How the City of San Francisco brought agility to their Business Process Management deployment

While businesses are under pressure to be more "agile", IT departments often come under fire for taking too long to deliver projects or not being focussed enough on the business requirements. But the IT department at San Francisco's Department of Public Works managed to avoid falling into these traps. Here's how.

It used to be only gymnasts and circus performers that were agile. But for years, "business agility" has been the boardroom buzzword du jour. For businesses that haven’t yet jumped on the agility bandwagon yet, it might even be too late. There are now whitepapers coming out that propose going "beyond business agility" as the business community searches for the next word to peg their hat on.

But we’re not quite done with agility yet because all too many business behave more like aging rock stars - "I used to be so amazing!" - than supple yogic masters.

As a concept, business agility is easy to grasp. It refers to the ability of a company to perceive what’s happening in their market and rapidly adjust their own strategies and operations – including products and services - to respond to perceived threats and opportunities.

A 2009 survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 88% of global executives believed that "organisational agility is critical for global business success". Meanwhile, half of all chief executive officers and chief information officers felt that the ability to make decisions quickly and then execute on them were not just important but essential to maintaining their competitive standing.

But despite such resounding C-level endorsement, actually becoming agile has eluded most organizations.

In the same Economist survey, 34% of respondents who had undertaken an initiative to become more agile had come up against the scourges of sclerotic organizations: slow decision-making processes, misaligned departmental priorities and goals, risk-aversion and silo-based information.

Many big name companies that once were regarded as leaders in their field have gone into administration within the last couple of years. HMV, Blockbuster Video, Kodak, Woolworths, and Hostess Brands became victims of the combined effects of tough trading conditions, disruptive technologies and changing consumer preferences.

Business process management (BPM) – a management approach that seeks to improve and automate business processes - has an incredibly important role to play in helping companies respond more effectively to what’s going on around them, argues Rob Speck, VP consulting for K2.

"There’s a vast volume of data that’s now being thrust on businesses. They have a pressing choice to make - they can either understand their business processes and understand their performance to create an agile business operation or risk being overwhelmed and unresponsive in the marketplace," says Speck, speaking in a recent webinar on PEX Network. "Innovative BPM is all about business agility and responsiveness."

One of K2’s clients, the City of San Francsico’s Department of Public Works (DPW) has been taking that advice to heart. The organization, a government body that oversees and manages the city’s infrastructure, has long had a complicated process for managing contracts. The process had both automated and manual components and contracts required multiple sign offs by people both external and internal to the organization. As much of this involved sending paper back and forth, the process could be quite long and drawn out.

DPW wanted to bring the process up to date and automate the whole workflow right from the external vendors/contractors and internal staff up to department heads and the DPW’s director.

Under the IT leadership of Jaime Flores-Lovo, Software Development Manager, DPW radically re-engineered the process and introduced new technology that has lead to better collaboration through integrated document management and workflow automation. So far, the new system has been credited with saving the organization $17 million USD.

IT departments often come under fire for taking too long to deliver projects or not being focussed enough on the business requirements. But despite the scale of what Jaime’s team had to accomplish, they managed to avoid falling into these traps and were able to get their BPM deployment off the ground quickly, and for less money than many consultants had expected it to take.

How did they do it?

In the recent PEX Network website 4 Key Strategies for Deploying Agile and Responsive BPM Flores-Lovo describes how an Agile approach (a software development methodology and not to be mistaken with business agility) helped them to deliver improvements rapidly.

The approach involved "rapid incremental prototyping," which allowed the IT team to constantly test what they were building with users.

"The prototype allowed us to adjust the processes once the customer has experience with it," explained Flores-Lovo. "It makes them focus on further improvements as they can visualize better the automation and advantages of the processes automation."

They also took a module-by-module approach to building the application so that they weren't bogged down by a massive enterprise initiative that would take forever to deliver any benefits to the business. In keeping with Agile methodology, the team pushed frequent "releases" or "versions" in short development cycles, which is intended to improve productivity and introduce checkpoints where new customer requirements can be adopted.

Finally, reusable components and code within the technology they used itself should help reduce the time needed for any future development work. Flores-Lovo estimates that project turnaround time from the initial go-ahead for a new application module to its actual deployment is around three to 5 months with the system.

Hear more about the tactics the City of San Francisco used to make their BPM deployment more nimble in 4 Key Strategies for Deploying Agile and Responsive BPM. (Available on demand now)