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BPM (Business Process Management) has been around a long time. The space has attracted a lot of vendors, none of whom have been particularly successful. Why?

BPM is a "Big, Pricey, Monster." And once you're hooked, it's hard to let go, requiring continuous care and feeding, and a dedicated staff.

So what exactly is BPM and who are the major vendors? The simple definition is that BPM is a graphical productivity tool enabling companies to model, integrate, optimize and monitor office workflows across many applications or corporate boundaries. Four key terms require elaboration:

Model - To graphically represent one or more work patterns showing what gets done, how it's done, who does it, what it depends on and how exceptions and errors are handled.

Integrate - To connect software applications and people so they seamlessly share information.

Optimize - To analyze processes to find inefficiencies and bottlenecks, and take corrective action.

Monitor - To provide real time information on processes in progress, completed processes, and associated metrics.

There are many established vendors and new players. In fact, every major software vendor is getting into the act. The pure plays include Savvion, Metastorm, Fuego and Lombardi Software. Then there are the "workflow" vendors trying to reposition themselves such as FileNet and Staffware. Of course, the EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) crowd is also repositioning, for example, SeeBeyond, Vitria and Tibco.

Not to be left out, the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) folks, most notably SAP, are adding BPM features. And, finally, the software platform crowd, BEA, Microsoft, IBM, et al, are entering the segment. Surprised? (If you'd like to get into BPM in more detail, read the sidebar at the end of this article.)

You Don't Need BPM. You Need Workflow Automation!

BPM can be very expensive to purchase and even more expensive to implement. It doesn't end there either. You'll need to train people to do their jobs in a new way using new tools. It's very easy to get locked into a single vendor solution via proprietary techniques and technologies. All of which explains why BPM has not taken the world by storm. Most business managers don't want computers running the show. Computers should do. People should think.

So what is Workflow Automation? Simply stated, workflow automation is the use of software in a business process, wholly or partially, with the goal of completing the process in less time and at reduced cost.

Workflows normally comprise a set of logical steps. Each step is called an activity. An activity can be done manually or performed by a machine. The objective, in an office environment, is to get the computers to perform more mindless activities and free the office staff to make decisions and deal with internal and external "customers".

Reengineering and workflow automation are not the same thing. The distinction is important. Workflow automation is the application of software solutions to business processes. Reengineering is the analysis of business processes with the goal of changing them to improve efficiency. While there is certainly some overlap, reengineering requires much more diplomatic skill and industry knowledge.

Workflow automation involves intelligent routing and information tracking based on pre-defined rules. Examples of business workflows include:

These examples share common traits or themes. It is these shared elements that are the focus of workflow automation. They are:

Following 6 Simple Guidelines Will Make You Successful!

If you decide to undertake a workflow automation effort, here are six guidelines that will help you get through the process with a minimum of aggravation and a maximum of payback.

1) Establish Goals - Be clear about what you want to achieve and don't expect too much. Dramatic improvements are possible but may require several stages of implementation where the underlying process is changed, studied and changed again.

2) Apply Automation Judiciously - Don't try to eliminate all manual intervention. Even if it can be done, it's likely to be costly and unlikely to provide a good return on investment. Go after the "big bang" items to achieve maximum ROI.

3) Leverage What You Have - Take advantage of software and computer systems that you already have. Don't fall into the vendor trap of replacing everything so you take advantage of the latest technologies.

4) Plan for Change - Business processes change. People change. Software technologies change. Your workflow solution better be able to change.

5) Consider the People Issues - Often, the cultural impacts can be difficult to manage. Some people may enjoy those frequent walks down the hall to hand deliver the latest request. Once those walks are eliminated, they may feel isolated. Be sensitive!

6) Keep It Simple - Don't try to boil the ocean! Focusing on a few business critical processes will yield greater returns than trying to reinvent the way you run your business.

7) Bring in an Expert - Assuming you can find the time, you may be able to do it all yourself. However, an outside, objective viewpoint, may provide some surprising insights. (Yes, I know I said 6 and this is number 7. I'm a workflow automation expert and I don't want this to sound self-serving so ignore this guideline if you think there's an ethical conflict.)

Increasing the level of automation in your business doesn't have to be expensive or complex. But, it does need to provide quantifiable results. The information and guidelines I've given you in this brief article will help you extract more value from your technology investments.

Our approach to BPM and more generally, workflow, is quite different from the competition. You can learn more by reading about our "Workflow Effectiveness Program".

bpm and reenginering

Components of a BPM Solution

The many different suppliers of BPM products put their individual spin on the components. Here's a simple and complete definition of what goes into a BPM solution.

A Design Environment for showing processes, defining rules, creating events and handling exceptions. Many companies achieve improvements in their processes merely by taking the time to fully understand and document them.

A Process Engine to keep track of the states for all active processes. This can be quite complex because the interaction of multiple processes can create thousands of states and exception conditions.

A User Directory where administrators define people involved in processes. In addition to the obvious such as name and role, level of authority and access to sensitive information must be defined.

Communication Infrastructure for forwarding tasks to the appropriate individual. This can be built quite simply by leveraging corporate e-mail.

A Reporting Mechanism so companies can track the performance of their current processes and the performance of personnel who are executing these processes.

Integration Services to enable the sharing of information among various work groups and software applications. This can be the most difficult part of the BPM process. The Web Services component architecture coupled with the use of XML for data interchange show promise in making application integration easier.