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In Focus: Is "Process-Oriented Application" an Oxymoron?

Not seeing a contradiction in terms, a growing number of BPM vendors are talking about process-oriented applications.

If you've followed the development of business process management (BPM) over the last five years or more, you've no doubt been schooled to think in terms of end-to-end processes instead of applications. BPM systems are designed to knit together your application silos, offering an integration and management layer that bridges the gaps in interoperability and gives you visibility and control over the total process.

So why are a growing number of BPM vendors starting to talk about process-oriented applications? Isn't that an oxymoron? Aren't applications purpose-built, monolithic systems that are, by definition, less than end-to-end? And aren't apps prebuilt, out-of-the-box products rather than homegrown processes documented, modeled and reengineered within and specifically for your enterprise?

Vitria apparently doesn't see a contradiction in terms, as yesterday the company announced it would focus on providing "next-generation business process applications (BPA)." According to CEO Dale Skeen, these applications will "encapsulate the principles of EAI and BPM into a new type of packaged application--one that would actually map to a company's business processes."

Vitria's BPAs are modular and built on service-oriented architecture (SOA), so they can be orchestrated (and flexibly modified and improved) and consumed as part of a larger (end-to-end) business process. In fact, the BPAs grew out of the process templates and richer process frameworks the company has long been developing for the telco, healthcare and manufacturing sectors.

"You can think of a process template as an outline and an application as the finished book," says Eric Boduch, Vitria's vice president of marketing. The appeal of the app, of course, is faster deployment and less work. While templates and frameworks require development, the apps have prebuilt, industry-specific business objects, rules and content that is ready to deploy with a bit of customization.

The BPAs currently available include order and provisioning management applications for the telco industry that are said to cut service activation times in half, reduce related labor by 20 percent, and generate revenue and operational benefits of $6 to $12 per order. In June, Vitria expects to deliver an automated claims application for health insurers. And in the third quarter, it will bow a "perfect order management" application for manufacturing supply chains.

I don't know of any other BPM vendors banking their future on applications like Vitria, but some are taking strides in that direction. In March, Chordiant repositioned itself as a "customer experience solutions" provider, offering process-oriented applications for case management as well as account and activity management in the banking, insurance and telco sectors. Appian is still preaching end-to-end BPM with a horizontal technology suite, but it says composite applications--another term for services-based process-oriented apps--are a growing part of its business. Appian's applications handle Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, government freedom-of-information requests, government grant management and energy procurement for the utility industry.

As companies choose big infrastructure players like IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and even BEA and TIBCO for bits and pieces of SOA/BPM technology (such as BPEL engines), you can bet that pure-play BPM vendors will increasingly focus on vertical industry solutions. They might call them BPAs or composite applications or service-oriented business apps (SOBAs) or just plain "solutions," but the end result will be process-oriented, industry-specific applications built for service-oriented architectures.

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