by Kim Thomas

Using BPM to automate workflows

Nov 13, 20118 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

Ever since cars began to roll off the production line in the early 20th century, automation has been an important feature of working life, and many mundane office tasks are now automated through the use of workflow systems.

Yet in every organisation there is a multitude of tasks that are still performed by individuals: IBM estimates that about 80 per cent of tasks are still carried out over email. Phil Gilbert, vice president, IBM WebSphere BPM Software, points out that many organisations have thousands of processes or sub-processes that involve patching different pieces of data together and emailing them to colleagues as Excel spreadsheets. This is particularly true of customer-facing or product-related processes, he says, and as a result, these processes are “completely invisible to even middle management, much less upper management.”

This is where business process management (BPM) comes in. In an era of cost-cutting, investment in BPM is growing fast: Gartner’s survey of firms worldwide found that 54 per cent planned a spending increase of five per cent or more in 2011. This is not just about improving workflow, however. BPM is also about visibility and accountability, using data to enable the business to make more intelligent decisions about the use of resources – allocating more people to deal with unresolved customer complaints, for example, or identifying and addressing the bottleneck in bringing a customer account in.

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The reason most processes remain un-automated is that many processes are people-intensive and complex to perform: task A is not necessarily followed by task B. There has, in response, been a growth in a more flexible approach to BPM, known as case management, in which the process is centred on each individual case. Teresa Jones, principal research analyst of Gartner, gives the example of an insurance claim, where a process is initiated when a customer makes a claim. It may be that the business can look at the form and respond instantly with a yes or no, or it may be that the claim needs to be investigated, and once it’s been investigated perhaps the police or other third party need to be called in. The BPM software can take the employee through the different possible steps and route the tasks accordingly.

The increased flexibility has been made possible in part by technological developments such as services oriented architecture (SOA), which enables businesses to join processes together more easily. “Back in the early days of BPM, doing that would have involved a lot of manual integration – maybe the IT department would have spent months doing all the connecting together,” says Jones. Today, however, making those connections is a much simpler matter, and vendors such as Pegasystems and IBM offer their customers the opportunity to create and adapt processes that match their particular requirements.

IBM’s BlueWorks Live, for example, enables any user to author a process. Users interact with the process in the same way they would interact with email. The difference, however, is that the use of the process can be monitored, so that if 16 per cent of routing requests go to the HR department, that part of the process can be automated. “You’re not simply tracking the flow, you’re tracking how long it sat in people’s inboxes and how long it took to execute. You’re just getting a lot of information about the performance of your organisation,” says Gilbert.

The smart use of data is an important component in the successful application of BPM. Jones has observed a growing trend towards intelligent business operations: “looking at how things have gone in the process, so that next time you make a change to it, you can take into account how things went. That chunk of analytics shouldn’t be just backward-looking, it should be predictive.”

When HML, which provides outsourced mortgage and lender insurance services, adopted IBM WebSphere software to improve its customer interactions, it was able to gain a complete view of customer interactions, saving staff from phoning customers who had been contacted recently, or identifying those who hadn’t been contacted for a year. The efficiency gains in four years have already saved HML hundreds of thousands of pounds. Paul Swinson, a programme manager at HML, says that one of the major benefits has been the improved performance reporting capability: “You can target hot spots instantaneously, so you can see where something’s getting close to the service level agreement (SLA), so it lets managers effectively divert workers to the work.” But it’s not just a management tool, he adds: “We give access to the people on the ground doing that work, so they can actually see the work levels reducing.”

If BPM’s increased flexibility is already making an impact on the business, there are even bigger changes to come. “There are three game changers in BPM: cloud, mobile and social,” says Connie Moore, VP and research director at analyst Forrester. These three game changers suggest that the future model of BPM will look very different from the historic one.

The advantages of cloud computing are well-documented. It frees companies from having to invest in large amounts of infrastructure when they want to purchase a new product. They can start small and scale up – or down if necessary. They can get started more quickly, instead of waiting weeks or months for an implementation to be completed.

Justin Thomas, managing director, Emea of BPM provider Appian, cites a customer that had expected to spend 16 weeks purchasing infrastructure before even starting implementation. The use of cloud cuts the time between making the purchasing decision and implementation to about 30 days.

Moore believes that the most important feature of the move to cloud is that it transfers the responsibility for deployment away from the IT function to the business. So if IT is busy with a big implementation, the business can have its new BPM solution up-and-running in the cloud without involving the IT function. This trend will accelerate, says Moore: “By 2020, we’re going to have alternative processes that are in the cloud – not just a platform, but processes that you just bring down and go from there, which makes it even faster.”

The impact of mobile technology will also grow. More and more employees expect to be able to use their mobile devices for business purposes, and so it makes sense to extend that use to BPM. At its simplest, says Jones, mobile BPM enables users to receive a notification on email and click to approve it – a useful efficiency tool for managers who spend a lot of time in meetings or travelling, but who need to make sure an approval goes through quickly.

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Even bigger savings come when mobile BPM is used by field workers, such as sales people, loss adjusters or healthcare workers. The UK company psHEALTH, for example, uses Appian’s cloud platform to provide mobile BPM for nurses who work in patients’ homes. The nurses can use the mobile device to make a record of the visit and the treatment delivered, and a real-time collaboration feature enables them to discuss any problems with the patient’s doctor. In this context, mobile BPM can not only improve efficiency (the nurse doesn’t have to type up handwritten notes back at the office) and effectiveness (there is less risk of inaccuracy if the relevant information is entered only once), but also enable managers to keep track of when homecare visits have been made and treatment provided. When combined with other features of smartphones, such as the ability to take photographs or record a conversation, the use of mobile devices as part of BPM becomes rich in possibilities.

Finally, social media will change the way BPM works in the enterprise. It can be used, as in the healthcare example, to open up a real-time conversation between employees, or between an employee and a customer. The potential of this becomes even richer when combined with analytic data, says Gilbert: “Whenever a user comes to a task, we are analysing in real-time who the other top six people are in the organisation who have worked on similar tasks most recently. And we’re presenting those right on the form. And with one click, assuming you use Lotus Sametime as an instant messaging tool, you can actually start chatting with them.”

Social media can also be used to initiate a particular process, says Jones: “You can prescribe the feeds to say ‘Where anything like this happens, I want to know about it.’ And because you know about it, that enables you to say, ‘I need to kick off a change’, or ‘Now I can see who’s involved in this, I can pull the right people together and make a change to the process.'” She gives the example of South Yorkshire Police, who, during the August 2011 riots, monitored and responded to tweets about the riots, helping to calm the situation. It’s easy to see how Twitter could be integrated into a BPM application, routing customer complaints, for example, to the appropriate customer services manager.

New developments in BPM are about putting the business in control, enabling it to respond more quickly to change, improve efficiency and use data to inform decision-making. Whereas traditional workflow approaches were narrowly focused on improving productivity, new approaches are about responsiveness to customer needs, says Moore: “You still get the continuous improvement productivity increases, but you get the transformational benefits that are much more strategic, much more competitive and much more market-share oriented.”