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Some Things Never Change, But Some Things Do

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Business Process Management [January 2010]
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I’ve been writing these opening articles ("overture essays," we call them, somewhat pretentiously) for many years now. And increasingly, when I approach the prospect of digging down into a subject we’ve covered before—such as this one, business process management, or BPM—there’s a moment when I think:

"What else can be said about this subject that hasn’t already been said?"

And I’m always wrong. Especially when I get to interview people like Theresa Kollath, Laura Mooney and Karin Ondricek. Theresa’s the senior director of product management at ASG, the Naples, FL-based provider of what they call "Business Service Management." Laura is VP of corporate communications for Metastorm, the well-known business process management software vendor. And Karin is senior manager for marketing the Documentum xCP, the "xCelerated Composition Platform."

We sat down over the phone and through the cloud during a few sessions in early November, 2009. Here’s some of what we talked about:

Andy Moore: I always start out with: "What’s new?" And more specifically, how are your customers weathering the economic chill? Has BPM been a victim or a beneficiary of the strained economy?

Karin Ondricek: Organizations have had deep layoffs and are trying to continue operations with as few people as possible. BPM can contribute to enabling organizations to "do more with less." If you reduce your staff but your workload doesn’t go down, you need to automate the necessary, but low-value, tasks.

Similarly, when companies merge, you bring systems and staffs together. To do so, you need to consolidate and orchestrate the different processes and systems. BPM plays a critical role here as well.

Theresa Kollath: Because of the mass number of lay-offs, people have to do more with not just less—significantly less. That brings BPM to the forefront: how do we optimize to get the most out of the people who are left? If you have people doing their all plus 50%, you’ll soon reach a breaking point. Either the people break, or the process breaks.

This BPM technology isn’t the sexiest thing out there—it’s not like we’re talking about the Tesla electric car—but it’s a necessity. A necessary evil, some might say, but content management and business process management are mission-critical. For example, we’re in a very different position now than we were even a year ago with regard to workforce—we’re approaching 10% unemployment (this was written in November, 2009). That’s the highest unemployment level in 27, 28 years. This is uncharted territory.

Is there an explicit recognition that BPM can play a role in this scenario? I don’t think people wake up at night with a light bulb over their heads saying, "We’ve got to get BPM to optimize our processes." But they know SOMETHING has to be done. You can just look at the auto industry to see that things need to be changed. People have streamlined; if staffing is 10%-15% of what it was a year ago, you simply can’t have the same output without heroic efforts OR true change.

Laura Mooney: People are still investing in BPM. It’s exactly because of this drive to increase productivity and reduce costs during this recession that has prompted people to look at BPM as a way to do that. BPM has such a reputation for streamlining costs that we are seeing new people who never considered BPM before.

You might have to spend some money on software, but if you can get that investment back—and more—within a year, it’s a smart investment to make in a down economy.

With BPM, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit...highly manual systems that involve a lot of people. There’s a lot of opportunity to close those gaps, and reduce not only the time it takes to do those things, but also the amount of people it takes to do those things.

Who’s In Charge?

Andy: Let’s pretend for a second that the economy is NOT the primary factor in the purchasing process for BPM. What else is new?

Karin: The focus of BPM has always been the "process," of course, but what we’re seeing today is a change where the "case" becomes the central focus. It better represents the business’ goal. The processes exist to automate and implement the tasks necessary to support the case. In this sense, cases integrate BPM with document management and collaboration to "up-level" process management and involve know-ledge workers to drive the processes and help run the business more effectively.

Theresa: In the past, BPM implementation fell to IT by default. It’s technology, they bought it and it was esoteric enough that it demanded IT’s involvement. Now, the technology is more pervasive, and there’s more of an awareness on the part of the line-of-business managers to take ownership. It used to be about 80/20 in favor of IT’s ownership; now I would say it’s 50/50 or maybe even skewed a little toward the business side.

That is due in part to the purchasing process; business is now required to get justification, and more of it. The buying decision is moving up in the organization, and that’s had a balancing effect on "who’s in charge" arguments between business and IT. And the increased demand to prove ROI requires a broader, more distributed set of participants across the organization.

In the past, the line-of-business managers and the IT director would have gotten together and done a bit of horse-trading. Now it’s shifted more toward the responsibility of the VP level, and in some cases the C-level.

Laura: What’s also different now is that more levels of sign-off are needed than before. Our sales cycles are a bit longer. But IT is not the roadblock; it’s more a matter of getting approval for the dollar amounts. (I know we’re not supposed to talk about the economy here, but it’s hard to avoid!)

But in general, there’s also a mindfulness toward re-use. It depends on the organization, but some look at it more holistically, and realize that BPM long-term is going to be an enterprise initiative. So we might want to START here, in department "A," but we need to keep in mind that it needs to be potentially applicable to other parts of the organization. There need to be enough people involved in the evaluation that folks feel comfortable that the purchase has broader applicability, and it can be scaled over time to, potentially, the rest of the enterprise.

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