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Evaluating a business process management solutions vendor: What to ask

Kristen Caretta, Associate Editor

Business process management (BPM) has seen increased interest during the past year as organizations look to automate and streamline business processes to wring out cost and become more efficient. So for those that are evaluating business process management solutions vendors and tools to map processes and integrate electronic workflows, we have compiled a list of questions to ask up front to ensure a good technology fit.

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But first, a word about how to approach BPM: Organizations should gear their BPM initiatives to fit a purpose -- be it continuous process improvement, competitive advantage or business transformation, according to Clay Richardson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

For those that haven't yet taken this step, some cloud-based collaboration tools can help with strategic mapping and planning, he said, through a combination of collaboration and business process discovery. These capabilities help to identify workflow bottlenecks and other types of inefficient processes that BPM can then help you resolve. Tools for this purpose include Lombardi Blueprint and IBM's BPM Blueworks.

"If you need help building the business case for BPM or if you have no idea where you want to go, these can be good starting points," Richardson said.

"Now, on to the questions to help with evaluating business process management solution vendors:

Does the vendor have experience in your industry?

It may sound obvious, but it's important to find a vendor that specializes in your specific needs.

Some BPM service vendors are geared toward banking, telecom, insurance agencies, health care, etc., and are thus well suited for the general processes associated with those industries, said Jim Sinur, vice president of the business of IT research division at Gartner Inc. "A vendor promoting case studies in particular industries has had experience and success there and will most likely be a better match for you," he said.

Is an embedded service model an option?

Vendors often sell software to the customer and provide some initial training, but Richardson said in order to gain some real benefits and to reduce your vendor dependency, ask your vendor about embedded service options. This goes beyond the initial training and brings vendor architects or developers in-house to co-deploy the product and provide side-by-side hands-on training, usually for six to nine months.

"You can get one of their architects in your organization, which can impart knowledge in a real-world way," he said.

Don't give in to any unnecessary extras the vendor may suggest, however; these resources can cost up to $300 per hour. "The vendor may try to package this with a lot of developers, substantially increasing the cost," he said. "But push back on this if you already have some good, solid developers of your own."

If you don't have your own developers but aren't ready to dish out for the high-priced skill of the vendor developers, ask about a blended model of services. This gives you a junior or midlevel BPM developer (with one to four years of experience) for a lot less money -- $80 to $90 per hour for a junior person or $130 to $140 per hour for a midlevel developer provider through a partner, or add 30% to 40% for a vendor resource, Richardson said.

"The benefit of bringing the vendor partner skills is that they really can do the real blocking and tackling needed to help get success on your first set of BPM projects, although they might not be able to quarterback the entire effort," Richardson said.

A vendor promoting case studies in particular industries has had experience and success there and will most likely be a better match for you.

Jim Sinur, vice president, business of IT research division, Gartner Inc.

How much do you charge for a simulation and optimization workshop and what do you consider to be the benefits for my project?

Simulation and optimization workshops can use real data to predict how the revamped business processes will fare in hypothetical situations. Often offered by vendors as a benefit, simulation and optimization are ways of simulating the performance of a process, providing business analysts with further information to base decisions on -- including identifying bottlenecks and process improvement areas. In theory, every business process is analyzed across the company, including those processes that are cross-departmental.

However, Richardson said simulation workshops may not be worthwhile when you're first kicking off your BPM strategy because they are costly and time consuming, depending on how many processes you have. They also just offer possible outcomes and require sound decision making skills to make judgment calls -- so aren't always worthwhile for novices. "I wouldn't recommend focusing on simulation when you're just starting out," Richardson said. "Don't be afraid to push back on your vendor with this."

What are the data integration options?

Many vendors offer data integration connectors, which can be helpful alternatives to the otherwise labor-intensive hand-coding processes that are required for integration and are often offered by your BPM vendor. But these connectors can be pricey and may not work properly, according to Richardson, who recalled situations where connectors failed or integrated improperly, requiring even more time and money to be spent on the problem.

Look for customers who have had success using the same vendor, connector and original data point, such as database vendor and version, to ensure it will connect properly. "If you can't find that information, that could be a red flag," Richardson said. Get a couple of estimates from outside sources and find out what's worked for other organizations before making a decision.

Many outside sources also provide data integration connectors and, if chosen properly, could save you time and money. "Do your due diligence and research your options before settling," he said. "You could find another connector with the same functionality for less or one that turns out to be a better fit in your organization."

Is your BPM solution available as a SaaS option?

Asking about a Software as a Service (SaaS) option or the support for one is an important evaluation criterion, Richardson said, because it can say a lot about the vendor's strategy for the future. "I wouldn't say be wary of vendors that don't offer a SaaS solution, but they should be able to show you innovation in other areas that really knock your socks off," he said. "Or else they will be behind the curve in the next few years."

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

This was first published in August 2009

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