Business process, according to John Pyke, chief technology officer of workflow management specialist Staffware, is king. "Understanding it is critical, automating it is essential, and managing it is vital," he says.
By managing IT infrastructures along so-called ‘top down', business process lines (that is, identifying the individual tasks that make up a business process, the order in which they should be handled, and the technical elements that support that process), Pyke argues that organisations can build responsive, flexible systems at speed, typically exploiting an underlying and pre-existing software infrastructure. These systems, he believes, will enable companies to streamline internal and external business processes, eliminate redundant tasks and increase automation.
Workflow is an essential element of business process management (BPM), in that it handles the routing of work between resources, whether those resources are people, systems or machines. It also manages the order in which those steps are handled. But most important, it enables employees to check on and, if necessary, reconfigure the flow of a business process when unforeseen or exceptional events occur. "As much as we'd like to totally automate processes, there are some parts of processes that cannot be left to computers, some decisions that need to be made by people. Where human intervention is required, that's when workflow comes into play," says Ismael Ghalimi, CEO of BPM software firm Intalio and a founding member of business process standards body BPMI.org.
Neither workflow nor BPM are new concepts, points out Ghalimi. "Each has its roots in a long tradition of developing methodologies to help businesses become more agile," he says. But the combination of the two technologies is spurring the development of BPM tools that bridge the gap between modelling a business process and executing it.
"What is different now is that, all of a sudden, process becomes executable. Process modelling tools of the last 15 years provided a way to represent business processes, but the outcome of that was that [visual representations] of business processes prepared by business analysts had to be handed over to IT people to execute. Now, organisations can automate much of that work using BPM tools without requiring significant hard-coding," he explains.
These tools, according to Howard Smith, director and co-chair of BPMI.org and chief technology officer for Europe at systems integrator Computer Sciences Corp (CSC), are spurring "a process revolution". Today's BPM tools, he says, provide an answer to the problem of finding a single methodology and toolset, underpinned by a single technological foundation, for the representation of processes.
Smith cites a handful of organisations that might use BPM tools to solve business problems and become more agile: "A global logistics company wanting to design corporate processes top-down and to manufacture localised variants [of its products] in order to avoid duplication among its business units; a national telecommunications operator that needs to respond to new market opportunities and strategic threats by radically reducing the time it takes it to introduce new tariffs from weeks (or months) to days; and an IT services company that discovers that workflow engines are insufficient to meet the challenges of providing clients with business process outsourcing."
However, in order to use BPM effectively, says Smith, organisations must first stop focusing exclusively on data and data management, and instead adopt a process-oriented view that makes "no distinction between human and computer work".
Quoting from Business Process Management: The Third Wave, a book co-authored by Smith, Ghalimi and respected technology consultant Peter Fingar, Smith underlines this point: "There is something wrong with IT, something dreadfully wrong. For the past 50 years, computers have been data machines, recording the after-the-fact results of business activity. Companies are stuck in this data-centric world of IT, where there's an ever-growing disconnect between the business and the technology it deploys."
"The idea of BPM is to bring processes, people and information together," agrees Ghalimi. "They must be unified so that organisations can become more agile."
Smith firmly believes that without the shift in thinking from data to process, the evolution of the agile business could be stalled: "Because the data-centric paradigm of IT won't take us past where we are today, we must break it!"