Reshaping the business

Business process management (BPM) experts and advocates are always careful to point out that it is a management discipline, not a technology.

Its message, first introduced when Michael Hammer and James Champy’s book Re-engineering the Corporation was published in 1993, is that changing times require malleable business processes. And when competition intensifies, what sorts the wheat from the chaff is not product, price or brand, but the efficiency and robustness of business processes.

“BPM is not a programming paradigm; it is about giving business people better control of their processes,” says Alan Trefler, CEO of pure-play BPM vendor Pegasystems.

It is ironic, then, that what brought BPM into the limelight in 2006 was essentially a tech-nological concern: the service oriented architecture (SOA).

Having invested heavily in developing SOA technology in preparation for the coming ‘revolution’, systems integrators and platform vendors found themselves without a strong business case for their new wares; or at least, not a case that is easily translated into business terms.

IT departments might understand the wisdom of making application functionality available in web-service form so that it is re-usable and easily integrated, but whether that’s enough to secure the necessary budget to pay for it is a different matter.

This is where BPM comes in. The ‘management discipline’ recommends the flexible, almost ad-hoc redesigning of business processes. As business processes often cross applications this, in practice, requires quick and easy application integration, exactly the kind provided by SOA.

“SOA takes the friction out of doing BPM,” explains Phil Gilbert, CTO of BPM software specialists Lombardi.

That makes improved BPM the business-centric case for SOA. Hence SOA platform vendor BEA’s acquisition of best-of-breed BPM supplier Fuego in early 2006, and integration platform vendor Tibco’s release of Business Studio, a BPM suite aimed at business users.

“The SOA vendors have to date been focusing on the technological case for SOA. Now the vendor community is turning towards the process message, and that is the right way to be thinking about it,” says Melvin James, practice director of IT consultancy Diagonal Consulting.

Is it working?

Just as BPM promises to bridge the gap between the requirements of the business and the infrastructure design that ends up being implemented by IT, by giving business users control over business process design, it also offers infrastructure vendors that had previously spoken to a technology-focused audience a bridge to the business world.

One problem: the supposed bridge between IT and business barely exists at all, at least according to BPM analyst for Gartner research Janelle Hill. This is due in part to reluctance on the part of the business to get to grips with its new found control over technology.

“Business people don’t have the confidence to manipulate models that will impact system level performance. That’s a huge step for them,” she explains.

Another factor that has impaired the realisation of the tenets of BPM has been a failure by the software industry to agree upon standard technological definitions of what a process is, and what its components are, says Peter Fingar, co-author of another influential BPM text, Business Process Management: The Third Way.

“The original idea [in that book] is that we would end up with an abstract data type called ‘process’. It would be a fusion of application integration and business rules engines into a business process management suite (BPMS),” explains Fingar. “There are companies who have implemented such a model, but on the other hand some of the large vendors didn’t really like the idea.”

In the interest of protecting legacy technology, Fingar argues, some infrastructure vendors have sacrificed some of the interoperability of BPM systems. That means that while businesses may be able to tactically tinker with the fine details of their processes, the wider potential for BPM to reach out and embrace the processes of business partners and customers hasn’t happened yet.

Proof positive

It seems that achieving the BPM ideal – business users having end-to-end control over process design – is proving harder than imagined in a multi-application environment. Perhaps then, those technology vendors best placed to deliver business process flexibility may be the business applications giants.

In 2002 Anthony Loraine, project manager for London Underground’s incident reporting system was applying for budget in order to purchase BPM software to control the system. At the time, Loraine was repeatedly confronted with the same question from senior management: ‘Why do we need extra software; can’t our SAP system do this?’ London Underground ultimately went with specialist BPM vendor Metastorm. But as SAP develops its BPM offering, says Loraine, “that question is going to get harder and harder to answer”.

As this example demonstrates, the best-of-breed tool vendors, platforms vendors and systems integrator have their work cut-out to prove that their offerings genuinely enable the management discipline of BPM.

Otherwise, business process re-engineering will become a standard feature of business applications suites, and the window of opportunity to establish open BPM standards will be all but lost.



Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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