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Business process automation for the business' sake

CIOs like Ed Bell caution that business process automation success doesn't necessarily hail from the process of automation or the BPM tool, but rather from an understanding of the desired business outcome.

When Ed Bell was dispatched as a consultant to the commonwealth of Massachusetts' Senate and House of Representatives, the gig was to last four to six weeks, and his mission was fairly straightforward. 

Ed Bell
Ed Bell

A veteran CIO from the financial services industry, Bell had been asked to assess a failed business process automation project to streamline the work of the legislature and point the way forward.

"When I evaluated it, the platform they had then was not good, but they could limp along with it. I said, 'Let's step back. Let's figure out what we really want to get out it, and re-engineer the whole thing,'" recalled Bell, who was named interim CIO for Massachusetts shortly after taking the assignment. "My point was that they were going to have to spend money on this either way. Do it right. Don't settle."

Business process automation (BPA) is king in IT shops for good reason -- it saves money, cuts redundancies and enforces a fluid, repeatable workflow. But automation for automation's sake? That's a recipe for failure, say CIOs like Bell and the analysts who cover this discipline.

Business process automation projects need to focus on business outcomes, not technology. Business leaders need to be part of the team. Successful BPA efforts depend on knowing how the automated parts fit into the end-to-end business process and, just as important, knowing what should not be automated. In other words, the emphasis in business process automation should be on improving business processes, not simply automating them.

"Mostly, what I tell my clients is, take a higher look," said Elise Olding, research director in the BPM group at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "Are you trying to reduce costs? Are you trying to increase customer services, or get out new products or services more quickly? The outcome will impact the approach the project will take."

Sometimes, a BPA project will end up not so much automating processes as using IT to make human actions more visible, Olding said. An example is the widely reported innovation by Geisinger Health System, which offers patients a flat fee for coronary artery bypass surgery, and pre- and postoperative care. The Danville, Pa.-based hospital system also guarantees to pay for the treatment of any preventable complication from the surgery for up to 90 days after the operation. The policy stemmed from an analysis showing that Geisinger's doctors on average were doing 21 of the 24 steps recommended for this surgery by the American Medical Association, but in random order.

"What they implemented was not classic automation but an automated checklist" to make sure all steps were followed in order, Olding said. The results of that automation process in turn led to the hospital system's unusual guarantee.

In business process automation, communication is key

In the case of the Massachusetts project, figuring out what legislators wanted out of a re-engineered business process automation platform took five months. But even before hammering out the optimum workflow for taking a bill from filing to the governor's office, it was absolutely critical to sell the project, Bell said.

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"I educated the senior leadership team on what IT does, what a software development lifecycle is, what the roles of a project like this are -- and not just the IT roles," Bell said. "I emphasized the point that we are in this together, or we fail together."

Bell met on a weekly basis with the chiefs of staff of both the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, and was in the offices of counselors and clerks probably every other day. "Communication is key," he said.

In fact, one of the biggest sticking points in many business process automation projects is getting the business involved, Gartner's Olding said. The BPM group often finds that the businesses simply don't want IT looking at their processes, because it might expose too many flaws in how they go about their business, or it could eliminate jobs. Explaining the benefits of the automation is important. But so is the proverbial stick.

Interviewed by Gartner shortly before he died in 2008, business-process improvement guru Geary Rummler said he found that business tends to be much more willing to give up its privacy when a project addresses a pain point.

Massachusetts' Bell certainly found that to be true. "Not succeeding in the past, the leadership became much more open-minded. They knew they had to do something different," he said, adding there was another factor in his favor: "This was a good time in Massachusetts to tackle this because the House and the Senate got along. At other times, it could have been a lot more contentious."

The same holds true even when IT service processes are being automated, said Shelly Barnes, senior director of Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Newmont Mining Corp.'s project management office and infrastructure and IT services. The gold producer's IT department is taking on an IT Infrastructure Library, or ITIL initiative by beginning with the organization's main pain-point and going from there. Probably the biggest lesson she's learned from doing business process automation and IT service automation is that the tool has to account for change.

"At the end of the day, the process has to be simple to follow, understand and, most importantly, adjust," Barnes said. "I can't develop such a complicated set of tools that it will cause a detrimental effect if our environment changes."

BPA represents progress in the State House

Back in Massachusetts, a newly re-engineered business process automation platform, now in testing, will be ready for work when the new legislative session begins Jan. 5. The platform's technology, predominantly from Microsoft, uses SharePoint for content and documents, and includes search capabilities.

"This is a relationship organization, and that is how they connect and make decisions. I wasn't trying to eliminate that but complement it.

Ed Bell, interim CIO, Massachusetts Senate and House

One of Bell's biggest satisfactions is that the platform he shepherded over the past year or so is built for the future, and actually anticipated a need: the desire to redesign the public website for the statehouse, he said.

So, the project not only integrates all the workflow processes of the Massachusetts Senate and House onto a single platform while accommodating their nuances, but also includes a fully re-engineered public website. "It will be a full real-time application, so if a bill, for example, gets placed into a joint committee, two seconds later the public will see where that is. It will be real-time transparency," Bell said.

On the intranet side, the workflow includes alerts and to-dos, so all the senators and representatives know what is required of them as legislation goes through the system. The platform can get rid of the Post-it Notes, hallway conversations, email and phone calls that have long been the grease that moves a bill along -- in principle, anyway, Bell said. He has no illusions it will, however, as he has learned from his 15 months of getting to know the business of the Massachusetts State House. "This is a relationship organization, and that is how they connect and make decisions. I wasn't trying to eliminate that but complement it."

But, make no mistake, the platform represents progress, Bell is pleased to say. Elected officials and their staffs will be able to work from their district offices and home, as well as at the State House. "They have never been able to do that in the past."

CIO Innovators

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Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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