From point A to Z—and back again

Today’s business process management software streamlines both human and system interactions

A business process is not a single application but rather a flow of tasks and, often, documents that typically involves many individuals, departments and enterprises. Even if automated, the process probably taps into many databases and programs, which is why it can be so prone to the errors and inefficiencies that come from poor coordination, communication and data integration.

As a process-intensive industry, government is keen on the latest generation of business process management software. Case in point, the Marine Corps, which replaced a fragmented, paper-intensive legacy procurement system with a solution from Appian Corp. Acting as a sort of centralized, Web-based layer of logic atop legacy applications, Appian Procurement connects administrators, internal customers and contractors, plus their systems and processes, while enforcing new policies. The result, according to the Marines, was $9 million in first-year savings.

Industry says agencies want BPM to help achieve some of the same goals that have driven IT procurement in recent years. They want to deliver better service to citizens; improve overall efficiency; comply with privacy, security and budgetary regulations; gain tighter control over resources; and save money. BPM can function as a type of high-level messaging framework for IT strategies that meet the goals, such as integrating stovepipe applications, standardizing software development and sharing data across agencies. But most of all, experts say, agencies appreciate BPM for the flexibility it brings to business processes, allowing them to respond quickly to changing demands.

What BPM is—and isn’t

Using a BPM suite involves modeling and analyzing existing processes, then designing more efficient ones—sometimes by automating them for the first time. In the implementation stage, the organization turns the model into a working application, often by integrating it with other applications.

“Once you map out that process, and the integration points are defined, you can just publish it, and it will be up and running on the server,” said Laura Mooney, senior director of corporate and product marketing for Metastorm Inc.

Finally, BPM suites let you monitor and manage the system, typically through a user-friendly dashboard that accesses business intelligence or analytics software—sometimes licensed from BI specialists such as Cognos Inc. and Hyperion Solutions Corp.

There are two basic kinds of BPM: human-centric, which focuses on collaboration between people, and integration-centric, which automates processes that need little or no human intervention. Integration-centric BPM isn’t devoid of people power, but focuses it on event handling and other processes that keep automated systems running smoothly.

The field of vendors that analysts describe as offering complete BPM suites divides along similar lines. So-called pure-play BPM vendors, including Appian, Metastorm, Pegasystems, Savvion and others, got their start defining and enforcing business rules. They would be in the human-centric camp. Some have expanded their rules technology into full BPM suites, while others have sought to work with other platforms. “The rules vendors are going out of their way to partner with every BPM vendor they can find,” said Colin Teubner, an analyst at Forrester Research. ILOG Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., for example, claims eight BPM partners.

The other major category of BPM vendors—the integration-centric camp—began a decade ago in enterprise application integration (EAI) but added BPM and workflow features when standards for linking applications at the data level settled down, and Web services standards threatened their niche. Vitria Technology and webMethods are in this group. The two groups don’t always compete.

“We tend to view EAI as complementary,” said Marc Wilson, vice president of professional services at Appian.

And some companies, such as Tibco Software, offer what’s considered a hybrid of human- and integration-centric technologies, according to Forrester’s Teubner.

Man and machine

“We actually don’t make that distinction anymore,” said Janelle Hill, vice president of research at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. “Now we’ve defined a business process management suite by saying products in that category take a more holistic view.”

In its research, Gartner identifies Savvion as an example of the holistic approach to BPM. Rob Risany, Savvion’s director of product marketing, describes the distinction this way: “Automation is not process. Automation is about things that typically do not need people to be involved. Automation of low-level things just tries to take costs out of low-level things. It doesn’t create top-line improvement.”

Risany cites the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an organization with a “high-touch” mission that combines people, systems and rules. “When we start looking at emergency management, what we find is, it’s a process problem of escalation,” Risany said. “For example, when should the federal government offer aid, as opposed to waiting to be asked? Rules facilitate richer responses to process exceptions.”

Another example of an agency using BPM to rapidly change business processes while still following rules, Risany said, is the Federal Communications Commission. FCC recently deployed BPM to support its work with Sprint Nextel migrating frequencies in the emergency spectrum.

“What happens when a new crisis comes up, and we have to re-allocate the bandwidth for 911?” Risany asked. “That’s a significant problem to coordinate.” The BPM suite “helps present processes in ways they can understand,” in part by providing color-coded maps, he said.

If your needs have more to do with day-to-day business, enterprise resource planning vendors also have adopted BPM technology. They’ve added modules and features to the complex applications on which numerous agencies run their financial and human-resource departments. While some pure-play BPM vendors say the offerings are less flexible and robust than theirs, ERP vendors such as SAP America, not surprisingly, disagree.

What’s lacking in other tools, according to SAP, is the domain expertise that comes from decades of managing business processes. “In SAP, there are 3,000 business processes that we can model,” said Peter Thiele, senior BPM solutions engineer for IDS Scheer of Berwyn, Pa., which makes the ARIS BPM suite that SAP sells with its NetWeaver integration platform.

Services with a smile

Integration standards, especially for service-oriented architectures, are the 800-pound gorilla of BPM. SOA creates interchangeable applications to perform the tasks that are the building blocks of end-to-end, Web-based business processes. Conversely, BPM is emerging as the logic that can hold Web services together and make them useful, according to several observers.

“We’re seeing a fundamental new wave in IT technology adoption,” said Tammy Janorske, director of webMethods’ government business unit. “There’s now a more fundamental emphasis on process. People have realized you can only get so much out of stovepipe applications.”

SOA is an element in the Federal Enterprise Architecture and other efforts to align IT with business goals while minimizing redundancy. Vendors say federal agencies are eyeing BPM as another tool in their FEA strategies.

“The BPM tools and the enterprise-architecture tools—we see a convergence there,” Thiele said. The marriage will help agencies eliminate redundant systems by retiring applications that have no critical processes running on them, he said.

The fact is, BPM may become less a technology category itself and more a logical extension of the application platforms that rely heavily on processes. Some vendors slap the BPM label on products that belong in other, closely related categories, such as document and workflow management.

“Most government users want to integrate [BPM] with document management and a portal,” Wilson said. “A lot of business processes involve the creation of documents.”

But while workflow and documents are key pieces of today’s comprehensive BPM suite, they’re only part of the story. “Workflow is very linear, simple automation,” Mooney said. “BPM adds significant analysis and improvement to processes.”

And that’s where pure BPM suites continue to evolve. Business activity monitoring, a leading-edge feature in BPM suites, “provides probes, if you will, into the process,” said Gary So, webMethods’ vice president of strategic marketing. BAM usually returns aggregated statistics that provide a snapshot of a process—say, the number of monthly orders in a supply chain—along with triggers and alerts. “It can visually compare what it’s seeing now to what it’s seen in the past,” he said.

Most vendors support two recently adopted BPM standards—Business Process Execution Language and Business Process Modeling Notation—although grudgingly and not without extending the standards through proprietary enhancements. “It’s still in flux—everybody’s got their own flavor of the standard,” said Tom Congoran, Pegasystems’ vice president of business development. “The market’s moving toward it, but it’s going to take a while.”

Indeed, BPM standards may have an uphill battle, because vendors might lose market differentiation if one model is interchangeable with another, or if it integrates with other vendors’ BPM suites. “There’s a vested interest in saying the standards are not good enough,” Hill said.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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