Integrators expand BPM with tools, services

Business process management

The product list shows only full-fledged, business process management software and modules from enterprise resource planning and enterprise application integration software vendors. Suites typically start at $100,000 for small installations and go to $1 million-plus for large enterprises. Many vendors offer their process modeling tools as free downloads from their home pages. Here are other things to look for when proposing BPM solutions to agency customers:

» Watch for process models that are consistent across the design, implementation and monitoring stages. If a vendor refers to third-party modelers or extra software for integrating them, it could be a red flag for a poorly integrated suite.

» Make sure either the applications have out-of-the-box integration support, or the vendor supplies an industry-standard, Web services integration tool that supports a services-oriented architecture.

» Pay attention to ease of use. BPM is meant to let nontechnical executives and business analysts change the way business is done. IT's role ideally is limited to hashing out the details of integrating legacy applications.

» Scrutinize the ease of use of workflow development tools. They're important, because
nontechnical users sometimes need to modify the flow of documents to deal with changing conditions.
» Scrutinize the breadth and depth of role-based security. The best BPM suites create visibility into agencies' business processes, which could be a security concern. A tight system should control who sees specific tasks and reports and has rights to modify business processes.

» Be prepared with customer references that involve applications similar to those of the agency. This will help identify vendors with a track record of providing results.

» Scalability is critical. Some BPM suites can't scale beyond a single organization. Often, it's smart to start at that level, but you might need to expand the system throughout the agency. To gauge a product's capacity, look beyond claims of the number of users and transactions to the standardized integration tools that will let you easily add to the system.

A business process is not a single application, but rather a flow of tasks and, often, documents that typically involve many people, departments and enterprises. Even if automated, the process probably taps into many databases and programs.

But that kind of ubiquity can make business process prone to the errors and inefficiencies that come from poor coordination, communication and data integration.

Because it is so process-intensive, government is keen on the latest generation of business process management software and the integrators that can help overhaul the way they work.

The Marine Corps replaced a fragmented, paper-intensive legacy procurement system with a solution from Appian Corp. of Vienna, Va. Acting as a sort of centralized, Web-based layer of logic atop legacy applications, Appian Procurement connects administrators, internal customers and contractors, plus their systems and processes, while enforcing new policies. The result, according to the Marines, was $9 million in first-year savings.

Industry said agencies want BPM to help them achieve some of the same goals that have driven IT procurement in recent years:

» Deliver better service to citizens

» Improve overall efficiency

» Comply with privacy, security and budgetary regulations

» Gain tighter control over resources

» Save money.

BPM can function as a high-level messaging framework for IT strategies that meet these goals, such as integrating stovepipe applications, standardizing software development and sharing data across agencies. But most of all, experts said, agencies appreciate BPM for the flexibility it brings to business processes, letting them respond quickly to changing demands.

What BPM is ? and isn't

Implementing a BPM suite involves modeling and analyzing processes, then designing more efficient ones, sometimes by automating them for the first time. In the implementation stage, the organization turns the model into a working application, often by integrating it with other applications.

"Once you map out that process, and the integration points are defined, you can just publish it, and it will be up and running on the server," said Laura Mooney, senior director of corporate and product marketing for Metastorm Inc. of Baltimore.

BPM suites let the agency or its contractors monitor and manage the system, typically through an easy-to-use dashboard that accesses business intelligence or analytics software, sometimes licensed from specialists, such as Cognos Inc. of Ottawa and Hyperion Solutions Corp. of Stamford, Conn.

There are two basic kinds of BPM: human-centric, which focuses on collaboration between people, and integration-centric, which automates processes that need little or no human intervention. Integration-centric BPM isn't devoid of people power, but focuses on event handling and other processes that keep automated systems running smoothly.

The field of vendors that analysts describe as offering complete BPM suites divides along similar lines. So-called pure-play BPM vendors, which include Appian, Metastorm, Pegasystems Inc., Savvion Inc. and others, got their start defining and enforcing business rules and are in the human-centric camp. Some have expanded their rules technology into full BPM suites, while others have sought to work with other platforms.

"The rules vendors are going out of their way to partner with every BPM vendor they can find," said Colin Teubner, an analyst at Forrester Research. ILOG Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., for example, claims eight BPM partners.

The integration-centric camp of BPM vendors began a decade ago in enterprise application integration, but added BPM and workflow features when standards for linking applications at the data level settled down, and Web services standards threatened their niche. Vitria Technology Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and webMethods Inc. of Fairfax, Va., are in this group.

The two groups don't always compete.

"We tend to view enterprise application integration as complementary," said Marc Wilson, Appian's vice president of professional services.

Some companies, such as Tibco Software Inc., offer what's considered a hybrid of human- and integration-centric technologies, according to Forrester's Teubner.

Man and machine

"We actually don't make that distinction anymore" between human- and integration-centric technologies, said Janelle Hill, vice president of research at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "We've defined a business process management suite by saying products in that category take a more holistic view."

In its research, Gartner identified Savvion of Santa Clara, Calif., as an example of the holistic approach to BPM.

Rob Risany, Savvion's director of product marketing, describes the distinction this way: "Automation is not process. Automation is about things that typically do not need people to be involved. Automation of low-level things just tries to take costs out of low-level things. It doesn't create top-line improvement."
Risany cites the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an organization with a "high-touch" mission that combines people, systems and rules.

"When we start looking at emergency management, what we find is it's a process problem of escalation," Risany said. "For example, when should the federal government offer aid, as opposed to waiting to be asked? Rules facilitate richer responses to process exceptions."

Another example of an agency using BPM to rapidly change business processes while still following rules, Risany said, is the Federal Communications Commission. The agency recently deployed BPM to support its work with Sprint Nextel migrating frequencies in the emergency spectrum.

"What happens when a crisis comes up, and we have to reallocate the bandwidth for 911?" Risany asked. "That's a significant problem to coordinate." The BPM suite "helps present processes in ways they can understand," in part by providing color-coded maps, he said.

If a customer's needs are more day to day, enterprise resource planning vendors also have adopted BPM technology. They've added modules and features to the complex applications on which numerous agencies run their financial and human-resource departments.

While some pure-play BPM vendors said the offerings are less flexible and robust than theirs, enterprise resource planning software vendors such as SAP America Inc. disagree. What's lacking in other tools, according to SAP, is domain expertise that comes from decades of managing business processes.

"In SAP, there are 3,000 business processes that we can model," said Peter Thiele, senior BPM solutions engineer for Berwyn, Pa.-based IDS Scheer Inc., which makes the ARIS BPM suite that SAP sells with its NetWeaver integration platform.

Services with a smile

Integration standards, especially for service-oriented architectures, are the 800-pound gorilla of BPM. Service-oriented architectures create interchangeable applications to do the tasks that are the building blocks of end-to-end, Web-based business processes. Conversely, BPM is emerging as the logic that can hold Web services together and make them useful, according to several observers.

"We're seeing a fundamental new wave in IT technology adoption," said Tammy Janorske, director of webMethods' government business unit. "There's now a more fundamental emphasis on process. People have realized you can only get so much out of stovepipe applications."

Service-oriented architecture is an element in the Federal Enterprise Architecture and other efforts to align IT with business goals while minimizing redundancy. Vendors said federal agencies are eyeing BPM as another tool in their Federal Enterprise Architecture strategies.

"BPM tools and the enterprise-architecture tools ? we see a convergence there," Thiele said. This will help agencies eliminate redundant systems by retiring applications that have no critical processes running on them, he said.

BPM may become less a technology category itself and more a logical extension of the application platforms that rely heavily on processes. Some vendors slap the BPM label on products that belong in closely related categories such as document and workflow management.

"Most government users want to integrate [BPM] with document management and a portal," Wilson said. "A lot of business processes involve creating documents."

Workflow and documents are key pieces of today's comprehensive BPM suite, but they're only part of the story.

"Workflow is a very linear, simple automation," Mooney said. "BPM adds significant analysis and improvement to processes."

That's where pure BPM suites continue to evolve. Business activity monitoring, a leading-edge feature in BPM suites, "provides probes, if you will, into the process," said Gary So, webMethods' vice president of strategic marketing. Business activity monitoring usually returns aggregated statistics that give a snapshot of a process, such as the number of monthly orders in a supply chain, along with triggers and alerts.

"It can visually compare what it's seeing now to what it's seen in the past," he said.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer in Antrim, N.H.

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