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BPM: from modeling to implementation

This article appears in the issue February 2009 [Volume 18, Issue 2]

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Despite the troubled economy, business process management (BPM) software products seem to be headed for robust growth. Gartner  estimates the 2008 market at $1.26 billion, growing to $5.1 billion by 2011. Other analysts also are converging on the $5 billion to $6 billion target although the definitions of the BPM market vary somewhat. More than half of the responding companies in a recent survey by AIIM  reported that they have implemented BPM projects ranging from departmental to enterprise, and most of the remaining plan to do so in the future. One reason is that like many other KM solutions, BPM fosters efficiency that leads to cost savings and performance improvement.

Modeling tools play a pivotal role in the development of BPM systems because they provide a high-level, visual representation of organizational processes. Business users and developers both receive benefits from the tools. The way an organization has historically managed its processes can often be streamlined and improved. Duplicate steps can be eliminated. Some steps that have been done inconsistently can be standardized so they occur the same way each time. Potential bottlenecks can be identified. All that can take place prior to the implementation of the system, when modifications are much easier to make.

In the flow charts developed using BPM modeling tools, the shape of the graphical element represents a particular component—round for an event, rectangular with rounded corners for an activity, and diamond-shaped for a "gateway" or decision point, for example. Other elements indicate what types of connections can occur between the flow objects, data needed for the process or other description information. Understandable to both business users and technical staff, the flow charts provide a visual tool for collaboration.

In the Air Force, the 643rd Electronic Systems Squadron (ELSS) uses a modeling tool from Metastorm called ProVision to support its enterprise architecture (EA) program. EA initiatives describe the structure and functional operations of an organization, often with a view toward improving performance by providing effective IT support. The Air Force is working to accelerate the adoption of technologies that support its mission.

ProVision is a modeling and simulation tool that allows users to define and identify processes and their participants. The processes can be analyzed to determine costs and the timing of implementation, and to detect bottlenecks. In addition, ProVision can be used to link processes to goals, to determine their impact on the organization. The information compiled during its use becomes the basis for BPM deployment.

With the support of BTAS, a consulting and systems integration company, the Electronic Systems Squadron modeled the processes that are used to provide and support the IT environment. One of the great benefits of modeling business processes prior to developing a BPM system is that they can be analyzed and improved.

"Many complex processes can be simplified substantially," says Brian Chaney, BTAS lead for enterprise architecture and systems engineering processes. Extracting rules and making them explicit is an integral part of the modeling process. Once a more efficient process is developed, it is put into the model, replacing the earlier, more cumbersome approach.

Another typical example of efficiency is the reduction in data entry. When processes are carried out manually, sometimes the same data element is entered multiple times. That problem can become much more evident when an explicit model is developed. After a process is automated, each data element can be entered once and then accessed as it is needed. Parallel processes are also easier to carry out electronically; when in paper format, they must be carried out sequentially.

Chaney says, "It’s easier for the average person to process smaller bits of information at a time. BPM allows this to happen by breaking down our complex processes into more manageable pieces of work."

The modeling process greatly enhances the ability of business users to communicate their requirements to the IT department. The activities involved in developing the models typically help break down the barriers between the business users and IT. If requirements are handed over to IT without a model, the result does not necessarily meet the needs of the users. Being able to see and discuss the processes and supporting data with the business users helps the IT department reconcile conflicts that may arise.

The next step for the Electronic Systems Squadron will be to implement BPM for each modeled process. Metastorm BPM will be used for the BPM implementation. Although ProVision is integrated with the BPM software, the transition from model to full implementation is a not a minor task. The amount of detail in the BPM is considerably greater than in the model, which is intended as a high-level overview of the process. In addition, the roles and destinations for each step of the process must be specifically documented. Once designed, though, services developed for steps that are required in different processes can be saved and reused for other processes.

Organizations benefit from gaining a better understanding of the assets involved in business processes prior to implementation, according to Laura Mooney, VP of corporate communications at Metastorm. "This step allows users to optimize their processes before going into automation," she says.

Another enhancement to Metastorm’s business process management offerings came through the acquisition of Spotlight Data, which provided a process discovery tool that is now branded as Metastorm Discovery. The product is sold in conjunction with ProVision to help organizations collect information about current processes to ensure more accurate models and to enable more effective process improvements.

BPM in banking

Banking is a process-intensive industry that has benefited from BPM modeling and implementations. Towerbank, based in Panama, used the Ultimus Process Designer in implementing its BPM system. It also participated in a Discovery Workshop facilitated by Ultimus, which helped the bank identify key processes. One of the bank’s goals was a high degree of visibility to support decision making, and another was personalized service. Among the first automated processes developed by the bank were credit card purchases and approvals, new account openings and accounts maintenance. Those and other steps toward automation have helped the bank move toward a paperless customer service model. In addition, implementation of BPM has enhanced the efficiency of its back-office processes.

Large organizations are more open to using modeling before implementing a BPM system, according to Chris Adams, VP of product marketing and management at Ultimus. "The large companies are more likely to have dedicated business analysts who can define processes," he says. "Smaller companies are more likely to be working directly from the IT department, and want to go more quickly into the automation phase."

If the company does not carry out modeling using Ultimus Process Designer, Adams recommends the Discovery Process Workshop in order to get everyone to agree on the processes. "They end up with some printed documents that record their processes, which helps ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction," he says. "A lot of what we do is education, alerting the users to best practices and showing how BPM can be most effective."

The AIIM study noted that "the lack of interchange standards between modeling and execution tools remains an issue." At present, the Business Process Management Notation (BPMN) standard, which describes the process model, does not translate directly into the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), which implements the model into a working system. A variety of approaches can be used to address the issue, but organizations that are exploring the use of BPM modeling software should take a careful look at how well it has been integrated with the software proposed for the runtime system.

BPM modeling that is accessible to business users has a critical role in the development of automated systems. "One of the principles in BPM management," says Michele Cantara, VP for research at Gartner, "is that it should empower business stakeholders to participate in the design, development and optimization of the processes."

In addition, two-thirds of users expect to change their processes at least twice a year, with up to 20 percent doing so on a weekly basis. "It is not feasible to go back to the IT department each time to make the changes," Cantara maintains. "Users need to be able to change process steps on their own and still maintain the integrity of the solution." 

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