Blow the Lid Off Automation - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management

Blow the Lid Off Automation

Integration and automation are old hat for business process management, but BPM vendors are adding real-time reports for better process visibility and adaptability.

Cover ImageIn the early days of business process management (BPM), circa 1999, deployments were focused on integrating and automating repetitive processes. When there was a break in the flow, BPM software supported human intervention to quickly resolve the exceptions.

This orientation limited BPM to standardized processes, such as account activation, in which the sequence of activities is unchanging. Yet for most firms, the exception is often the rule. Many business processes are dynamic, not standardized, and thus require the systems that support them to adapt quickly to changes within the business environment.

The greatest value of BPM software is delivered not through automation and integration alone, but by introducing a layer between users and IT infrastructure to allow process to quickly adapt to change without requiring costly coding and IT development work.

To take better advantage of this adaptability, the next phase of BPM will focus on delivering actionable, real-time reporting on process states and performance indicators. With better intelligence, users will be able to see the status of process activities and gauge the immediate and downstream impact of business decisions. We'll examine the maturation of BPM technologies and the capabilities that will set next-generation systems apart.

A Very Brief History of BPM

In the early years of BPM, from 1999 to 2001, initiatives tended to be parochial, integration-centric deployments aimed at closing gaps in existing ERP deployments. Solutions of this period were differentiated by proprietary features such as application adapters, data transformation capabilities and product-specific process definitions.

In the second phase of maturation, from 2002 to 2004, BPM solutions began to resemble ERP more than enterprise application integration. Organizations were building process-centric applications, and the technology had evolved from middleware into a development environment.

At the same time, complementary standards such as Web services and advances in BPM development and design tools lowered the cost and complexity of application and data integration. These trends also advanced one of the fundamental charters (and least-fulfilled promises) of BPM: putting business logic management (processes, business rules, user roles, task descriptions and so forth) in the hands of business managers without threatening the application logic's integrity.

In the absence of BPM, business logic exists primarily in two places: embedded inside applications and IT infrastructure, where it's out of reach to business users, and in the minds of business process owners and subject-matter experts. BPM introduced the ability to abstract business logic so it could be managed and maintained within a separate system by nontechnical business users.

Enabled by standards-based protocols (notably the core Web services stack of XML, SOAP, UDDI and WSDL) and the emergence of service-oriented architectures (SOAs), BPM frameworks gained flexibility and agility in resolving integration issues. Prior to SOA, changing the structure of process documents or data meant taking those processes offline so programmers could manually code each change. SOA provides a common means for communicating between applications so connections don't need to be programmed in advance as long as the BPM environment knows where to find information and how to access it.

Many BPM frameworks today include an embedded or inherent SOA capability, and most can take advantage of external services. This is a critical advance in supporting dynamic processes in which the information, activities and roles required might evolve rather than being predetermined.

Cover Image

Goal-Driven BPM

If integration best described the first generation of BPM, the second-phase equivalent is orchestration. Orchestration has changed the role of BPM frameworks from that of a transit system, designed to shuttle data from one point to another over predefined routes, to that of a virtual power user that "knows" how to locate, access and initiate application services and information sources.

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