BPM: Modeling the process

According to research firm Gartner, there are more than 130 vendors of Business Process Management BPM software. BPM is hot because it delivers a decades-old dream: that businesspeople who are non-programmers can modify their business applications, and even create new ones, with little or no assistance from the IT department. With BPM, applications are created faster and cheaper, but because they are accurately modeled before they are created, they should not require extensive trials.

A BPM-enabled application differs from a conventional one in that it comes as part of a suite, with a toolset that can be used to examine and change the underlying process used in the application. In particular, the business rules used to make decisions are explicitly listed, and by changing them, the user can redesign the application.

BPM deals with real-world business processes which naturally include a mixture of software applications, human interactions and other technologies. Since businesspeople know what they want all these systems to do, they can use the graphical tools in a BPM suite to model a process, and then run a simulation to make sure it does what is expected. When the simulation behaves as desired, it can be automatically turned into code without the intervention of a programmer.

Converging workflow and applications

BPM has evolved to fill a need, as Michael White, product marketing manager of Singularity, explains: "In the 1990s people became familiar with, on one hand, 'workflow' software for co-coordinating human activities across an organization, and on the other EAI software for system-to-system integration (e.g. linking the ERP system to the accounting, payroll and HR systems). BPM can be seen as the convergence of both workflow and EAI, enabled by the widespread adoption of internet technologies, particularly web services and XML."

BPM often utilizes web services, which can be used and re-used reliably, in an SOA framework. Web services provided a standard way for distributed systems to interact with each other across and between networks. Before this, users had to choose DCOM (for Microsoft), Corba (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) or IIOP (for Sun/Unix/Java).

The Internet is driving the integration of applications between organizations and, with SOA and web services, software components are exposed as services on the corporate network. Irrespective of which platform they run on or language they were developed in, web services can be combined in new ways to make new applications.

Many business processes depend upon data sources in existing applications, but this has not proven to be a huge problem as long as everyone uses ODBC (Open Data Base Connectivity), said White: "For example, our product provides a simple wizard, based on SQL and ODBC, that leads non-technical users through the steps necessary to identify the data source required and then to select the tables and fields from those databases."

A convincing argument in favor of BPM is that the software giant SAP, a global leader in ERP applications, has apparently embraced the new paradigm lock, stock and barrel.

In 2001, SAP announced the strategy of Enterprise Services Architecture, which is SOA with business content. SAP has developed its own BPM engine called Exchange Infrastructure (SAP XI) and embedded it into its NetWeaver platform. SAP has an Enterprise Service Repository, which has between 500 and 1,000 process models that users can use to build processes that are compatible with the SAP ERP. Non-technical business developers simply drag and drop icons and assemble their own processes.

SAP XI also incorporates EAI (Enterprise Application Interface) and B2B capability, which will turn applications like ERP, CRM, and SRM into web services. The idea in future is that users will be able to use the SAP ERP software out of the box, but will be able to quickly customize application behavior to suit their own requirements, without programming assistance.

Simon Dale, VP and CTO, SAP Asia Pacific, explains: "BPM is today implemented using engines that interpret a model of a business process as if it were code. The benefit of BPM is that you don't have to be a programmer, or even an IT specialist, to develop and change business processes. The modeling tools are at a sufficiently high level of abstraction and intuitive use that a real business person can quickly understand and manipulate the business process model into his or her desired way of doing things."

Why can't users write all their applications from scratch? "They could, but it would be pointless, since well-proven applications such as ERP are available, which can be easily customized," said Dale.

The future of software

Jeff Kristick of Tibco also believes that the future of software is split between packages and software written with BPM. For example, the promise of ERP applications was to standardize packages across organizations, but for large organizations especially, only a certain proportion of the enterprise's core business processes are included. Management wants to be able to create all the processes it needs.

Modeling is a key part of creating a BPM product, said Kristick. "We model the business process, execute it, then capture all the data and see the time taken for each state. BPM enables you to model a process, create an application and then monitor it against key performance indicators. In our Staffware Process Suite, visibility into the process gives us better control. If I can see there is a bottleneck, I can change the process definition, and then automate the change."

Dashboards are part of the BPM suite, notes Kristick: "We capture the data sources to look into your process, and the process you defined can be measured, the cycle times and so on."

All software uses business rules, but in BPM, the business rules are explicitly listed and separate from the code. Said Kristick: "Supposing your process is a credit card application, and you want to see the effect on the card issuer's revenue income of changing the qualifying household income. You just change the business rule and the modeling environment tells you the answer. And if you want to implement the new income limit, you do not have to touch the code, since you have already changed the business rule."

Tibco's Business Process Management offering is Staffware Process Suite, version 10.3, launched in February 2006, which is also designed to work more closely with Tibco's BusinessWorks application integration software, an SOA suite. These two software packages can be used to transform legacy business applications into reusable services, which can be combined to create complex business processes.

By integrating the two product lines, users can take advantage of real-time monitoring capabilities that provide greater visibility and insight into business process performance. Said Kristick: "Because they are both Tibco products, there's a much tighter coupling. We can do things like data validation and end-to-end testing of processes."

The Tibco BPM suite also enables users to utilize applications written as SOA (Service Oriented Architecture), said Kristick. "Now you can use them within your business processes, and actually make changes, without us having to go and write code for six months."

How to get started with BPM

To get started in BPM, you need a BPM software product and some expert support. Choose the right process is next, said Michael White of Singularity: "You should initially look at tackling a process that will provide an 'early win', where a strong beneficial impact will be felt early in the process improvement project, helping to drive support for the new approach within the organization."

"For organizations already familiar with BPM, where there is no need to prove the concept but the challenge is to adopt its use more broadly in the organization, the important considerations include ease and speed of deployment, ease of interoperability with legacy and other technologies that run the business today, scalability and fault tolerance and finally, support from a reputable BPM vendor who can demonstrate a track record of high quality service and trusted relationships with its customers," said White.

Jeff Kristick of Tibco offers a word of caution: "Top management have to buy into it. Management identifies the enterprise's goals in the marketplace, and these should be the goals of the business processes. Without executive support, the changes that result from new business processes can generate resistance."

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