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2/17/2004
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Real-Time Data Access Using BPM

A look at BPM's capabilities and the current BPM market.

Organizations are under considerable pressure today to reduce the elapsed time of their business processes, particularly their business-critical processes that provide competitive advantage. Any tool that can enable management to more easily monitor work in progress and identify delays in processing throughout the organization can bring a whole slew of advantages.

Enter business process management (BPM) solutions to help automate business processes. The key to understanding these products and how VARs and solution providers can apply them to particular customer problems lies within real-time data access and how executives make decisions to support overall business goals. In this review, we provide an overview of the vendors in the BPM market space that are making real-time data access central to their solutions.

Consider the mortgage-processing unit of a financial services firm, for instance. During the recent high tide of mortgage refinancing, these organizations needed real-time access to the status of applications and closing information to meet customer expectations for rapid response time, even in the face of high volume. Now, as interest rates rise and volumes begin to subside, the need for real-time access to data is even greater, because these same organizations now seek to use rapid response time as a differentiator in the tighter mortgage market. And there are plenty of other process-intensive industries, such as insurance, health care, government and manufacturing, that have core business applications that present a need for real-time data access.

Key Capabilities

Certainly, process automation remains a central benefit of deploying BPM technology. To remain competitive, organizations are looking for ways to accelerate their most critical business processes. Automating these processes, to the extent possible, is the logical direction to take. By improving the efficiency and effectiveness of business processes, BPM technology can greatly reduce cycle times, improving an organization's responsiveness and profitability.

Some BPM products also provide tools that enable an organization to measure performance and identify opportunities for improvement. These products are capable of monitoring a process across multiple systems,potentially on disparate platforms, even extending to external systems,providing visibility into business processes, and providing that visibility in real time.

Even more essential, these BPM products provide different levels of visibility for various constituents within an organization (a business view for line-of-business users, for instance, and a systems view for IT). Thus, BPM empowers line-of-business owners and business users by providing them with the information they need to make the most informed decisions: real-time information collected from various sources and presented in a context that has meaning for their respective businesses. The result is that all participants in the process can view the status of the process in real time, allowing them to manage the process more effectively and proactively.

What Distinguishes BPM Solutions

The best BPM solutions have these characteristics:

- Process and Related Data Capture. All metrics on a given process application must be captured in audit logs that can be easily mined,a capability native to all BPM products. The more advanced solutions also capture data from applications that may be related to the process, such as data from customer service, financial or procurement systems.

- Process Monitoring. Once process metrics are captured, the solution must have a method of displaying that data in real time, in a format that can be quickly updated and presented to a supervisor or manager. This graphical format should enable managers to identify bottlenecks and exceptions at a glance.

- Process Analytics. Process data must be available not only for real-time monitoring, but also for sophisticated, OLAP-style analysis.

- Manual and Automated Process Change. Once the proper analysis in real-time or offline analytics has been completed, the solution should provide manual methods, within the same interface, for a supervisor to take immediate action (for example, change a process or move work). In addition, the solution should offer automated actions that can be taken based on preset parameters and triggers that require no human intervention.

- Process Simulation and Modeling. With current, historical or forecasted process data, the solution should be able to provide simulation and modeling of potential process metrics, with the goal of allowing business users to quickly make changes in the process design to deliver additional efficiency.

The BPM Market Today

Workflow solutions have offered some form of process reporting for a long time. Typically, they provided reports that could be run to show limited elements of process metrics,for instance, work items in queue or average time to complete work, by process and by employee. Some of the more advanced workflow products had a process-monitoring dashboard through which some of these same basic metrics were displayed in a graphic format that could be refreshed periodically for supervisory staff. As for process modeling and simulation capabilities, these were typically found in standalone tools from vendors such as Holosofx, Meta Software and IDS-Scheer.

But with the advent of BPM solutions during the past 18 months, significant advancements have been made in this area. Now, most BPM vendors offer out-of-the-box reports, and monitoring of real-time process data has reached a new level. Staffware's Process Monitor component, an OEM of technology from IDS-Scheer, provides effective monitoring and analytics of process metrics in a graphical format that allows supervisors to rapidly access bottlenecks and exceptions. Vitria's Cockpit and Analyzer components allow managers to view real-time metrics across multiple processes. FileNet's Business Process Manager not only provides graphical monitoring of real-time process data, but also includes integrated process analytics, reporting and simulation capabilities.

Some vendors, such as FileNet, Fuego and Fujitsu, also incorporate multiple OLAP cubes on process metrics into their solutions to provide in-depth analysis of real-time process data. Savvion's BizPulse component takes monitoring and analytics one step further by correlating events from a variety of sources,including messaging systems, supply-chain-management systems, network-management systems and its own BPM solution,to provide transaction monitoring and the ability to schedule and deschedule events and trigger corrective notifications.

Some vendors are even going beyond the capture, monitoring and analysis of real-time process data. Identitech has taken process monitoring to the next level with its FYI Visual product, which makes it possible to condense large amounts of data from its BPM solution, as well as from disparate systems, and display it in a pictorial form in real time. Triggers can be established based on data not conforming to expected ranges and then launch automated corrective processes. TIBCO promises a comprehensive process-monitoring and analytics component in its next release this year. The component is bolstered by its strong, native capabilities to capture, aggregate and transform not only process data, but data from many different systems, applications and messaging protocols.

Also looking to the future, Fujitsu is poised to be the first BPM vendor to offer a business-intelligence tool as part of its process-monitoring and analytics component. The Interstage Suite, of which Fujitsu's i-Flow BPM product is one component, already offers (in Japan) a product jointly developed with Cognos that brings a comprehensive set of business-intelligence functionality to bear on captured data.

For organizations seeking to deploy such solutions, the key to a successful BPM deployment with real-time access to data is to identify the set of metrics important for tracking and analyzing in business-critical process-management applications. Within this set will be the metrics that supervisors and managers need to efficiently manage the application, and also those metrics that closely align with the key strategic goals of an organization. With this analysis in hand, it is possible to identify the BPM solution that offers the functionality required for process data capture, monitoring, analytics, manual/automated process change, and simulation and modeling.

What Lies Ahead

Many BPM vendors are rapidly enhancing their solutions to satisfy client demand for ready access to real-time process data and to all relevant data from other systems. Looking ahead, we expect to see vendors move to provide additional OLAP functionality, particularly in solutions offered for specific industries; closer integration between the monitoring, analytics and simulation components; and future alliances with business-intelligence solutions. These advances are a testimony to the business value of real-time data access and the role it can play in a fast-moving environment. n

The authors are analysts with Doculabs, a research and consulting firm that helps organizations plan, select and optimize technology for their business strategies.

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