Business process management

The Process Management mix

Some, such as Staffware and Filenet, come from a workflow background. These suppliers initially provided software to manage the flow of documents in office environments, especially where actions by people are required. Now, they increasingly focus on storing and managing the processes and content, and interacting with underlying systems.

Process modelling companies make up another stream. Companies such as IDS Scheer provide tools for systems analysts to build step-by-step blueprints for business procedures and processes – these are then used to design an applications infrastructure. Recently, such suppliers have built more direct links to executable code. Enterprise application integration (EAI) suppliers, such as Tibco and SeeBeyond, used to focus on integrating the data used by different applications. But, joined by suppliers such as Vitria, CrossWorlds (IBM) and Asera, they increasingly focus on linking applications together to build cross-functional, end-to-end processes. Suppliers in all of these categories are rapidly developing their products to better support processes – as are major applications companies such as SAP.

All of these are being joined by a wave of specialist start-ups, such as Intalio, Fuego, Savvion; and by systems integrators such as Computer Sciences Corp (CSC). The latter has brought together a collection of products and procedures to provide a composite process managed solution.

Only a tiny percentage of new IT developments ever live up to the dramatic claims of the suppliers – or the hype of journalists and analysts who are caught up in the excitement. But that does not stop such claims being made – and nor does it mean that they will not be realised. Business process management (BPM) is the latest technology wave for which dramatic claims are being made.

Evangelists claim that BPM will change the way that software is designed, deployed and integrated; that it will enable businesses to radically alter their processes and procedures without major re-investment in IT; that it put the management of IT, and of the business, back where it belongs – with the business managers; and that, ultimately, it will lead to a less rigid, more flexible economy, made up of smaller, faster, more flexible business units.

The mechanics of BPM are understood by few people, even within the business software industry. But the theory may be summarised thus: almost all existing IT systems and tools are designed to manipulate data in a fast, flexible way. These systems work well as long as the processes involved (such as fulfilling an order) have been accurately modelled and do not change.

However, real business changes all the time – and is becoming more volatile. Moreover, as the Internet and other networks are used to link systems, people and organisations together, then longer, more complex and integrated processes are necessary. And these processes change all the time.

This is where BPM comes in. These systems are being developed to enable processes themselves to be stored and handled in the same way that data is today. Businesses can then use BPM systems, often using workflow-type techniques, to integrate existing applications together, or to link web services together, or to construct or deconstruct processes or sub-processes from scratch. Importantly, they also involve humans in the process – this is not just about applications integration.

The tools to do this are, crucially, intended for use by non-technical or semi-technical managers. All the changes they make at a high, graphical level, will be mapped onto the low-level software that handles the processes. It may not work out in practice, but in theory BPM is the underlying philosophy of the plug and play, agile business. Another bonus: it should be possible to adopt BPM without throwing away any ‘legacy’ software.

Market analysts predict a strong take-up of BPM products, even if not all are caught in the revolutionary zeal. Market sizes, however, are difficult to assess because of problems with definitions and scooping. Dozens of software suppliers, and several leading services companies, however, are convinced, and have joined the BPM ‘movement’.

Effective business process management (BPM) will almost certainly require the development of a major new class of software – the BPMS (business process management system). This will serve the same role in process computing as databases do today in datacentric computing.

No supplier today can claim to have a fully functional BPMS – although several suppliers have partial solutions. A BPMS will be a complex system and may contain tools from a variety of vendors, all integrated together. Among its functions: to draw on all available systems and services and integrate these as parts of business processes; to automate routine business processes; to manage processes from a single system, including ‘discovering’ them from internal and external systems; designing new processes and redesigning existing processes (using modelling tools); deploying new processes by executing code or interacting with underlying systems; and providing tools for optimising, analysing and maintaining processes.

The PI Calculus and other fangled concepts.

The vision of the BPM evangelists is that business processes will become as manageable as data is today.

There will be tools to model processes, to extract processes, to translate processes, to project processes for use by other systems, to manage large databases of processes, to analyse processes, to simulate processes, to test processes, to create new processes. And it should all be possible using tools that are no more difficult to use than a traditional spreadsheet.

None of this will be possible without some fairly radical thinking and some stringent standardisation. The BPMI (business process management initiative) and the WFMC (workflow management coalition) are developing most of the necessary standards – and are talking about a formal merger. Most leading vendors are members or one or both groups.

At the top level, a language called BPML (business process modelling language) is being developed that will enable any participating system to exchange descriptions of business processes. This is based on the XML mark-up language. Without this, it will not be possible for participating systems to share their processes with a management system, or for modelling tools to create executable processes. A high-level graphical notation system to enable business to work with BPML is under development.

It is also important for process databases to be able to manipulate processes. A new language known as BPQL is being developed so that applications and programmers can use the facilities in the same way most programs today use the facilities of a relational database using SQL commands.

Underpinning all this is a new way of dealing with processes at the programming or mathematical level. Processes, which are all about relationships and activities, can be described using a new form of calculus (called Pi Calculus).

Key BPM suppliers

  • IBM: The US systems giant is pulling together a group of process modelling and management products that, as one rival put it, “is beginning to look suspiciously like a strategy”. These products include the WebSphere integration platform, which has process mapping tools, the CrossWorlds applications and process integration product, and Holosofx, a process-modelling suite.
  • Staffware: The London-listed UK software supplier has remodelled its workflow suite, originally intended for managing the flow of scanned documents, to support transactions, to better integrate with other applications and to store a large database of processes. The company, is arguably the largest pure-play process management vendor. Its main product is Process suite, based on its scalable iProcess engine.
  • IDS Scheer: IDS Scheer has emerged as a global supplier of process modelling tools and is dominant in its native Germany. The Aris tool is viewed as a feature rich, market leader by analysts. It is trying to move beyond modelling and has entered an alliance with Intalio.
  • Filenet: 20-year old Filenet is a remodelled supplier of document management systems. It now describes itself as a supplier of process-oriented content management systems and focuses on managing large amounts of documents in a structured way.
  • Intalio: Founded in 1999, Intalio is a classic, venture capital funded, pure-play software company. Founder Ismael Ghalini is a passionate leader of the BPM movement. Intalio has developed one of the first business process management systems (BPMS) on the market.
  • Savvion: The privately held software company, founded in 1994, focuses on XML integration tools with business process management (BPM) capabilities. Savvion is used by many large companies as a process hub to link various enterprise applications together.

Process management and web services

Web services are distributed application functions that can be located and used using a standard set of tools. To the business process management movement, they are processes, or sub processes. They view the separate technological developments as highly complementary. If web services are ever to become very widely used, then some kind of web orchestration platform will be needed. This will act as a kind of choreographer, managing how web services are used and how they interrelate. It will enable web services to be assembled into complete business processes.

This is very challenging technically, because such systems need to be flexible, scalable, resilient, and have complex processes built-in to handle event exceptions and so on. But such systems will be essential in complex environments.

Business Process Management people pronounce

“The benefits of BPM can be enormous, but it is difficult and treacherous to undertake. When you start to fiddle with business processes, you are touching raw nerves.” – Katy Ring, Ovum

“Do not mistake BPM for some new ‘killer app’ or some fashionable new business theory. It is a foundation upon which companies can depend as surely as they depend on database management.” Howard Smith and Peter Fingar in The Third Wave

“I now see companies not just as individual producers of goods or services, but as combinations of processes.” – James Champy, author of Reengineering the Corporation, X-Engineering

“I no longer see myself as a radical person, I have become a process person.” – Michael Hammer

“Business processes are the most fundamental source of sustainable organisational advantage.” – Peter Keen, author of The Process Edge

Useful literature:

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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