Process makes perfect

When simple workflow software isn’t enough, business process management tools deliver

When Prince William County, Va., decided to automate the routing of internal forms, it found that standard workflow software wasn’t up to the job. The county’s business processes, which bridged different applications, were just too complex. Instead, the county tapped an emerging type of application—business process management software.

At first glance, BPM software looks similar to standard, electronic forms-based workflow software. But BPM software is “workflow on steroids,” said Jim Sinur, a vice president at IT research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. BPM may incorporate e-form workflow functionality, but it also allows easy integration with such other applications as customer relationship management software, allowing agencies to extend their workflow across the enterprise.

To serve its 4,000 employees, Prince William County had more than 30 different personnel forms either on paper or circulated in electronic form. Conducting personnel matters was slow and prone to error. Since the county had many offices, workers frequently drove from one location to another just to deliver a form. Up to 20 percent of the forms would be lost or inexplicably delayed en route.

While it might have seemed like what the county needed was a workflow system, a basic workflow application or add-on module would not do, according to Maneesh Gupta, information systems chief for the county.

“It is a lot more than a form that is automated,” Gupta said. The data crossed boundaries between human resource and payroll software from StarGarden Software Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., and document management software from Documentum Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif. Also, to automate the flow of some forms, complex calculations had to be made to determine who should receive the form next.

The county purchased Business Process Management Suite from Ultimus Inc. of Cary, N.C., which provided the interfaces to the other applications. Purchasing the software and setting up the system ran about $200,000, but the investment paid off within 18 months, according to a study the county commissioned from Nucleus Research Inc. of Wellesley, Mass. Instead of filling out forms and sending them to the personnel office, employees could conduct business through the county’s wide area network.

The county is not alone in its use of BPM tools. According to a survey conducted by AIIM, a trade association for enterprise content management vendors, BPM use is on the uptick. The organization surveyed 500 enterprise users, including over 100 government users, and found that more than 50 percent of them have started building BPM systems, and 11 percent of these users are undertaking larger, enterprise-wide BPM projects.

For government agencies, BPM promises to address a number of problems, according to Jeff Kristick, product marketing manager for BPM software provider Tibco Software Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. One is the federal government’s aging workforce. As many senior officials retire, an agency must scramble to train others to understand how its processes work. BPM can codify this institutional knowledge.

“This gives you a way to capture all the different logic into a more precise workflow process,” Kristick said.

BPM can also play a fundamental role in helping agencies press their enterprise architectures into greater use. The Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Enterprise Architecture encourages agencies to reuse software wherever possible, which BPM can help facilitate.

“BPM is used to compose business services into composite applications,” said Don Adams, chief government security and technology officer for Tibco.

At its core, BPM is very similar to the earlier generation of workflow products. BPM software resides on a server and offers a set of forms that users can call up through a browser or desktop interface. Once a form is submitted, the BPM software stores the information in a database and follows a set of rules to determine how to handle the form. The software walks the form through all the steps required to get to its final destination, alerting and keeping tabs on the individuals who need to review or modify the form.

But BPM offers additional features not typically found in most older workflow programs, according to Hank Barnes, vice president of marketing and product management for Ultimus. BPM suites often come with graphical design tools that allow users to visually map the paths their processes will take. The suites also come with reporting tools, allowing managers to see how efficiently a process is working.

The most important feature of BPM is its ability to promote interoperability among other enterprise applications—allowing agencies to orchestrate larger business processes with multiple applications.

John Mancini, president of AIIM International, defines BPM as a system that manages how business transactions are carried out—even as they flow between multiple applications.

Unlike standard workflow products, BPM software from Ultimus and others can carry information across different types of systems, according to Barnes. Ultimus supports a number of different workflow features in addition to its own, including the workflow capabilities embedded within Microsoft’s InfoPath form software and Adobe’s Portable Document Format.

“Our system would read their schema or their data fields, then we give you the visual ability to map their data fields to process variables that you have defined,” Barnes said.

Such flexibility is valuable for agencies trying to tie together departmental systems or extend systems to new users. Barnes gives this example: Say a department wants to extend to citizens an internal form managed by Microsoft’s InfoPath but cannot be certain that outside users have InfoPath. The BPM software would convert that form from InfoPath format into a Web-based one, allowing the process to bridge across different systems.

Tied to Web services

One key to BPM’s success is the emergence of Web services, which offer a standardized environment for applications to exchange data. Although most BPM systems predate recent Web services developments, Web services can ease the deployment of BPM systems.

Appian Corp. of Vienna, Va., recently added Web services functionality to its BPM suite. The Web services interface allows users to plug software into Appian’s BPM framework, according to Michael Beckley, co-founder and vice president of product strategy.

“If you have modules that you want to use, you can plug those in and not use ours,” Beckley said. For instance, Appian’s BPM software can work with third-party alert notices. A process could generate an alert and send it to a third-party messaging service that could, in turn, relay it over a BlackBerry device to concerned parties, Beckley said.

Web services can also ease the development of business processes themselves. Appian recently added a feature that allows modelers to look through an organizational directory of available Web services, embedding Web services directly into their forms.

“The user searches and finds a Web service and drops it into their process,” Beckley said. “That Web service is now part of that process they were trying to execute.”

With the emergence of more software capable of interfacing via Web services, getting complex BPM systems running should become easier. And as agencies start to think about their IT needs in terms of single, enterprisewide architectures, BPM may play an essential role in tying their systems together under one framework.

In the case of Prince William County, not only did BPM streamline burdensome operations, it also helped better align the county’s IT systems. “This combined system provided us with a truly integrated solution,” Gupta said.

About the Author

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