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Speed To Business

How does the advance of business process management mesh with current plans for consolidating enterprise application implementations?

Loosen the twist-tie, spin open the plastic bag, and out tumbles a most user-friendly invention: sliced bread. Could there be anything as great as this?

Increasingly, professionals in both business and IT communities today would answer "yes" — perhaps even greater. The focus of their excitement is business process management (BPM), a gathering mass of technology and methods that could produce the next great productivity boom in the application of information technology. BPM addresses how organizations can identify, model, develop, and manage processes between systems or involving human interaction. Automation is a major BPM goal, not only to save money and time, but also to give organizations (and their business partners) the bandwidth to bring efficiency to the most complex processes and put greater energy into activities that are most strategic to their mission.

BPM isn't startlingly new: In many ways, BPM stands on the shoulders of an ancestry full of valiant attempts to apply engineering structure and scientific rigor to the challenge of aligning strategic business objectives with the most efficient means of achieving them. Nor is there a specific breakthrough development in technology (such as microprocessors, PCs, or in software or relational database systems) that companies simply can buy to be part of all the excitement. Instead, BPM is a synthesis of progress made in both business and organizational thinking and key IT developments, such as the digitization of content and the collaborative potential of the Internet.

Some locate BPM's roots as far back as 1911, to Frederick W. Taylor's groundbreaking Principles of Scientific Management, which had such an enormous influence on early 20th century factory planning and industrial management. Others look to "a new math and a new computer science," according to Howard Smith and Peter Fingar, that's maturing to anchor BPM just as relational algebra did for database management. "The math is pi-calculus and it underpins the computer science of distributed mobile processes," write the authors in IT Doesn't Matter — Business Processes Do (Meghan Kiffer, 2003), citing the work of ACM Turing Award winner Robin Milner. "Over the past four or five years, this established body of computer science has been repurposed from scientific uses to commercial business uses and serves as the basis of new information systems capable of handling the dynamics of business processes."

Looking at the recent history of our IT age, many will recall the excitement — and alas, along with progress, the disillusionment and unintended consequences — of computer-aided software engineering (CASE), total quality management (TQM), and business process reengineering (BPR). When a small group of consultants, academics, and visionary business executives began talking about BPM in the 1990s, they had to battle both weary skepticism about bold ideas and, as the decade wore on, an overwhelming urgency to devote nearly all monies to system remediation and replacement in the face of Y2K fears and the dot-com mania.

Y2K in particular fueled an explosion in packaged, enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications. The late 1990s also featured massive buying in manufacturing, supply chain management, call center, customer relationship management (CRM), e-business, and other applications. The number and diversity of such systems in turn opened up a burgeoning market for enterprise application integration (EAI) middleware, which attracted process-oriented thinking but attacked the problem at too low a level. Meanwhile, coming from the top down, organizations invested in workflow, business-rule engines, and other design and modeling systems, which have enjoyed isolated success in structuring business goals, processes, and collaboration into models and languages for transformation into something IT developers could execute and, with any luck, reuse for future applications.

Something in the Air

Throw in content management, and you have just about all the players yearning to breathe a rare fresh breeze blowing through the confines of tight IT budgets at most organizations. "In 2002 and 2003, the majority of our business came from projects where the budgeting was associated with workflow or EAI," says Tom Meyer, CEO of Intalio, a "pure play" BPM system (BPMS) provider. "Through persistence, we were able to get companies to look beyond the obvious requirements and consider how they could use BPM to extend far beyond those original implementation models. Since the latter part of 2003, however, the projects we've been doing are blatantly BPM. Companies with the resources to track and qualify BPM technology have seen enough reference stories to know that they can move forward with vigor."

According to a January 2004 report by Forrester Research, one-third of the firms it surveyed are "currently using or piloting BPM technology today, compared with only 11 percent in mid-2002." Yes, but what kind of BPM? The sector includes pure play vendors, such as Intalio, Lombardi Software, and Savvion; content management players, such as FileNet; enterprise application vendors, from Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems, and SAP on the high end to Lawson Software and Epicor Software in the midmarket; and EAI and other integration specialists, such as BEA, IBM, Tibco, Vitria, and WebMethods. Business rules management and analysis products from such vendors as Fair Isaac, Ilog, Mega International, Pegasystems, and RulesPower are also a key part of the BPM sector.

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