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SaaS business process management systems close, but not quite there

Business process management systems can be costly and time-consuming, leading some organizations to turn to SaaS. But is SaaS BPM a fit for everyone?

On the face of it, business process management (BPM) and Software as a Service (SaaS) seem like the ultimate power couple. Each succeeds at bringing more agility and productivity to businesses and business process management systems, and SaaS can make sure resources are deployed efficiently. But integration and some centralized control are key to making BPM as a Service work.

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"Due to the nature of our economy, business processes need to be adjusted on a more regular basis," said Jeff Kaplan, founder and managing director of ThinkStrategies Inc., a consulting firm in Wellesley, Mass. "Legacy systems are cumbersome and not designed for that continuous change."

Kaplan said BPM systems are well suited for the SaaS model because businesses are looking for ways to provision services quickly and efficiently. For example, with a SaaS BPM product, users can log in from anywhere in the world and contribute to process modeling and workflow planning in real time so organizations can respond to changes quickly.

And according to Michele Cantara, a vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., going the SaaS route can ease the burden on IT resources. But finding the proper balance is key.

SaaS BPM: A contradiction in terms?

BPM products require careful mapping and designated, consistent ways of working, while SaaS offerings provide undifferentiated processes and applications, said Cantara. For the most part, she added, organizations are not turning to full SaaS business process management systems yet, but incorporating them organically as opportunities arise.

SaaS vendors are stepping up to include BPM technologies alongside current offerings to meet these customer needs. Inc., for instance, recently announced a cloud-based business process automation application, Visual Process Manager, on the platform.

"Generally, what I see is the midmarket company looking for a solution with some kind of BPM capability," she said. "Not necessarily a SaaS-enabled BPM just because it's SaaS."

For example, the third-party, multi-tenant solution wasn't what Matt Brook, head of finance and infrastructure at Pinnacle People Ltd., was looking for, despite his organization's need for a Web-based solution that could be deployed quickly and cost effectively.

SaaS BPM, one piece
at a time
If you're not ready to go full on with process execution delivered via the SaaS model, Gartner's Michele Cantara suggests experimenting with certain pieces such as business process modeling and business activity monitoring.

"Anything that you need to get into the hands of many people is a good fit," she said. -- K.C.

Pinnacle People, a U.K.-based organization providing unemployment programs, needed an all-in-one tool that offered records management, case management and process tracking to stay on top of job placement and training efforts.

"We needed something that anyone could sign into and access anytime, from anywhere," Brook said. After a thorough evaluation process, Brook and his team decided on Appian BPM Suite, a Web-based managed solution. While Appian also offers a SaaS alternative (Appian Anywhere), Brook said that it wasn't a long-term fit for the organizations.

"For organizations looking to switch it on and off, or use it a bit here and not so much here, SaaS would work," he said. "But for us this is a core investment, not easy come, easy go." According to Brooks, it was also an issue of control -- keeping a firm grasp on the way the application is updated and upgraded -- with the goal of eventually having the necessary resources and skills in house to manage it. And while the final solution is not SaaS per se, Brook said that it definitely incorporates the elements and flexibility of a SaaS offering.

Still, SaaS BPM offerings are maturing at a fast pace, with security being better addressed and better third-party integration doing its part to address concerns like Brooks'. The demand is certainly there.

Why SaaS?

The decision to go with a SaaS offering usually stems unilaterally from the business side, as users search for a quick and efficient way to meet their needs, Kaplan said. After the initial round of experimentation, however, if the business side is experiencing benefits and ROI, it will spread out further into the enterprise.

Kaplan said IT should stay proactive in this decision, embracing the SaaS model as a way to provide more strategic advice to the business and less tactical, day-to-day implementation and deployment efforts.

"IT should start making sure that the organization has found a solution that meets its needs," Kaplan said. A big part of that is thoroughly evaluating the BPM vendor to make sure it is a strategic fit. "Ask the important questions such about reliability, scalability, data privacy and security."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Kristen Caretta, Site Editor, or follow her on Twitter @kcaretta.

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