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BPM takes on the tough challenges

This article appears in the issue February 2008 [Volume 17, Issue 2]
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Business process management (BPM) has been one of the most successful types of enterprise applications. Rather than becoming shelfware, it tends to proliferate throughout an organization once its capabilities are demonstrated. Many applications have been implemented that automate routine processes previously handled manually. However, BPM has also shown that it can rise to the occasion to address complex and challenging situations. A good example is its use by city employees in New Orleans (cityofno.com) to submit applications, on behalf of residents, to the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

When Hurricane Katrina struck in fall 2005, many homes were damaged or destroyed, and some residents were eligible for the HMGP, a program that assists states and local governments with long-term mitigation initiatives after major disasters. To obtain the grants, the city needed to collect the required information and submit it to the state of Louisiana, from which point it would be sent to FEMA. Unfortunately, the city’s IT department had been cut back as a result of financial pressures, so it faced the double challenge of having to do more work with fewer resources.

"We lost 75 percent of our staff to cutbacks," says Anthony Jones, CIO for New Orleans, "and we had a large increase in the number of applications to put through. We knew we needed to change the way we were doing business."

The city had already contracted with CIBER, a systems integrator, to manage its IT services. CIBER saw opportunities for automating a number of the city’s processes to gain greater efficiency. The CIBER consultants working with New Orleans were familiar with Metastorm BPM and considered it a good match for the city’s needs.

"We knew it could handle the complex grant application process and could be deployed quickly," says Jeff Talley, director of state and local government practice at CIBER, "so we began working with city personnel to define the required steps for that process."

Metastorm BPM was up and running in spring 2006, and city employees began using it to submit the HMGP applications. Many types of data were necessary to complete the form.

"We had a potpourri of different data sources," Jones says. "In some cases, citizens filled out forms manually, and the data was then scanned into the Metastorm system. In other cases, we were able to draw in the data electronically from sources such as mortgage records, insurance companies and FEMA."

The results were apparent almost immediately. "Our time to complete an application was reduced from 45 days to 10 days," notes Jones, "and the process was much easier for our workers." Training was minimal, and the 15 employees who use the system were very receptive. "The application is user-friendly, and our workers were already geared to make the change to an electronic process," Jones adds.

Other applications are under development and will involve a greater number of employees across many more departments. One is a process for routing and tracking citizen correspondence. "This process will ensure that every issue is followed through from beginning to end," says Jones.

In addition, a process for routing contracts through review and approval is being developed. "We expect this new process to transform our business in this area," he explains, "because the current processing time of 90 days will go to about 10 days." Once the contract is in place, the BPM software will also follow its progress, keeping track of milestones and providing alerts if delays are incurred.

Besides making a variety of city processes more efficient, the BPM system will also provide feedback on resource use. "Once the processes are clearly defined, we can see how long a particular activity takes, and see more clearly where our staffing priorities are," Jones says. "This capability will help us make data-driven budgetary decisions."

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