Opinion

Know what the company wants to achieve before automating business processes

Business process management software has much to live up to. Suppliers claim it can automate business processes - whether that be finance, marketing and sales - integrate different existing processes quickly and help the IT department design new applications.

They also claim a company can implement business process management without scrapping all its legacy systems. The software will find, integrate and use data from multiple systems which can mean significant cost savings.

This sounds great in theory but closer analysis should raise some concerns for IT directors considering investment in this area.

Business process is a vague term used to mean several things: work practices, procedures, functional requirements and outcomes. The term is confusing because it means different things to different people.

Ask 10 people what a business process is, and you are likely to get 10 different answers. This is problematic because what is automated by the business process management software is unclear. To overcome this lack of clarity, people talk about "end-to-end processes".

I am also told that business processes start and end with a customer. Which customer? The one who pays or the one who consumes the product or service? Or both? And what about suppliers, regulators and shareholders?

The issue is confusing and tricky for IT directors to deal with, because each of these stakeholders is accompanied by a host of vested interests within the organisation. If each stakeholder demands change to some part of a business process, business process management software could make things more, not less, complicated.

Another source of concern is that the term business process often refers to current activities, practices and procedures. Much of the information that is automated by business process management software may no longer be relevant to the most pressing immediate or future challenges.

Automation brings with it some of the most insidious guises of legacy: outdated tacit knowledge, rules and assumptions embedded in "the way we do things around here".

Business process management software can deliver substantial benefits to the organisation but IT directors need to be clear about the shortcomings of their organisations' business processes before overhauling them with business process management software. It is not a quick fix.

Ashley Braganza is senior lecturer in information systems at Cranfield School of Management

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This was first published in March 2004

 

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