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Business Process Management Agility

April 18th, 2006

The benefits of automating business processes are well recognized. Business Process Management (BPM) software is helping companies accelerate decision-making, cut lag time, reduce human error, increase consistency and conform to compliance guidelines. Given the unprecedented rates of change in today´s business environment it is more important than ever to adapt rapidly to competitive, regulatory and market pressures. An agile business must be able to adapt its systems to respond in real time without the time lag between business and IT.

Rashid KhanWhile it is easy to agree with the need for agility, many companies recognize their information systems are often the last thing to adapt to a change. This is because the enterprise software has business processes and business logic embedded in its core functionality. Adapting enterprise software to unique business needs often requires customization through hard-coding. As such, when it comes to changing an enterprise application, every line of custom code is a liability; not an asset! When coding is involved, even seemingly simple changes can require the complex, time consuming task of gathering requirements, sizing the development work, prioritizing the project against existing IT projects, and finally, writing, testing and deploying the new code. This time lag hinders agility.

Requiring IT to update business processes also creates an information lag. When IT must implement the changes, the business owner must clearly communicate and document every new requirement to IT before the change can be made. Every additional link in the chain of communication creates an opportunity for important pieces of information to be misunderstood.

Ideally, an agile organization would empower the business owner to directly update business processes themselves. Why, one might ask, would an organization enable the business unit to make changes to a process? Because, at the core, the processes are “business processes;” not “IT processes.” As such, the business unit is responsible for the process; the process expert resides in the business unit and is in the best position to determine when and how the process needs to be updated. The IT team should be responsible for supporting the underlying technology that ensures the BPM application is deployed and running properly. The fact is that IT is responsible for making process changes today because of the complexity required to implement the change; not because they are the rightful owner of the business process.

BPM systems deliver the first level of business agility by extracting the business process from the enterprise application. This is how extracting data from applications propelled the use of databases. This evolution drove productivity increases through the new paradigm of database-driven applications. When the process is “externalized” from the embedded application (for example, ERP, CRM, HCM, Financials), it is no longer constrained by the unique requirements of the application. This releases the process from the embedded application and enables the business process to touch people and systems across the entire enterprise; not just one specific functional application.

For example, consider a financial services company that uses an ERP system as a centralized repository for its financial information. The ERP system does a nice job of housing Accounts Payable and other financial information, but does not provide visibility or access to Department Managers outside the financial function. As a result, Department Managers need to manually assign account codes to each invoice and return a hand-written document to the accounting department for processing. By adding BPM to this example the process is “externalized,” enabling Department Mangers to participate directly in an automated process; thus, eliminating the errors and time lag associated with a manual process.

The next level of business agility can be achieved if BPM can (1) accelerate new process deployment (2) facilitate changes to existing processes. Shortening time to deployment will deliver faster time to ROI. Making it easier to change existing processes and enabling business owners themselves to changes processes, enables businesses to respond in real time to the ever-changing competitive and regulatory climate.

BPM systems can help organizations deploy key business processes faster if they can shorten the process discovery step. Currently, organizations spend a great deal of time discovering their processes and designing complex process maps before deployment. Organizations feel compelled to document every possible scenario no matter how unlikely or obscure. This is because they fear that a failure to identify and document every possible exception and rule up front will result in painful and time consuming changes later on. The need for precision is driven by the fact that IT is doing the development work. Developers cannot accept ambiguity as they are responsible for failure if the application does not work. So, they insist on knowing everything upfront and this can be very time consuming. As we can see, the difficulty in making changes to a process can significantly delay deployment.

BPM vendors can significantly increase agility by designing process management software in a way that: (1) makes processes more adaptable to change and (2) enables business owners to make selected changes themselves. While some components of a BPM process are inherently complex and require coding or integration skills, other components can be designed to allow non-IT users to modify and implement process rules. For example, creating a simplified rules environment with a user friendly interface and a business vocabulary enables non-IT people to write and change rules using simple logic skills.

Equally important is externalizing the rules from the process map. Exposing the rules so they exist outside the process maps allows them to exist independently. This means that rules can be modified without impacting other parts of the process. By enabling these rules to be accessed in a user friendly design environment, the IT team, or even business owners themselves, can change business rules without requiring the lag created when a complex process map must be opened up in order to expose its underlying code so a rule can be modified.

When a company knows it won´t be brought to its knees to make a straight forward change, it can launch processes faster without getting them “perfect” before deployment. In this way, rules can evolve incrementally. As an example, let´s consider a company that is automating its process for pricing discounts. There are clear pricing rules and discounts established for a current product, but not for a new product that will be introduced later in the year. Since the rules for the new product are not yet defined, typically the process implementation would have to either be delayed until the new policies are defined, or the company could implement immediately and undergo the painful change process when the new product is launched.

With a more flexible rules environment, the company can deploy the pricing process right away and get the immediate benefits of process automation without worrying about the new product. Then, when the rules for the new product are defined, they can be added dynamically without IT involvement; without requiring new code to be written, and without affecting the existing rules.

By “externalizing” rules from business processes and by creating a simplified rules environment, BPM vendors can take business process management to the next level. This makes BPM systems more flexible, easier to change, and faster to deploy. In addition, by simplifying the requirements for change, business owners can be empowered to make important changes to their own processes without requiring a time consuming IT project to make each modification.

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