Can You Do BPM Without A BPMS?

Dan Morris

Business can do a lot of improvement without software tools, says Dan Morris in this month’s BPM column. So do you really need to invest in a Business Process Management Suite to do BPM?, he asks.

History is full of examples of lost opportunities. Untold numbers of military commanders have had opportunity, but for whatever reason have stopped short of taking advantage of the situation and lost gains they could have had. In the case of Spartacus, many say he could have conquered Rome, but he stopped short of the invasion. He had conquered most of Italy, but then stopped short. That move cost him and his army their lives. Hannibal also stopped short of conquering Rome. That cost Carthaginians their lives and their city.

Like Spartacus and Hannibal, many companies consider business improvement success to be related to gains but they often stop short of using it to its full potential. They win a lot of battles and they deliver a lot of benefit. But, they do not leverage their gains to take the whole issue to a higher level.

For those who do, the needs of the journey and goal of creating a flexible business operation requires a different set of capabilities. I imagine that the current debate raging around whether you need a Business Process Management Suite (BPMS) of software tools to do BPM would be similar to some of the arguments put forward to Spartacus or Hannibal around whether to take Rome – it’s too costly, risky, and what will it gain us? Let’s look at some of the issues.

The Debate

There are two sides to the improvement coin – business and technology. Each side has very different opinions as to the need for BPM tools. IT often looks at this as a technology play – usually starting with the restructuring of application access around Systems Oriented Architecture (SOA). For this a set of SOA tools is really mandatory.

Business, on the other hand, can do a lot of improvement without tools. Simple workflow reviews often provide the opportunity to streamline the work and improve the rules that are used. This alone can provide both financial savings and quality benefit.

Now, just to make things interesting, let’s add in the Process Architects (senior transformation professionals) who say that business improvement must start with a rethinking of process. After all, "process" is embedded in Business Process Management. And, transformation requires a broader, process oriented view.

So, all three perspectives are very valid. It simply depends on what part of BPM someone is working in. But, I still haven’t really answered the question – Do you need a BPMS to do BPM?

Because, business can make fairly simple but high value changes without technology the answer is officially ……. NO. You can do BPM without supporting automated tools. Now comes the "but". It seems that there is always a but! Actually if there were no "but" to this, the column would now be over.

So …… "But" without an automated set of tools, you are limited to more obvious and simple change that does not require much in the way of new or changed automated application support. The fact is that even with the simple modeling tools, teams often cannot keep up with the data that is collected and they cannot keep up with changes to it. It is also true that because these models are not integral to the way business is done, they are not kept up to date and not reused. Then comes the fact that without the ability to generate applications and control workflow, the solutions are one time and cannot be evolved as the business changes.

However, I do want to stress that serious improvement has been made by observation and BPM techniques in many companies – but these opportunities are generally limited and vanish shortly after change because the company continues to evolve and the one time changes that are made become part of the current operation and thus part of the new problem.

So, now comes the questions "how should a company really look at improvement and transformation?". And, "will advanced BPM technology be necessary to support a company’s current and long term BPM use?"

From experience I have found that BPM is a journey not a specific destination. BPMS technology is part of this journey and becomes necessary as the journey takes you to more complexity as your improvement program matures.


Journey to a BPMS

Many begin their BPM journey with a desire to look at a different way to address business problems. Others begin with a desire to find out what the BPM buzz is all about. Still others have a different reason for considering BPM as a new way to address continuous improvement in their business or IT operation.

For most the journey starts with simple workflow modeling that looks at activities in a given business unit. This first move often has humble beginnings and uses simple modeling tools like Visio or those embedded in other tools – like document management systems. These first steps are often focused on solving a given problem or streamlining a given set of activities in a business unit. Most often, these projects are fairly simple and involve little or no IT application or infrastructure change.

As the improvement becomes more complex, they require changes to current applications or interfaces. This increases as solutions become more complex and requested IT support becomes more costly. The request for this support must now compete with other requests for application support. At this point, the projects often become stalled as they wait for both computer applications and interfaces between legacy applications to be changed or built. This, in turn, drives the demand for ever more advanced BPMS tools that can absorb a great deal of the solution’s technical needs. It also often drives a demand for external technical help.

At some point many companies realize that there is much more to BPM and that to take the next step they need more capable systems support. This is when they move to license a Business Process Management Suite (BPMS) of tools. However, this technology move is usually to support fairly simple but high value projects – often focusing on workflow management and the generation of supporting application from the BPMS tool.

However, as company improvement programs grow, many realize that BPM is not just about making some one time improvements – even significant improvements. We all tried that and called it Business Process Improvement. It gave a lot of short term benefit – which is great if you are planning for your bonus or if you think the company will go out of business in about five years. On the other hand, if you are looking down the road a little and would like to still be working at the company in five years, a longer term perspective might be in order. When this realization sets in the use of BPMS supported BPM becomes more widespread and more strategic.

Removing the limitations change in the past and delivering speed of change is the real promise of a BPMS supported BPM business environment. That is the point. It is not about one time improvement. It is about long term rapid, low cost, low risk evolution of any business activity, or at a higher level – processes. So the need of a BPMS is really about perspective. Short term improvement or long term operational flexibility and optimization; both are valid and both are needed. But, if you ever want to reach long term operational optimization, you will need to implement a BPMS supported BPM environment.

And, I use the word environment purposely here. A full BPMS supported business operation is a business operating environment. The business actually runs within the BPMS. It executes all the business management and production applications that it generates. It also orchestrates the use of external licensed applications or custom applications that were built by the company’s IT Department. It monitors performance and reports progress and generally helps management control the work at a level that is usually not available. But, this use of BPMS technology is emerging now. In the past it has largely been used to help build small problem resolution or operational improvement solutions. That was the experimental stage of BPMS adoption. Now comes its real use.

So, coming full circle, "Do you need BPMS technology to do BPM?" I’ve tried to present most of the perspectives. Being biased personally, I move past simple change and improvement to the more strategic and complex use of BPM and there the answer is "Yes" you do. But, as we have seen, getting to that point is a journey, not a single move. While you can easily start improving without automated support eventually the case will become clear – you will want more complex improvement and recognize that to do that you need a BPMS set of tools. To go further, you will also need to integrate the business transformation tools with the SOA and other technical tools to form fully integrated BPMS environments. At that point you will be ready for true optimization through flexible, fast, continuous improvement. Spartacus could still indeed take Rome.

Author’s Note: For more detail on both the way a BPMS works and its capabilities, I recommend that you check out the ABPMP (Association of Business Process Professionals) Common Body of Knowledge (available to members at no charge and through Amazon for non-members).