Roundtable: Think alike

What is business process management? Antony Adshead reports on a roundtable discussion which brought together those in the know

What is business process management? Antony Adshead reports on a roundtable discussion which brought together those in the know

Imagine a future where there is no divide between IT and the business, where changes to the processes of the business are simultaneously mirrored in the enterprise software. The business process management movement (BPM) wants to realise this vision by developing a structure for application development that is as agile as the data that applications handle.

This roundtable consisted of representatives from three suppliers with an interest in BPM and a user, Andrew Snodgrass, IT manager at US construction firm Washington.

Snodgrass pointed out that Washington's interest in BPM is largely due to its need to share information on an international scale.

"We are a global engineering and construction firm. Our supply chain is on the intellectual property side - drawings and data needing to be shared. We need to find ways of having everyone working on the same thing at the same time," he said.

The discussion began with a look at definitions. Moderator Howard Smith, of CSC, referred to some of the intersections of BPM and other technologies, such as workflow, collaboration and middleware, and raised the question of the relationship between BPM and Web services.

Richard Wall, of BsoftB, said, "There is a simplistic background to all this. All IT is there to support the business and that's what BPM is all about. But should you buy a package or bespoke software or a mixture of the two.

"I see BPM as getting exactly what the user needs to support the business. Web services will enable users to tie together different applications into an orchestrated whole," Wall added.

SSA's Russell Storey defined BPM as a way of creating a level playing field for business processes and technology. "Whereas the organisation of the applications and the business processes was formerly separate, BPM can allow the business and the technology management to work together to achieve maximum return on investment from an equal-position footing with a common set of business priorities," he said.

The promised benefits of BPM are flexibility, speed, measurability, improved time to market, a better understanding of where the no-value-add is and the possibility of applications modelled to the business in a state of continuous improvement, added Storey.

Giving the user view, Snodgrass stated what he looked for in BPM. The company only takes on construction projects with a minimum $50m (£34.6m) value which may last from six months to 10 years.

"Flexibility is key to our business. We need to respond to potential clients with solutions to projects. We have to collaborate between ourselves and clients on proposals, estimates, processes and delivery of materials. We need to track these types of things from beginning to end," he said.

Snodgrass explained that the business' workflows need to cross boundaries, such as engineering, procurement and certification, and that this vast amount of information needs an end-to-end approach. The ability of a software platform to be easily modelled to such processes would reveal a convergence of what were purely technical considerations in the past being taken to the users, he said. The problem of not having good BPM in place meant that at present the business was losing too many changes to information as it passed through the process.

Smith summarised the points raised in defining BPM. "Business is end-to-end, and as BPM is trying to combine the business and the technology it follows that no one supplier can supply what is needed. BPM is trying to bring about a situation of constant re-engineering of business processes. The advanced forms of workflow that would result could allow users to be brought online and involved in changing processes.

"One of the biggest points, though, is that business processes are unique to a company so it follows that they can't be supplied by standard applications. Applications have to become more flexible but the big step is what will take us out of applications and into business processes," Smith added.

"We want to see software providing capabilities defined by the business - calculating, linking databases and defining processes - and XML will play a huge part in this. The big battle will be between an applications view of the world and a BPM view of the world."

Current perceptions
The discussion then moved on to current perceptions of BPM. Wall said he believed there was interest now that was not there a year ago.

Smith said he saw companies re-engineering to get more value from their systems. He described how the development cycle could work in parallel rather than in series as it does now. Instead of going through an in-series process of discovery, design, deployment, execution, optimisation and analysis, we will see a trend towards carrying these tasks out in parallel, he said.

Questions of leadership were highlighted by Snodgrass, who wondered whether the BPM movement would see the rise of board-level business process officers. Storey pointed out that whatever they were called there would need to be people to champion driving forward re-engineering of the business in this way.

Snodgrass remarked that IT is usually seen as a money pit and that this could be the chance for IT to begin to explain itself to the business more clearly. "Too often IT is asked to justify itself in purely money terms when the contribution is much more of a qualitative one. IT in the construction sector is seen as the 'step child' in relation to the business and the financial people do not understand IT's demands for money. If the technology side and the business side were closer this problem would disappear," he said.

The future
Smith considered the technical challenges of moving to BPM. "How do we get to the process managed enterprise - an agile one with visible processes? Probably organically, where something is broken and needs fixing, reworking and connecting."

Storey emphasised getting harmonisation and collaboration established through the supply chain. "It's a case of getting as many partners on board as possible," he said.

Wall said the likely early beneficiaries of BPM technology would include heavily regulated businesses with lots of frequently-changed rules, and highly competitive organisations like telecoms firms and pharmaceutical companies which want to do things slightly differently.

Smith concluded the discussion with a restatement of the fundamentals of BPM. "Analysts have described BPM as the reinvention of the application. Instead of encoding processes in the software, put them outside so they are visible and can be changed easily."

Wall has more than 10 years front-line sales and management experience gained exclusively in the computer software industry. In that time, he has built up a wealth of expertise working for software companies such as Admiral, Gupta and Computer Associates. He has a successful track record in developing profitable business in both direct and indirect sales channels, start-up organisations and multinational software companies.

Roundtable who's who

Russell Storey, director of solutions management, SSA Global Technologies
Storey is responsible for the definition and establishment of products and partnerships across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region and for the subsequent pre-sales roll-out of any products which are brought to market. He has been with SSA for nearly four years and has held positions in account and consulting management at both regional and global levels. He was a prime mover in the establishment of vertical market global guide groups.

Andrew Snodgrass, IT senior manager, Washington Group International
Washington Group is a $4.2bn company with 39,000 staff. Snodgrass is IT senior manager of the firm's European operations. With more than 18 years in the IT industry, Snodgrass' background includes developing enterprise applications and supporting operations over large geographically-dispersed areas. He has focused on the integration of data systems within Washington and between its clients to support large-scale projects.

Howard Smith, chief technology officer, Computer Sciences Corporation, Europe
Howard Smith's previous role in CSC was as director of e-business strategy.

During this period he co-founded and became an invited expert to CommerceNet's ECo framework project. These two organisations influenced the development of many of today's XML standards and Smith continues to help the industry and CSC to innovate through his role as co-chairman of the Business Process Management Initiative. He was the chairman for this roundtable

Further information
The Business Process Management Initiative is working to promote open standards for the management of e-business processes spanning multiple applications, departments and business partners on both sides of the firewall.

Business Process Management Initiative:

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