Business Process Management: A Hot Area That's Still Immature

Research shows that BPM is near the top of many companies' to-do lists. But governance, strategy, IT resource and collaboration issues are huge roadblocks to BPM success.

Business process management, or BPM, is one extremely hot area for vendors and IT consultants. This far-reaching and complex concept is a combination of IT governance, business-activity monitoring, architecture and application integration, workflow management and process modeling techniques.

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Done right, BPM allows organizations to define, execute and refine processes that involve human interaction (such as placing orders)—working with and among multiple business applications—and manage dynamic process rules and changes)—not just simple, static flows, states CIO's BPM overview.

Many CIOs and businesses, however, are struggling with BPM initiatives today, according to BPM analysts and research. A September 2007 Aberdeen Group report titled "BPM Convergence" states that getting business integration and workflow software products to work together has long been a challenge for companies. "The results have been islands of BPM functionality scattered throughout the organization, each serving a discrete function," states the report.

That's not the only problem; it is just plain difficult to make BPM work, according to another industry survey. The recent survey of 125 product and service companies that looked at how the companies are using BPM to drive innovation found that they "lack the best practices, vision and executive sponsorship necessary to realize the full benefits of their BPM investments." The survey was funded by BPM IT services provider Virtusa and management consultant PRTM.

Even so, a sampling of the survey findings reveals why there's so much BPM hype. More than half of the companies participating in the survey said they use or plan to use BPM. Companies responding to the survey said they are using BPM initiatives to target product and service platform management, CRM and internal operations.

In addition, 47 percent of respondents were interested in deploying BPM for innovative product development, which is a new area for BPM applications that has lots of buzz and vendor activity.

BPM Is a People Problem

But the gap between companies' BPM aspirations and what they have actually been able to accomplish so far looks more like a massive gulf than a gap.

First, it's critical that companies understand the underlying barriers to making BPM not just work, but work well. According to the results of the Aberdeen Group BPM survey of more than 160 IT and business executives and managers, the key challenges for companies deploying a BPM system have less to do with technology and more to do with people and processes.

"Part of the [BPM] solution is technical, but another part is organizational, and this is where many companies stumble," states the Aberdeen report. "It takes highly capable BPM products, a willingness to take a hard look at business processes to succeed, and organizational maturity."

As such, the top two challenges from the Aberdeen survey were organizational: justifying a BPM investment and getting buy-in from business stakeholders.

The Virtusa and PRTM survey results confirm the magnitude of the organizational disconnects that can happen without business-side buy-in. In follow-up interviews with those who were surveyed, many indicated that they were investing in BPM initiatives even though the projects usually lacked senior executive sponsorship. Just 24 percent of respondents reported having a VP or a senior executive in charge of BPM, according to the survey results, and more than 40 percent said there was "no clear decision-maker in place to manage BPM programs."

Not surprisingly, the majority of those surveyed reported that their companies lacked a clear vision or roadmap for deploying and capitalizing on their BPM investment. Only 15 percent said they had a plan for BPM that had stated goals and objectives, and just 12 percent reported that they used a defined roadmap for business process improvements.

Survey respondents claimed that internal and external collaboration was "essential for effective innovation," and 72 percent reported that they had some form of an IT-enabled collaboration capability. "However, follow-up interviews showed that few of these solutions work well," stated the Virtusa and PRTM results overview. "Most were knowledge-management or file-sharing systems that are poorly structured, have inadequate version control and are disconnected from relevant processes."

How to Tame BPM

The Aberdeen Group report makes several recommendations on how companies can improve their BPM performance.

Document Your Processes. "BPM is business process management, not an application," states the Aberdeen report. "Understanding your key business processes is the first step to any BPM implementation. Invest the time to understand the flow of information through your enterprise."

Hire Help. Best-in-class companies, according to Aberdeen's metrics, understand that management consultants are one key improving their businesses. "Engage a consultant firm early," notes the report, "in order to lay the groundwork for choosing a BPM tool."

Plan for Enterprise Convergence. If companies are already using standalone BPM applications, Aberdeen recommends that organizations should explore ways to bring those applications together into an integrated system. "New development should be capable of integrating into the enterprise BPM solution," states the report.

In sum, BPM is becoming a competitive edge for companies that apply it effectively, notes the Aberdeen report. "Don't fall into the technology trap, though. BPM requires expertise and commitment on the process side as well as the product side."

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