Choosing a route to agile systems

With as many as 170 BPM suppliers, choosing the right approach is vital when looking to improve efficiency through process-driven IT

With as many as 170 BPM suppliers, choosing the right approach is vital when looking to improve efficiency through process-driven IT

Organisations increasingly regard their IT infrastructures as a series of systems to support operational business processes. To drive down cost and improve the management and speed of business change, they need to break these IT systems down into standard, adaptable and reusable building-block components at each stage of an end-to-end business process.

The pursuit of such business agility through IT optimisation has led to the emergence of software dedicated to aligning these processes with the IT systems that serve them. This, in turn, has spawned an approach to IT management that looks on technology as an enabler, underpinning business processes with a service oriented architecture (SOA) approach.

Both concepts are designed to join up IT components in a way that business, as well as IT users, can under­stand and manipulate on the fly and in real time.

The growing business process management (BPM) software market that has emerged to meet these needs is populated by a number of suppliers with different approaches to solving the same problems.

Jim Sinur, Gartner vice-president and BPM analyst, said, “BPM is the second fastest growing software market and is part of an architectural revolution in terms of IT and business management.”

Gartner estimates the BPM software market to be worth £750m in terms of licence and maintenance revenue during 2006, which is comparable to the markets for financial compliance or business intelli­gence systems. Gartner said there are as many as 170 BPM suppliers, with 17 top performing or innovative suppliers marked out as relevant to large enterprises.

A BPM system makes the rules and services normally embedded in IT components leveragable and serviceable by the business. Gartner also believes BPM is needed for developing an SOA.

“An SOA approach needs BPM, but BPM does not necessarily need SOA. The basic building blocks of a BPM system or approach for configuring IT infrastructure components in support of specific business processes are real-time business activity monitoring, events management, and business process modelling and simulation tools,” said Sinur.

Sinur said BPM systems tend to take one of two approaches. The main platform providers offer system-to-system activity. The alternative is the human workflow method, where work is ushered through human-to-human activity and generally includes some form of data or content management system.

Generally, the larger platform providers will offer middleware technology to orchestrate how and when systems talk to each other. ­Microsoft, for example, sells its Biztalk product, and IBM offers Websphere.

Microsoft takes the suite approach to BPM, where the most central point from which to implement BPM would be to have a process server. The process server is used both for connecting systems and for centralising the processes of the business.

Gavin King, BPM product solutions marketing manager at Microsoft, said his firm’s BPM strategy benefits from the ubiquity of its desktop products, along with its .net development framework. 

“Suites offer several advantages over the pure-play proposition, ­because of strong cohesion between tools, simplified development processes, ease-of-use and familiar business user packages,” King said.

Other major suppliers have ­gained BPM functionality through acquisition. One example is IBM’s recent takeover of enterprise content management supplier FileNet to help it improve how business intelligence and business processes integrate.

IBM’s main differentiator is its component modeller – a tool linking SOA and BPM. David Henderson, technology strategy partner at IBM, said, “A component view, as opposed to a process view, helps organisations to look at processes through different lenses to discover what areas a business needs to either be good at or commoditise because it is not part of their core competence.”

Tibco also approaches BPM from an SOA perspective. It builds on an SOA platform and does system-to-system integration. The company has also added ­human-to-human capability with its acquisition of workflow supplier Staffware.

Tibco is moving towards the use of BPM to predict problems and bottlenecks before they occur. Vivek Ranadivé, chief executive at Tibco, said, “Predictive business allows companies to take real-time events and correlate them with historical patterns to accurately and consistently predict their futures.”

On the technology front, Rana­divé said the core IT components of a predictive business model include an event-driven infrastructure ­using an enterprise messaging service, application integration with an SOA ­approach, and a decision engine based on rules or analytics software.

Another option for IT directors is to consider tools that aim to embrace the concept of BPM holist­ically. The argument for this approach is that if you start from a business process design perspective, you allow business people to use familiar languages and create blueprints that can then be used to deliver competitive advantage.

This is basically how Bob Farrell, chief executive at BPM provider Metastorm, has tried to engineer his company’s product.

Alternatively, IT directors can buy products that aim to tackle
BPM from a business goals perspective. The idea here is to avoid having to buy integration tools to align human tasks with ­associated IT processes.

For instance, companies have traditionally used business intelligence and datawarehousing tools to marry the task to the process.

Phil Gilbert, chief technology officer at supplier Lombardi, said, “Our view of BPM is into the visibility of an organisation’s process instances and tasks in the context of its goals. It is not just delivering efficiencies through workflow improvement, but is giving the business people visibility of associated tasks.”

Some products, such as Ilog, use the concept of a business rules engine. Alain Gendre, BPM and SOA programme manager at Ilog, said, “An essential element for the implementation of efficient, flexible and compliant business processes is a business rules management system to make routine decisions and create policies that are transparent and auditable, to improve compliance and reduce operational cost,” he said.

BPM is primarily a business management philosophy about people and the processes by which they work together, as well the performance objectives that underpin their work. At the same time, it is about the technology they use to make all that visible.

Whether you decide to address your integration needs and operational performance through a human- or a systems-led approach, Sinur urges organisations not to be afraid of taking on third-party help or establishing a process centre of excellence to identify the key processes that need improving for maximum agility and return.

“Look for modelling capabilities with strong links to simulation and execution engines that have rules management capabilities to affect processes in flight,” he said.

“Round-trip, iterative BPM is best, allowing for simulation, execution, reporting and continual adaptation of processes to suit rapidly changing business models and needs.”

Whatever BPM approach you take, the question is how to get started. Derek Miers, independent industry analyst and BPM report author, said, “The trick is to find a small project that can be highly ­impactful and delivered in 90 days or less. That way, you get the business behind you with the ‘wow’ factor.”

He suggested that IT directors identify the 30% to 40% of functionality that gives the business the biggest bang for its buck, and take an iterative approach according to that focus.

“Work out where the functionality lies in your IT infrastructure and make you technology choice with that as your guide.”

Insolvency service uses BPM for growing workload

The UK government department that administers and investigates insolvency cases has recently invested in business process management (BPM) software. The Insolvency Service, an agency of the Department of Trade & Industry, plans to put the software at the heart of an SOA-led process re‑engineering project.

Allan Cook, change programme manager at the Insolvency Service, said, “We are faced with a situation where the number of insolvency cases we process is going up, increasing workloads for our staff. They process a lot of raw case data, and the BPM investment will help them be more efficient and, at the same time, reduce the total cost of ownership for the supporting IT.”

The new IT infrastructure will initially save the agency’s insolvency practitioners from having to find data buried in legacy applications and cumbersome spreadsheets. Instead, it will present them with task-based workloads via a single-interface browser that takes them through each process in a logical, simplified way.

Cook said, “We decided to decouple as much of our IT architecture as we could and went for an SOA strategy with a BPM approach, and an enterprise service bus at its heart.”

In order to separate legacy IT systems from the processes they support, the service opted to build new, streamlined processes alongside corresponding data management principles using the Teamworks BPM software suite from supplier Lombardi and IBM’s Websphere enterprise service bus.

“We are not in the business of building software, and we wanted to move away from bespoking systems and concentrate on configuration instead,” said Cook. “We are very much describing the processes in the BPM tool and using that tool to put them into production to increase our speed of change, as well as reduce risk and cost.

“It will help us to both automate better processes and join them all up, so our users have easier access to the common data underpinning them as well.”


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