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BPM gets flexible

This article appears in the issue February 2011 [Volume 20, Issue 2]
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Business process management (BPM) solutions and their predecessor workflow products have been used effectively over many years to automate and streamline processes that range from routine administrative tasks to complex transactional ones. BPM has fostered consistency by enforcing the appropriate routing of tasks and supported decision-making through documented business rules (see sidebar on page two of online article).

Whatever the level of complexity, processes that are predictable can be modeled and subsequently automated. Less amenable to management are unstructured processes, which cannot be reflected in a set of business rules. Knowledge workers often encounter such requirements in their daily work. The process may be a new one that has not been modeled, but still requires tracking and auditing. One example is the disposition of action items contained in minutes of a board of director’s meeting. Without a method for tracking them, those tasks can get lost in an exchange of e-mails or buried in documents.

Some in the industry claim that 80 percent of processes are unstructured, a claim challenged by Clay Richardson, an analyst at Forrester. “It depends on how you measure,” he says. “Our data show that less than 20 percent of processes are truly unstructured, but these are typically the most complex and costly processes. Therefore, the value of improving their efficiency is also high.”

Several methods have emerged for contending with those ad hoc processes. One is to allow greater involvement by business users in changing portions of the overall process, so that new sub-processes are easy to add. Another is the case management or adaptive case management approach, which moves a set of documents through a process that may vary from case to case.

Familiar territory

The Israel Electric Corp. (IEC) generates and distributes nearly all the electricity consumed in Israel. It has a network of 17 power sites, employs more than 12,000 people and has annual revenue of about $5 billion. As a utility, the company must comply with a wide variety of financial and technical regulations. To track compliance and other activities, Israel Electric selected ActionBase, a software platform that manages unstructured processes.

ActionBase is integrated with Microsoft Office and is accessed primarily through Outlook and Word. Many workers use those applications as their primary work environment and feel most comfortable operating within them. ActionBase is launched from within those applications as well as from Adobe ( PDF documents, and is focused on human processes, rather than transactional processes.

IEC uses ActionBase for managing audits, following up on meetings, and tracking incident reports and quality assurance. “We chose ActionBase because it can be embedded in Outlook, which is a tool in everyone’s office,” says Sarit Margel, IT product manager at IEC. “Also, we can use it for each process that needs to be tracked, without having to model it ahead of time. This gives us the flexibility to cater to the needs of various departments in the company.”

The process

To initiate a process, a user drags an e-mail into the ActionBase folder, which resides within Outlook. At that point, the message becomes “ActionMail,” which assigns a process step to an individual. “The user can see whether the item has been forwarded and acted on,” Margel says.

New items are in bold, and those that are overdue are shown in red. The user can then open ActionMail to see an audit trail of everything that happened related to the process, including exchanges among the participants, along with attachments and any sub-processes that have been initiated. Then the user can take action with respect to the process, such as responding to requests, accepting tasks, providing data, adding attachments or getting more people involved as needed.

Similarly, a process can be initiated from within a document. The user highlights the document section related to the process and clicks on the ActionBase menu. That brings up an ActionMail template with the highlighted information from the document. The user can choose process participants and add text, attachments, due dates or any other information needed by the process participants. When the user saves the document, the processes defined are initiated automatically through ActionMail.

As the process advances, the user can at any time open the original document and request a report on the status of the actions related to those processes. The report is presented within the document, overlaying the document content so that the status of the processes can be seen within the context of the original document. “The Word document becomes a summary of the process,” Margel says, “and our users can push a button to see the Word document and its status in terms of what is open and closed.”

IEC has about 650 users, including groups that use ActionBase on their projects, and high-level managers who are monitoring enterprise performance. “We are able to manage both flexible and well-defined processes,” Margel explains, “including very complex processes such as pre-projects.” In addition, ActionBase allows templates to be saved so that processes that are repeated can be standardized.

The intent of ActionBase software is to allow processes to be “managed but not strangled,” as Jacob Ukelson, CTO of ActionBase, describes it. “Many of the processes in knowledge work are unstructured,” he says. “We keep the flexibility provided by e-mail while providing accountability, visibility into the process and a good audit trail.”

ActionBase is not designed to compete with transactional or structured BPM solutions but to provide a way of dealing with unstructured processes. It can be integrated with a traditional BPM system to serve as an exception handler, and can also invoke a BPM system to launch a structured process from the unstructured one.

From structured to adaptive

The Multi-Chem Group produces specialty chemicals that improve the productivity of oil and gas drilling operations. The company’s products deal with corrosion in pipes,
 bacterial growth and other problems. Multi-Chem has facilities throughout the world, and needed a way to create electronic forms that would replace a paper-based system for approving administrative processes. Although the company was initially focusing on a limited set of processes, it wanted to be able to expand the application to many others in the future.

After developing a set of specific criteria, including being able to track the status of each form, send e-mail alerts and control user access, Multi-Chem narrowed its search to four products. Based on a comparison of features and cost, the company selected Process Director from BP Logix.

“We began right away with a personnel request form (PRF),” says Fernando Coronado, software applications manager at Multi-Chem. “This form was initially used to manage the review process for hiring new employees. We later expanded the PRF to cover additional HR processes such as transfers and promotions, as well as others such as capital expenditures and construction activities.”

Now Multi-Chem is focusing on another critical area of its information systems security. “A good example is the decision about whether a new employee should have access to some of our chemical formulas,” explains Coronado. “Only a small percent of our employees should be able to see this proprietary information, but the rules for making the decision are difficult to model because each case is different.”

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