BPM aims to be a better team player
Success with business process management software lies in winning over weary users and linking to other office applications
Acquisition employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration often cringe when their NOAA counterparts make a new request outside the $1 billion worth of goods and services the agency buys each year. Requisitions that arrive without forewarning and have tight deadlines can throw a wrench into regular routines.
“We are being reactive instead of proactive,” said John Abbott, a project manager at NOAA’s Acquisition and Grants Office.
That environment is gradually changing because of revisions to the requisition process and business process management (BPM) software that guides new procedures. The goal is to reduce surprise requests and give acquisition employees sufficient time to process the purchases that NOAA has already committed to months or a year in advance of the order date.
“We are collecting data about each planned requirement and routing it to the intended requisition office,” Abbott said. “We are trying to better plan our workload and then manage the workload once something comes in the door.”
NOAA is discovering the benefits and pitfalls of BPM.
Many workers resist change or worry about losing their jobs to automation. “We are learning all of the things that we need to do to make it work,” Abbott said.
Once primarily characterized by workflow engines — enterprise software that shepherds documents and procedures from one desk to another — BPM is now part of a larger information technology framework that also may encompass enterprise application integration.
Federal agencies accept the BPM challenge because of its potential payoffs. By using Appian’s BPM technology, NOAA officials hope they can do more upfront planning, leading to better acquisition strategies and the ability to lump similar purchases together for volume discounts.
Other organizations consider BPM a way to integrate independent systems.
“BPM tries to address the bit of a nightmare agencies have created for themselves with a document management system, a content management system and maybe multiple systems for unstructured information,” said Campbell Robertson, global marketing manager of government at BPM vendor FileNet. “It would cost too much to pull everything out and bring in something new. That’s why agencies are starting to look at BPM as a way to bring a lot of these silos together.”
BPM veterans say that unlike other large-scale agencywide applications, BPM projects can start small and grow gradually, letting resource-strained organizations add time and money investments when possible.
BPM is different from enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management because you don’t have to swallow the entire elephant at one time, said Rashid Khan, chief executive officer of Ultimus, a BPM vendor. “You don’t have to automate all of your processes on Day One.”
Successful BPM projects can more than recoup upfront expenses, which average about $500,000 for moderately sized projects, said Jim Sinur, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, a research firm. For example, some organizations report 10 percent to 15 percent return rates through increased efficiencies and staff time reductions, among other benefits, he said.
But squeezing efficiencies out of business processes requires more than installing a software package and watching the organization become more productive. Cultivating worker acceptance and identifying existing process problems are essential first steps.
“The technology is outstanding, and applied properly, it offers huge benefits,” said Bill Roach, electronic document management system coordinator at North Dakota’s IT Department. “Unfortunately, a lot of times people try to apply it inappropriately.”
Roach participated in BPM implementations using FileNet for the state’s tax department. He advises addressing people first, processes second and technology third.
The department became a BPM candidate after technology consultants advised officials to electronically scan the yearly influx of tax returns as a solution to a shortage of storage space for paper records.
Once the department committed to scanning tax forms, a team of tax department and IT members looked to increase efficiency through electronic documents. The state created an automated system that routes tax forms to the proper specialists depending on whether the filings are complete or require attention.
“We spent a great deal of time understanding the process,” Roach said. “You get people together and ask, ‘What’s the most efficient way to get this done?’ And once we do that, then we can ask, ‘How can we apply technology to make it even more efficient?’ ”
The U.S. Naval Academy came to similar conclusions when it finished a test project last year to coordinate and improve processes for recruiting athletes. The academy used a graphical modeling tool within a BPM solution from CA to map the steps necessary to identify candidates, enter their SAT scores and transcripts, and score the results.
Traditionally, the process required employees to manually enter information before performing the various calculations. Data-entry tasks filled about 40 percent of a full-time employee’s time. Results would then flow via sometimes-unreliable e-mail to decision-makers, who evaluated each applicant.
Although the test identified obvious BPM efficiencies, including the elimination of data-entry chores, the academy has not committed to a production implementation.
“We’re still working through the impact on the organization,” said Alan Harmon, technical director of the academy’s Institutional Research Department. “We can shift resources to other areas, and that’s what we are struggling with now. You need almost an organizational architect available for triage because you are not just bringing a technology tool into service. You’re changing the way you do business and utilize your personnel.”
Abbott said NOAA also is seeing mixed reactions to its BPM software, including the reports that track workloads, deadlines and milestone performance. “It’s taking some time for people to adjust to the system,” he said. “There’s still some resistance, but I think at this point, [people submitting acquisition requests] see the benefits because they have a means of recording and retrieving their planning activity. Once the system becomes more integrated in the hearts and minds of acquisition people, it will become a more useful tool for them, too.”
Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.