of ways. Officials report increased output and faster cycles, achieved in large part through performing tasks simultaneously. BPM systems also increase worker productivity through automation. It also capitalizes on previous investments in technology infrastructure and applications, Kelly added.

How do you ensure a successful BPM program?

The key to a successful BPM program is having well-defined business processes. Users must take the lead in identifying and defining business processes, including participating in system development sessions.

Officials also must have a good IT infrastructure in place, including properly configured network, storage, electronic messaging and desktop systems. "We revamped our entire network," Cluff said. Norfolk officials also upgraded every desktop computer system to accommodate the BPM system.

Training also is central to success. Users must not only be trained in the use of the BPM product but also educated about the project's objectives and goals, especially if officials want to streamline existing processes. Workers must feel that their interests and concerns are heard if managers expect them to adopt the new processes.

Finally, start small. With BPM, "you need to crawl before you can walk or run," Cartrette said. That means starting with a small, noncritical process through which everybody can get a feel for how the BPM approach works. Once employees are comfortable with the basics, organization officials can tackle the complex, critical processes, which will likely produce the biggest savings.

"We spent a year and a half exposing people to Metastorm, training people as coaches and getting people inspired about what we could do before we did the permit process," Cluff said. Then, the team built the permit application and completed it in 90 days. Today, "we could probably do it in half the time," he added.

Not every business process benefits from BPM, and poor business processes should be fixed before they are automated. But wherever agency officials experience bottlenecks, delays or poor performance, they should look at the underlying business process and consider BPM.

Radding is a freelance journalist based in Newton, Mass. He can be reached at alan@radding.net.

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