BPM modeling is the key to solid workflow automation

Jonathan Hassell

Business process management (BPM) software has earned its place in organizations everywhere. But workflow automation is not a magic bullet. Let's take a look at the four most common BPM modeling mistakes and how you can avoid them.

Jonathan Hassell
Jonathan Hassell

Don't expect miracles. BPM software cannot magically improve poorly designed processes all by itself. What it can do is highlight and maybe even throw a spotlight on problems with your true business processes. If those business processes are designed improperly, take too long, require an absurd number of conditions or are otherwise inefficient, you're simply asking for trouble. The software is only as good as the humans who engineer it. It's designed to speed up what happens during those human-engineered processes.

When processes move quicker, problems sometimes are highlighted more clearly or even exacerbated. Instead, give your processes a thorough going-through. That includes documenting current steps; confirming with key stakeholders; measuring the time, data and success rate; iterating over those steps until weaknesses are identified and corrected; and re-measuring to ensure that the process is efficient and safe. Then -- and only then -- can you consider a BPM rollout for that process.

Keep it simple. You have two choices: go small or go big. Think about how difficult BPM modeling is right now, when you're coming from simple paper-and-pencil or lots of email. You get your BPM software implemented, and now it's time to make it your own. You huddle together with all stakeholders and create this massively customized system with alerting, custom workflows, automatic archiving, magical payment posting and distribution, and so on -- all very, very customized to your business and its current environment. You pay a lot of money in software consulting fees to get this done. Now consider upgrade time.

Your BPM software vendor probably has no way to support moving all the customizations you've made from one product platform to another. Indeed, your business process itself has probably changed, if you're anything like most CIOs. So, you fork over a lot of money for both the upgraded BPM software -- and then another small fortune in customization fees to another consulting vendor. Or, if budgets are tight, you stick with a system that's old and doesn't do what you need anymore because it would cost too much to fix. Avoid these traps and keep the BPM software simple -- and the processes simple, too.

Build momentum and enthusiasm. Usually there's some initial enthusiasm from everyone on the BPM modeling committee as they sell the advantages of the deployment to the rest of the business. Usually there's a liaison to different departments who discusses how the BPM software can make them faster or more efficient internally, and perhaps even give your company overall a competitive advantage in a fast-moving industry. Everyone gets excited, the project is funded, and then -- silence. Crickets.

Instead, first outline a "quick win" project -- one you can implement in the first four to six months that's highly visible and solves a big pain point for a lot of people. Get it done and on budget and in that time frame, and demonstrate to everyone the practical and now-tangible benefits of your BPM rollout. This will build momentum for your workflow automation deployment and give people the vision they need. Otherwise, they'll lose patience and enthusiasm, two necessary ingredients of a successful BPM deployment.

Make that project meaningful. Don't implement an expense report process or a travel request system at first. Skip any process that is purely administrative. Deploy significant and productive workflow automation across the company that improves employees' workdays and offers a value to the business. New-product launch requests, research and development funding requests, competitive analysis processes, and so on make good first projects.

As with any initiative, a good BPM workflow automation process keeps its eyes on the prize and follows many aspects of lean processes. Get in, keep it simple, keep an eye on stakeholder communication, and you will start collecting the rewards as quickly as possible and become one of many BPM-modeling success stories.

Jonathan Hassell is president of The Sun Valley Group Inc. He's an author, consultant and speaker in Charlotte, N.C. Hassell's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.  Contact him at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com

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