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Leveraging BPM to become a digital business

The need to automate paper-based and manual workflows has never been more urgent. Can BPM help companies make the leap to digital business? Two experts weigh in.

Business process management (BPM), the venerable discipline that helps organizations model and manage their business workflows, has a new gig these days: helping companies become digital businesses. Blame it on the consumerization of IT. As consumer and employee adoption of mobile and other digital technologies accelerates, the decades-long effort to automate paper-based and manual workflows has taken on greater urgency, say experts. 

The rush to develop customer-facing mobile apps is an example of how established companies are adapting to the digital customer. Companies are also developing pared-down internal mobile work applications that address the employee task at hand in order to boost efficiency. As competition heats up from so-called born-digital companies, however -- an Uber upending the livery industry, mobile phone operators poised to become banks -- a more radical transformation of IT systems is required.

"You can't fulfill the promise of mobile if you have analog disruptions in your operations," said Craig Le Clair, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. and expert in BPM. 

Craig Le Clair Craig Le Clair

Le Clair uses an analogy from the consumer realm to explain the problem. "If you have a Nest thermostat, you now have this great connection to the outside world that you didn't have before, but if you don't have a good heating system, it doesn't matter. The operational technology is really critical to driving the customer experience," he said.

The BPM software used to model and orchestrate a company's large business applications can help it make that transition to a digital business -- in several ways. Over the past few years, many of the traditional BPM vendors either have added a mobile front end to their systems or acquired a mobile application development company, said Bruce Robertson, research vice president specializing in BPM at Gartner Inc. These next-generation BPM platforms now serve a dual purpose.

"Now you can take those big enterprise apps and tailor them down to the individual and deploy those apps to mobile people too," Robertson said.

Mobile BPM

The large monolithic enterprise applications deployed by companies have typically taken a one-interface-for-all approach. Mobile apps can't function that way, and the problem goes well beyond making sure mobile users can make out the "chicken scratch" on the Web app, Robertson said.  "You need to skew the app -- not the big application but the small app downloaded on the mobile device -- down to the small set of activities that apply to that role and, more specifically, at a particular location or at a particular client site," he said.

Bruce Robertson Bruce Robertson

Process models map out a business process from start to finish, step by step and by the work done by each employee (or by employee role) for every step. A corporate application designer can see all the activities associated with each step and who does them (depicted in what are called swimlanes) and how one person's work connects to another's, as well as to back-end systems, other locations and so on. These process models, designed for big enterprise applications, can be adapted to build and manage mobile apps, or what Robertson calls the "little app."

"One little app should be what a swimlane does -- those activities and no other ones. Everything else is just going to make their lives complex," he said. Breaking down a task into its logical sequence is one of the things BPM can do, said Robertson, "and it's a nice mechanism for that." But there are other approaches companies can take to build mobile apps that work, he added, including the nascent but growing set of technologies and services -- called mobile application development platforms (MADP) -- specifically designed for mobile processes. "There are too many ways to do this to give a simple answer," he said.

BPM as a framework for mapping 'the customer journey'

Forrester's Le Clair would agree. In a forthcoming report he identifies BPM -- also referred to by Forrester as "dynamic case management" -- as one of 13 technologies that help digitize a business. (Other top technologies include business collaboration and content management services, hybrid integration for the management of unstructured data, and electronic signature.)

He advises companies to begin this shift to becoming a digital business by looking at business processes from an "outside-in," or customer-centric, perspective. "The big narrative in the industry now is around the 'customer journey,'" Le Clair said.

Focusing on how the customer interacts with the business -- and that includes the technology the customer uses to do it -- changes business processes and the underlying technologies that enable the process. 

"What this does is drive the process away from looking at 'How do I do a better insurance claims process?' for example, to 'What is the customer's experience in the claims process?'" Le Clair said. "A lot of the BPM players are starting to adjust their process mapping and icons to be oriented toward customer journey mapping."

The task for CIOs is exciting and fundamental, Le Clair said. "It's the difference between thinking about deploying the latest shiny mobile app and reconstructing my end-to-end business processes to become a digital business."

Digital business by way of MADP

"Mobile fundamentally changed the way we engage with customers," said Mitsuru Kameyama, general manager of the strategic information system planning department at Shiseido Co. Ltd. The high-end hair care and cosmetics manufacturer, based in Japan and in operation since 1872, prides itself on customer service. In 2013, Shiseido deployed a new way to deliver omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, by arming its thousands of salespeople with its "beauty tablet" mobile device. The company used a mobile application development platform (MADP) from IBM to launch a mobile application called Bureau, based on the concept of a woman's dressing table stocked with grooming products. The app comes with various modules for salespeople, including a social forum for sharing best practices, photos, beauty tips and tricks. The app also passes along real-time customer feedback to product teams. "Mobile helps deepen the level of engagement and personalized consultation," Kameyama said by translator, via email.

Let me know what you think of this story -- email me or find me on Twitter @ltucci.

Next Steps

For more on BPM in the digital age, check out these recent columns: Harvey Koeppel explains the digital impact on the BPM lifecycle and Niel Nickolaisen cautions against not using BPM software as a cover for inferior work processes.

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