Of all the words in the e-business dictionary, none is more overworked today than 'process.' Take the words "business process," and now add any one of the following: 'management;' 'integration;' 'optimization,' 'automation;' 'modeling;' or 'simulation.' All of these combinations have some meaning and historical context, but mainly, they're flung about interchangeably, often by software vendors positioning their products for maximum implications in a business setting.
Lately, two versions, 'business process management' (BPM) and 'business process integration' (BPI) have been getting a lot of air. What are we talking about? "I say it's a solution that gives you end-to-end visibility and control over the contributing parts of a multi-step information request or transaction and those contributing parts could and should include applications, people and partners," says Tyler McDaniel, director at research firm Hurwitz Group. This might include all the steps in an order management or fulfillment process, for example. "That's a big loose framework, but from there, you can drill down into incumbent parts."
Even Hurwitz wrestled with terminology before settling on BPI for its purposes, according to McDaniel. "There are marketing issues around it. [All those words] have connotations, some worse than others. 'You're integration, but you're not management!' Vendors were setting up these shallow definitions to fit in their own issues."
For Hurwitz, the core issue is pulling processes together to work from an integration perspective. But BPM also implies the ability to intercede at the human management level to adjust or refine or optimize business processes on an informed, ongoing basis. That means making the processes embedded in applications visible and actionable. In a series of refinements, BPM today is "deployment, management once it's deployed, the ability to improve," according to Scott Opitz, vice president of strategic planning and product marketing at webMethods. "Now everyone from application vendors, to systems management vendors, to integrators, we can do process optimization now."
A Moving Target
A brief history of 'process' comes courtesy of Opitz, whose employer, well known integration specialist webMethods, prefers to call business process management. A grizzled but youngish veteran of software development, Opitz founded and led IntelliFrame, which was to be acquired by webMethods and formed the groundwork for its own BPM efforts.
Opitz recalls that early drawing tools that diagrammed an organization's process flows gave way to business process modeling tools. "These allowed you to define relationships for different icons on the screen and for this condition, where a value is '17,' go this way, whereas if it's not, go the other way. You might be able to follow a path, look at a particular part of a graph."
That led to some "what-if questions" and the onset of business process simulation tools. "People said, I have this whole picture defined, now let's say I get a thousand calls a week and I have 50 service reps," says Opitz. "Could I handle it? How long would people have to sit on hold?"
Though simulation remains "quite a science" to Opitz, to this point, everything was completely disconnected to the real world. "They were tools like a spreadsheet is a tool, they didn't really affect the business. It's the person who takes the information from the spreadsheet and decides to do something to affect the business," he says.
Around this time, packaged application vendors and integrators began building small bits of linkage software that allowed the user to look at the picture, and effectively push a button that actually changed the software beneath. Meanwhile, integrators and systems management firms were thinking about how data or documents flowed between systems. That evolved into graphical tools that became the underpinnings of the first wave of business process automation, led by Vitria and others, essentially, all of the things you could automate without human intervention.
The Human Factor
Though all these processes are in use today, a critical element beyond pure automation remains management intervention, with both operational and, importantly, strategic implications. The shift in BPM is now toward the human level, either through PDA or email notification, or a graphical representation through a portal or "cockpit." This allows alerts to processes that have gone out of boundaries, based on key performance indicators (KPIs) and indices used to set their tolerances.
It's commonplace to see business process tools from a variety of application vendors large and small. SAP, PeopleSoft and Oracle all have a view on this, as do any number of platform vendors such as ModelN, supply chain specialists like i2 or Manugistics, and CRM and sell-side vendors such as Click Commerce. These tools may be used standalone in their applications, but could well become a part of larger schemes of integrators, application/integration server companies and systems management companies. "The big thing is, businesses want a layer that spans multiple applications and multiple lines of business," says McDaniel. "They think of it as a holistic issue, not just a B2B automation issue or internal automation issue. Overwhelmingly, they believe it involves people and applications, it's not one or the other. They also certainly believe it should be built so it can make use of the current application assets."
Case in Point
At Myers Industries, a $650 million manufacturer of plastic products, BPM is "management by exception," according to CIO Andrew Winer. "We've tried to build decision trees so the things that are taken into account are the things a person would want to take into account if they had complete exposure to the world, if they could see all events and evaluate what they meant. Humans don't synthesize like that, but you can get a machine to synthesize a lot more quickly than a human."
For example, Myers' order entry system uses rules that state that, when an order exceeds a certain quantity or dollar figure, or requires special use of the shop floor or machinery, a detailed Web search is initiated across a wide variety of criteria to see if any "red flags" on the customer pop up. If they do, a message is automatically routed to the appropriate person at Myers. If not, the order continues normally.
While the operation sounds rather straightforward, it actually involves several systems or technologies: "It's an ERP system, an email system, e-business intelligence, business rules, messaging, key performance indicators," says Winer. "It's not just connecting the system, we think it's the rules that make it powerful. You do more than automate processes, you automate processes based on thresholds you consider critical, you send a warning message up to your screen, then you can drill back down into the application."
Myers Industries employs the BizWorks process management suite from interBiz, a subsidiary of Computer Associates. It's also used to send alerts before capital equipment like plastic presses go out of specification. This involves processes between monitors on the machines, ERP and email notification systems.
It's in uses like these that Winer gets his 'bang for the buck.' "There are other things you can do, there's lots of automation, I'm not saying it's not important to put applications together or forward a task list within a process, I'm just saying that if we're looking for BPM at that level, we're not taking advantage of what the technology can start to offer us now. That would be tactical hopefully, or operational at the worst, but it's not strategic and we really think BPM can be strategic."
Tarkan Maner, Computer Associates VP of global marketing, agrees. "When you look at the intelligence and knowledge management processes from a high level, it's accessing the information, analyzing it and reporting on it. You share it so you can make changes. That's what intelligence does. The next layer is to provide BPM which includes active management, not just reports, but taking action on the reports and changing the processes which are happening at the same time."
Infrastructure BPM vendors are now looking to verticalize, for say, telecommunications or manufacturing, according to McDaniel. These might include IBM's MQSeries, and "companies like FuegoTech, Microsoft BizTalk Server, H-P Process Manager, a multitude of others with infrastructure underneath, they're now building 'mini applications' so they can make the process work smoother and faster. Along the way, they're gaining expertise on how the companies are using the product so they can have repeatable patterns."
With so much connectivity work under their belts, enterprise application integration companies (i.e webMethods, Vitria, etc.) feel they have a leg up in the space. "Our goal," says webMethods Opitz, "is to provide technology that allows you to automate the world's economy so that all the transactions, interactions, everything within business so it's efficient as possible. Having said that, it will never be possible to automate it all. You have got to have a human getting involved in the process. People handle exceptions, weird situations that might come up, approve out-of-inventory conditions, who gets it first, that sort of thing."
"We see this as a pure Web-driven, portal driven process," says CA's Maner. "We focus on KPIs and we look at the applications and the available tools of those and the workflows between the apps and processes. We can report on certain problems, for instance the performance of an application. For example, in a B2B environment, if you're doing order or fulfillment, you're going to check your inventory levels."
Technology in the space, whatever you call it, has already moved ahead of its users, according to McDaniel, whose own study finds that fewer than 10 percent of businesses have fully integrated their mission-critical processes. "Companies really have not developed infrastructure or matured their solutions. Some of them aren't even aware what's available to them and are using tools that are not really designed for what they're using them to do."
It's not to say that models and simulations can't be real steps in the path to 'process.' But the message needs to be clearer, says Myers Industries' Winer. "Software vendors have a tough go of things, they've been calling things strategic for so long, business people stopped buying into it. Now that they're getting closer, what are they going to call it?"