Improved Client-Server Technology Spawns New Wave of Business Process Re-engineering
Improved Client-Server Technology Spawns New Wave of Business Process Re-engineering<@VM>Beyond Enterprise Application Integration<@VM>Pros and Cons<@VM>Emphasizing the Big Picture<@VM>True Process Flow
by Heather Hayes
It's called by a different name nowadays, but the concept of business process re-engineering once again has raised its head among organizations steeped in client-server technology.
Back in the early 1990s, BPR represented the hottest trend in government, a movement that took the focus off of systems and applications and looked instead to analyzing and re-engineering the underlying processes that shape an organization's way of doing business.
Despite its grand promises of greater efficiency and effectiveness, BPR quickly earned a political black eye, thanks to the failure of several much ballyhooed projects, including the Corporate Information Management initiative within the Defense Department.
The ideas underlying BPR, however, are making a comeback. This time around, industry observers expect greater overall success, thanks to more standards, a Web environment featuring a much-needed open systems architecture, and more sophisticated tools.
Much of the optimism has to do with the fact that the client-server architecture has evolved from a two-tier system, made up of a desktop PC and a back-end server, to an n-tier system. The new multitiered system has a cascading number of clients, both thin and fat, and a cascading number of servers designed to handle different aspects of a single application.
"There's much more opportunity to do sophisticated things with the architecture and the technology," said Barrie Lurie, managing principal for the North American sector for Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa.
The new version of the old BPR movement is still so new, however, that no buzzword has been created to capture its essence. Some vendors and analysts refer to it as process management, others as end-to-end or e-commerce integration, and still others fall back on the nebulous term of work flow.
But whatever it's called, the general idea is to cut across organizational, functional and application boundaries to technologically mirror a paper-based business process.
"Process management is integration at the business level," said Beth Gold-Bernstein, vice president of strategic products and services at ebizq.net, an information portal in White Plains, N.Y., focused on e-business integration technologies and solutions. "And it's that business level that gives you visibility into the business process and allows you to optimize business processes for
Whether this new trend is viewed ultimately as a hit or miss will depend greatly on how well an organization deals with infrastructure and cultural hurdles, and that means a windfall of opportunity for systems integrators.
"There's going to be an overwhelming demand for consultants and integrators with this," said Rob Morris, director of product marketing for Jacada, an e-business enablement firm in Atlanta that provides e-commerce integration. "Already, this is driving a lot of their business."For the organizations that choose to implement it, process management promises a wealth of benefits, including creating more efficient business processes, decreased business cycle time, lower operational costs and fewer personnel numbers.
"Right now a lot of people are running their legacy systems and putting a Web front-end on it, which works fine depending on what you're trying to do," said Ray Bjorklund, vice president for consulting services for FedSources Inc., an IT research firm in McLean, Va. "But process management is really integrating at the enterprise level, integrating all the data, all the functions so that everything is accessible to everyone. It's all fully rationalized and fully relational, all that good stuff that will allow you to operate at peak efficiency."
"This is the first step toward a real breakthrough in being able to do more with less," said Mark Raiffa, chief technology officer for the Defense Department practice at American Management Systems Inc., a systems integrator in Fairfax, Va. "This is the way to kind of notch it up to the next level, where you can actually exploit the potential for changing the level of performance and cost that you're shooting for."
It does this by building on enterprise application integration technologies, a hot trend in the late 1990s. EAI tools integrate systems at the data level, basically providing a sophisticated middleware, or message brokering component, whereby individual systems could talk to a middle interface, which could then talk to all other systems. It provided a translation system of sorts, and now acts as a core technology for process management.
Process management goes beyond EAI, however, by adding standardized application interfaces and standardized extensible markup language definitions for data transport, all of which allow for better management of integration at a business process level, said Gold-
Vendors such as BEA Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., and Vitria Technology Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., are quickly coming to the table with new tools that sit on top of EAI and application server integration platforms to provide automated process management.
Jacada, for example, provides process management by leaving the underlying applications intact and placing a new work-flow graphical layer on top that then interfaces with the application inventory.
"We don't change the applications," Morris said. "Where EAI is more intrusive and goes down to a more granular level in terms of trying to get at data or functions within the application, we take a higher level approach, which is less intrusive and faster. But ultimately, what approach you take depends on what you're trying to accomplish and how well the existing applications support fundamentally the business process."Not surprisingly, government agencies are lagging behind the private sector, but expect them to begin testing the waters over the next 12 months in areas such as finance and procurement, according to industry players.
"The more things are done online, the more government, like the private sector, is going to look for economies and efficiencies through integrating systems and processes," Gold-Bernstein said.
Several factors are driving the need for process management within the government today, most notably the Web and its ability to deliver instant information gratification to end users.
"The expectations have gone skyrocketing," Bjorklund said. "When people experience the richness that comes with interacting with the back-office system or interacting with the collection of enterprise data, then it's exciting, because you can manipulate all that information enough to change it, to readjust it, to analyze it any way you want. And you don't have to rely on a 9-to-5 government worker to get that information. It's here and now, and it's hard to go back to any other way after experiencing that."
The growing demand for e-government will spur government IT shops to figure out innovative ways to provide access to information, he said. "That includes accessing two or more business functions with one interface," he said.
Another factor that likely will drive process integration in the near future is the growing use of application service providers (ASPs). Under this relatively new outsourcing model, an ASP company hosts and manages business-process enabling applications for its customers over a network via a subscription-based outsourcing contract.
The ASP host provides applications such as e-commerce, SAP and ERP, financial software, customer relationship management systems, video editing, security monitoring, data storage and other complex and resource-intensive packages, as well as customized applications.
Although they're not being used extensively by the government right now, ASPs are growing more popular in the private sector. If the government jumps on board, "agencies will be forced to re-engineer and streamline their processes to make the life-cycle more economical," Bjorklund said.
Still, there are plenty of hurdles. Not everyone is convinced, for example, that the new take on BPR is necessarily destined to be any more successful than the first go-around.
"I think it's the same story as you had before. The bigger the application, the more fraught with peril it is," said Morris. "If I'm trying to integrate across 20 different applications, I've got to build a new application to do that, and any time you get into large-scale application development, there's a lot of risk involved."
Indeed, many of the same challenges that derailed the original BPR efforts, such as asking people to accept change and work in a different way, remain.
"You've got to discover that end-to-end business process across multiple business units and multiple process owners," said Gold-Bernstein. "The hard part is actually drawing the process, just getting the people to tell you what the process is and confirming that process. It's a real tough thing to do."
Although the technical challenges seem to pale beside the organizational issues, many agencies must invest heavily in getting the infrastructure prepared for process management.
"To be frank, a lot of government systems are in the not-ready-to-integrate or not integration friendly class," Raiffa said. "So they have to figure out, 'How do I overcome that?' "Such challenges promise plenty of opportunity for systems integrators in the near term, according to government integrators.
"From an integrator standpoint, I think it changes the way we do business very markedly, because I don't think you can be a general contractor in this business anymore," said Unisys' Lurie.
"In order to really offer the expertise that's needed to redesign the processes, we have to understand not only the technology, but what folks are capable of learning, how quickly they can come up to the learning curve on this new technology, what kind of legislative or policy changes need to happen so these new processes can take effect or be used to their maximum," he said. "Integrators really need to be focused on understanding their clients' point of view at an operational level."
Morris agreed, adding that integrators will provide value by coming in early as consultants to help agencies understand their processes and decide how they want future processes to flow.
"In other words, in a perfect world, how do I want to do these things?" he said. "Why is this person having to touch this particular piece of paper three times? Why do four people have to approve this particular order? An integrator can bring a level of objectivity to the table that will be critical to eventually making the best technology decisions."
Beyond defining and modeling the processes and then tying the systems together, integrators will play a strong role in readying the environment for process management.
"If you have an old system that's closed to the outside, it's going to be very difficult to tie them into these modern systems," said Raiffa. "So integrators will have to figure out how to take non-plug friendly legacy mainframe and client-server systems and pull them together into coherent operations inside and outside the firewall."by Heather Hayes
One of the toughest obstacles faced during any type of process re-engineering project is determining the flow of information, figuring out who owns what and drawing out the end-to-end process.
"Getting all those people in the same room at the same time is a real challenge," said Beth Gold-Bernstein, vice president of strategic products and services at ebizq.net, an information portal in White Plains, N.Y., focused on e-business integration technologies and solutions.
Not any more. ProActivity, a leader in eProcess Lifecycle Management solutions in Newton, Mass., introduced a new product in April that promises to take the sweat out of process modeling.
Known simply as ProActivity software, this tool uses a patented algorithm to automatically build a complete, consistent and validated view of business processes and information flows.
"It builds on a methodology that enables people to interview business experts separately," Gold-Bernstein said. "Then it all goes into a common repository, and the system automatically draws the process map to have them reviewed and
ProActivity automates the task and assures completeness and consistency of the model, thereby reducing the time and skills required for creating integration specifications, she said.