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FAQ: Business process management defined

Business process management (BPM) is top of mind for executives looking to cut costs and increase efficiency. Here, we answer FAQs like: What is BPM? How does it relate to SOA?

Business process management (BPM) is about mapping, streamlining and enhancing business processes, both to wring...

out savings and efficiencies and to add additional value for customers and the business. BPM today covers a lot of ground, as social networking applications serve to create processes on the front end while service-oriented architectures, workflow best practices and BPM tool sets combine to make it happen on the back end.

Join the organizations that are revisiting their business processes in an effort to optimize efficiency and profitability while striving for continual improvement, by learning the basics in this FAQ.

What is BPM?

Business process management is the methodology used by organizations to improve end-to-end business processes. It can span five stages: design, modeling, execution, monitoring and optimization. Typically, it begins by defining the steps that it takes to get something done, improving on those that add value and consolidating or automating the others, then tweaking electronic workflows to match the process maps. This streamlining can be accomplished through system integration using middleware, a service-oriented architecture (SOA) or software packages that assist with process mapping and then connecting the back-end systems involved in a process.

BPM emerged in the late 1990s as a backlash against the early 1990s idea of business process re-engineering (BPR) fueled by Michael Hammer and James Champy's book Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. The principles of BPR emphasized gaining maximum control over processes while eliminating waste and redundant resources. "BPR did not look at how and if the processes were improving after the organization was drained of all overlaps and redundancies, but the huge cost reductions of these decisions," said Clay Richardson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "It was a way to downsize."

BPM, unlike BPR, depends on people. Especially in industries where the delivery of services depends entirely on people, the more collaborative human interactions are, the greater the chance for continual improvements. Where BPR dictated the processes from the top down, BPM began the shift of process design from the bottom.

What problems does BPM aim to solve?

Business process management has always been about process agility and operational excellence and pursuing the highest level of cost efficiency. But today, organizations also look to BPM to fulfill more specific business needs.

Optimizing their workforce, improving customer retention, growing the business and maintaining regulatory compliance are a few of the problems areas BPM now focuses on, according to Janelle Hill, business process management analyst at Gartner Inc. "Compliance is a perfect example here because it is a process that is not well managed," she said. "BPM can show how work happens and provide that more complete audit trail."

To capture this full picture, IT can be charged with logging online conversations, email threads and collaboration across social networking channels to uncover all the workflows involved in a business process.

  • Get more information on BPM.

How are BPM and BPMS different?

Business process management suites (BPMSes) support the BPM discipline. A BPMS is a set of software components showcasing the building blocks of processes. "This assembly and orchestration of SOA-designed assets provides perspective and context for many organizations that do not have many SOA-designed services," said Hill. "It helps organizations better understand what aspect of a process needs to change."

A BPMS bring together multiple workflows -- whether human or system-to-system -- in a coordinated view.

Gartner's definition of a BPMS identifies 10 major features in a BPMS package, including a model-driven composition environment, document and content interaction, user and group interaction and simulation and optimization.

How do BPM and SOA work together?

Although an organization with a solid service-oriented architecture already in place can often pave the way for BPM and BPMS implementation, a relationship between the two is not necessary. BPM focuses on the needs of the business, and "SOA is about improving the use of assets within the company -- specifically the IT assets," Richardson said.

SOA is the underlying structure supporting communications between services, defining how two computing entities, such as programs, interact. It aims to streamline communications between programs to keep the individual services working together.

This underlying structure is especially important for those organizations that choose to implement a business process management suite, because a well-defined services layer is key to designing processes. "BPM is the business language and SOA is the technical language," Richardson said. "Once you understand what the challenges are within your organization with SOA in place, you can design business processes to leverage the services that are already there."

  • Learn more about the relationship between BPM and SOA.

How have BPM tools changed?

With at least 100 providers worldwide -- from major players like IBM and SAP AG to smaller, pure-play vendors like Lombardi Software Inc., MetaStorm Inc., Appian Corp. and Global 360 Inc. -- organizations have their pick of BPM systems and services. Gartner's magic quadrant includes 22 of them.

Newer tools boast more user-friendly interfaces (model-driven or graphical) that require a lower skill level, thus encouraging all levels of the business to get involved. Social networking has also informally emerged as a collaboration tool amongst co-workers. "Social media is the new frontier, filling in the white space that BPM hasn't been able to cover," Richardson said.

Sharing knowledge across process wikis, reaching out to experts or global partners via online chat, and soon using tools like Google Wave to capture real-time updates in documents and processes have changed the way processes are established. Incorporating multiple layers of a process beyond the boundaries of an established workflow, these enterprise 2.0 tools can actually provide more insight into how work is completed.

"It's not about losing control over our processes, though," Richardson said. "It's allowing collaboration to take place in all aspects of the process to help us define and improve our capabilities and reactions."

  • Get more information on BPM tools and guidelines.

How much do BPM tools cost?

Business process management tools will vary in price from organization to organization, given factors such as company size, level of BPM maturity and the type of tool purchased.

For organizations just beginning their BPM journey, cloud-based collaboration tools can help with strategic mapping and using business process discovery methods. Bottlenecks in workflow and other areas of inefficiency can be revealed, providing a basis for a business case and an initial for your BPM strategy. Lombardi Blueprint ($10 per participant license, per month) and BPM BlueWorks are among the less expensive options available.

How long does BPM take?

BPM is a continual process of improvement and, as such, has no set term. The initial phases of building a business case, developing a strategic , getting employees on board and selecting and implementing a tool can take time. But once the ball is rolling, Richardson said, it should be like second nature.

"I tell people to look at it as business process improvement because that's a term people can wrap their heads around," Richardson said. "And it gets people thinking about it as a continual process because there is always room for improvement."

Do you have other questions about BPM? Write to us at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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