Business Process Management: Why it's more than automation and IT

BPM and Continuous Improvement Go Hand in Hand

Business process management (BPM) programme combines two of the most essential competencies for a sustainable business – a strong IT infrastructure, and a comprehensive approach to continuous improvement. Companies that ignore the need for harmony between IT professionals and the business do so at their peril. So why do so many associated BPM as an IT-function?

In the big picture, Business Process Management (BPM) has at its core the same question as continuous process improvement approaches like Lean and Six Sigma: how do you continuously adapt and improve the way you do business? In response to the question, BPM has evolved a system subscribed to by both the business-side and IT professionals alike, and encompasses a set of technologies that support business process and a comprehensive management discipline.

In this respect, it makes the founding fathers of BPM difficult to identify. Frederick Taylor's scientific management principles of the early 1900s, in which he advocated choosing work methods based on scientific study, is one of the earliest concepts to influence BPM.

Automobile manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford, who essentially created the production line, and Taiichi Ohno, engineer of Toyota's production line based on the just-in time system, were a further two business minds ahead of their time, whose theories continue to form a cornerstone of the BPM approach.

Jumping ahead a couple of decades, the evolution of IT infrastructures has meant greater analysis of process and business information with the aim of making better and faster decisions.

In the beginning, this was done in a fragmented fashion, effectively against the principles of good BPM, with each system supporting a specific function or process.

The task of integrating these is one which is still ongoing, but increasing support for BPM is being seen across the IT community, as more come to see BPM as a combined discipline, rather than simply as technology only.

But there remains little industry consensus when it comes to the definition of BPM. Indeed, the Association of Business Process Management Professionals highlights that the fact it is "both a management discipline and a set of technologies that support managing by process" is essentially the only definition than can be agreed upon.

The organisation itself describes BPM in its guide as "a disciplined approach to identify, design, execute, document, measure, monitor, and control both automated and non-automated business processes to achieve consistent, targeted results aligned with an organization’s strategic goals."

IT research and advisory company Gartner also stresses the management approach of BPM within its definition, describing BPM as a "a management discipline that treats business processes as assets that directly improve enterprise performance by driving operational excellence and business agility".

In the future, it sees organisation politics as being the biggest barrier to the adoption of enterprise-wide BPM programmes.

Leading up to the year 2016, the company predicts at least one third of BPM projects will fail to move from one-off programmes to one which encompasses the entire organisation as a result of internal politics.

It was named as the largest hurdle to adoption by 53 per cent of 157 BPM professionals who responded to a survey by Gartner, and the results highlight how BPM is certainly not simply about technology.

Elise Olding, research director at Gartner, said significant benefits are often seen from BPM initiatives put in place in specific departments, but stumble as the wider roll out begins.

"BPM as a discipline requires an organisation to change its culture and its work practices. However, very often, this change can lead to power struggles between functional units or an unwillingness to adopt new ways of working, sometimes from senior individuals. These organisational politics can kill a BPM initiative if they are not managed effectively," she explained.

Not unlike with the definitions of BPM, there is no clear way in which it should be adopted or a programme should be implemented across an organisation. But companies that ignore its dual-pronged approach to business improvement and the need for harmony between IT professionals and businesses do so at their peril.