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Models for Business

September 15, 2008

BPM tools get to work on workflow and collaboration.

IN THEIR SOMETIMES Sisyphean quest to automate work, agencies are turning once again to business process management. Fortunately, BPM tools have evolved a lot in the past two years.

Some agencies are using BPM to standardize workflow-intensive parts of their e-government constituent services, crossagency case management, grant-making and Freedom of Information Act requests. Facing workforce reductions from mass retirements, many agencies want to capture process know-how and automate it to boost productivity.

Compliance with privacy and accountability mandates is another reason for automating BPM. “It’s all online, so you can’t really circumvent the system,” said Laura Mooney, vice president of corporate communications at Metastorm, maker of Metastorm BPM.

Most recently, the arrival of Web 2.0 collaboration tools launched BPM into a new role as an enabler of cross-agency data sharing.

Varied terrain

All BPM software helps you build an electronic diagram, or model, of a business process say, "the flow of people through the local department of motor vehicles, analyze ways to improve the process, then automate the new workflow", often using the same software.

BPM is showing up in a broad range of software categories.

Makers of workflow software, such as Metastorm, Tibco Software and Ultimus, historically emphasized human-tohuman communication. Pure-play vendors, which handle human- and systemscentric processes and were focused solely on BPM, include Appian, Lombardi Software, Pegasystems and Savvion.

Another segment consists of companies whose heritage is in enterprise application integration (EAI) and middleware. IBM, with its WebSphere platform, and Oracle are prominent examples. Much of Oracle’s BPM suite comes from the company’s acquisition of BEA Systems, maker of WebLogic middleware and AquaLogic BPM products.

A handful of documentmanagement vendors, including EMC, maker of Documentum, and FileNet, recently acquired by IBM, are also making BPM plays.

They have all of the capabilities of BPM and are not limited to document-centric workflows, said Michele Cantara, a vice president at the Gartner Group consulting firm.

Software AG and the other integration companies have suites that span many functions, said Bruce Williams, the company’s senior vice president and general manager for BPM solutions and coauthor of the book “BPM Basics for Dummies.” With their expertise in integrating data sources and existing applications, EAI vendors have largely solved one of BPM’s challenges, he said. Document and content management based players, in contrast, must do more to integrate with other parts of BPM, he said.

“BPM is more than just workflow and an orchestration of activities,” said Malcolm Ross, director of product management at Appian. “It’s also business activity modeling, flexible reporting, optimization, and it’s enabling continuous process improvement.”

People in the process

BPM has strong affinities with other software categories, especially collaboration. Most suites support the Microsoft Office SharePoint server and have started to include their own collaboration features, including team Web sites, portals, content management, and Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis. Links to office applications are also coming along as customers begin to appreciate BPM’s role in business management.

And some agencies use BPM as their collaboration platform. The Army Knowledge Online portal, for example, runs on the Appian Enterprise suite.

BPM might also be replacing platforms that were bought for similar reasons. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, for example, were practically born to handle interdepartmental workflows. But BPM vendors tout the quicker deployments and greater flexibility of their products over ERP, custom-built applications that they say are notorious for expensive implementations, inflexibility and information technology centricity. ERP “disempowers business people,” Williams said. “The latency in that environment is just killing people.”

The Defense Information Systems Agency and Defense Acquisition University used Appian Enterprise in part to replace their ERP systems. “We were still back in the 19th century in terms of how we moved paper,” said Mark Whiteside, performance and resource management director at the university, which trains 130,000 DOD procurement workers.

“I wanted to standardize how we made our purchases and have a rules-based approval process and make it all electronic,” Whiteside said, adding that he rejected tools that weren’t Web-based or strong on analytics and expanded the new process beyond supplies procurement to also handle training requests.

A boost for SOA

BPM vendors see their products as helping to realize the potential of serviceoriented architectures (SOAs). In recent years, they have added support for SOA technologies, such as composite applications and mashups of Web services.

Effective SOAs can produce a repository of generic reusable services that BPM users can exploit to rejigger business processes using a building-block approach.

For BPM to succeed, IT must suppress its instinct to run the show and impose new technology. “They have to stop talking the language of technology,” Williams said. “They have to start thinking more like process engineers. They’re not coding applications anymore. They are helping business people orchestrate processes, and that is a huge change.”

By David Essex, Government Computer News.

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