Why BPM Is Not an IT Project

BPM is about getting business done more efficiently, more effectively, says independent analyst Ian Leaver at Forward Look. That means it’s not always about IT. Here's why.

PEX Network: What do you see as one of the big problems with current BPM software?

Ian Leaver: That’s a really interesting question. When you look at the BPM software market, it’s very heavily dominated by products that are geared towards IT automation. That’s understandable as business process management has grown out of an IT background: companies have traditionally looked at how they can use technology to automate processes. In essence, in the past a lot of efficiency improvements have come from taking people out of processes. This is a slightly strange because processes are ultimately about people.

In the research I’ve done on the BPM vendor market, I found that around 80% of BPM companies focus on automation. It’s very easy to see – if you can look at a BPM-vendor’s website, often within the first two or three sentences "automation" is mentioned five or six times.

The problem with that is that when businesses are aware of the value of business process management, it is difficult for them to know where to look. As a result, you see a lot of organisations saying "I’ll just leave that to the CIO, it’s their concern".

Treating it as a technology problem means that you don’t necessarily get the right answers coming through into the business. It can also mean that the solutions that are selected [by the IT department] are overly complex, confusing, and require a lot of training and investment. So you reach a position where BPM should be making things more efficient and it seems to be doing precisely the opposite.

PEX Network: That’s interesting because a lot of people, when they think of BPM, they think technology…IT…that’s their domain. But you’re advocating that we should be thinking along different lines?

I. Leaver: Yes, I’ve been looking at something that I’ve termed user-centric process management; that’s the latest in a long list of names I’ve come up with in trying to find the right way to describe it. Effectively, I advocate an approach that focuses on empowering business users. That’s what business process management should be all about. The first word [in BPM] is "business" so let’s start there. BPM is about getting business done more efficiently, more effectively. That doesn’t always mean that it’s about IT.

And I’ve come across some examples in the past where people make an assumption that it’s an IT thing, so you push it out to the IT department and they do all the processes. But most organisations have probably less than 50% of their processes are IT based. There’s a lot that goes on around the IT. The IT [department] should be there to enable all of the processes that it works in, but it’s not the totality of what business is about.

There are a much smaller number of vendors that provide software products, that enable people to understand what it is that the business is trying to achieve, what its goals are, what its objectives are, and how the core processes that exist within the business relate to those goals and objectives.

I think those software tools are quite powerful, and they’re quite different. Some of them are capable of automation activities, while others have stayed very clearly away from them and have stayed more on communication side of things. The way I’d explain it is this: some of the products encrypt business information while others focus on describing. I believe it should be about description and not encryption.

PEX Network: What do some of these software products look like in terms of features? How is what they do different from more traditional automation approaches?

I. Leaver: When you look at the automation side of the house there are a number of notation standards that have become fairly consistent and fairly broadly used; and they’re fine, they have a place. I’m not criticising them for what they are and what they do. But, there are also organisations taking different approaches to that side of things, trying to find ways that are suitable for particular industries.

If you look at heavy engineering industries, for instance, it may not be appropriate to use a BPM product that gets delivered through a nice mobile desk player that can play on an iPad. That just isn’t going to work if you’re on an oil rig with a big spanner. However, if you’re working with a young workforce just out of school, software that is engaging is really important. That’s where the more intuitive styles of interfaces can be quite powerful.

PEX Network: So, it’s really about adapting the types of interfaces and types of tools you’re using to the culture of the business?

I. Leaver:That’s an important point, yes. The prevailing business culture is the make or break component for any software product. You can take the best software product in the world, put it in your business and find that it fails miserably. It fails almost always because of the prevailing business culture. So finding the right software for your business culture is really important.

The way that I look at things, I don’t believe there is a "best" software approach; I don’t think that’s the right way to approach the problem. What I’m saying is that there are vendors that are producing BPM software that takes a slightly different approach. I think it’s important that businesses understand the different options that are available when they come to make their choices; to understand the things they should be thinking about when evaluating their options and try to pick something that’s going to fit into our culture and not try and force it.

When you have a methodology or standard that is driven by IT, by the business process analysts, by people who are specialist and highly trained, the risk is that once those specialists go back to their "day jobs", the business users are left just looking at the BPM tool feeling confused and wondering what on earth it is that they’re supposed to do. The risk is that the business finds the whole investment parked somewhere doing nothing.

PEX Network: What role do you envisage the CIO playing within the selection of these types of technologies?

I. Leaver: Some of user-centric software tools that I’ve looked at are able to move towards the automation side of the house and so are capable of providing additional value to the CIO and to the IT side of organisations. I think the CIO is not excluded from selecting these technologies but the prime focus must be on empowering business users to do the job that they need to do.

The role of the CIO is to provide the enabling tools for business to execute effectively. What CIOs need to fulfil this role are good requirements and a solid understanding of the business need in order to enable them to deliver the appropriate products, tools, systems, and services. In my opinion, the tools that focus on business execution, and understanding what the business user is really all about, do a good job of explaining that to the IT side of the organisation.

If that then passes on to more than one product being the answer – i.e. there’s something that works for the business but also something underneath it that works for the IT side - I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There has been a lot of consolidation across various software products in the IT industry. Some of this has been unhelpful because it pulls you into a big monolithic style environment that doesn’t always make everything easy for anybody. So, the idea that you might use downstream products to deal with the IT side is no bad thing.

PEX Network: User-centric BPM software versus automation BPM software: Are we talking about, potentially, a new category of BPM software?

I. Leaver: I believe that they are different approaches. I’ve looked at a lot of marketing literature from the different BPM-vendors to try to understand what they’re about. You start from that point and get a clear view of how they present themselves, you can start to see the companies that focus more towards the business executive; they’re looking at the CIO, the CFO, the COO - the people who are actually running the process activity of the organisation rather than running the IT department. I think it’s about an 80/20 split, with only a minority focussed on the business executive. Some are in cross-over territory – those that can quite easily do the automation side of things but they represent information very well back to the business user as well – while others are clearly about representing information to business users and don’t stray towards the automation at all.


Editor’s note: This a transcript of the video interview Analyst: BPM Software Too Focused on Automation done on site at Process Excellence Week Europe. It has been edited for readability.