A Kinder, Gentler Process

BPR isn't coming back to haunt us

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BPR isn't coming back to haunt us

Mention enterprise applications and business process in the same sentence, and some survivors of mid-1990s enterprises might shudder as they recall business process reengineering (BPR). "In the BPR era," says Dennis Byron, analyst with IDC, "we saw the ERP software vendor community tell businesspeople, 'OK, we figured out how to reengineer your business.'" BPR was expensive, time-consuming, and rigid — and mandatory to ERP deployment. The days of BPR are gone, but some of the same names are back, and this time, they say, things will be different.

Now the talk is of business process management (BPM). "This is just a process-oriented approach to optimizing your business," says Janelle Hill, analyst with the Meta Group in Stamford, Conn. Most business processes, she says, are too broad to fit into a packaged application, so BPM requires a more granular look at data and functions across many applications, usually from multiple vendors. "There is nothing new about the concept," she says.

What is new is software to help you do it quickly and less expensively. Significantly, SAP, the king of BPR in the 1990s, is making a big play here.

In 2003, SAP launched NetWeaver, a BPM platform. Ori Inbar, VP of product marketing at SAP, says "NetWeaver allows you to build composite applications and orchestrate your processes across a heterogeneous environment."

This vision is shared by most BPM vendors. "You want the ability to treat applications as reusable and redeployable building blocks that you can knit together," says Joshua Greenbaum, principal, Enterprise Applications Consulting. "Web Services allow us, in a limited way, to do this."

J2EE application servers, such as IBM's WebSphere, can also be used as a platform for building composite applications. In fact, SAP has added an application server of its own to NetWeaver.

You can expect to see other big names in ERP get into this space, according to Eric Austvold, analyst with AMR Research. "The ERP market is saturated," he says, "so it's the only way for them to grow."

Indeed, there's a plethora of BPM platforms from a variety of origins. Fair Issac, known for decades for its predictive analytics and scoring for the financial industry is now involved with BPM through its acquisition of the Blaze Advisor business rules engine, a traditional type of foundation for BPM. "The BPR of the '90s turned your company into stone," says Ken Molay, director of product marketing at Fair Isaac. "We stress fluid and changeable processes."

Pegasystems also comes to BPM from the financial industry with a business rules engine. Ahead of the curve, Pegasystems started in 1983. "What has been lacking in application servers and integration platforms," says Alan Trefler, CEO of Pegasystems, "is a brain. Our PegaRules Process Commander gives you that brain, allowing you to define processes, change them as your business evolves, and execute them across your entire enterprise."

In addition there are several pure-play BPM startups such as Metastorm, Savvion, and Ultimus.

"It looks a bit like everyone in the software business wants to be a BPM vendor," says Ken Vollmer, analyst with Forrester Research.

IDC puts the BPM (which it calls "business process automation," or BPA) market for 2003 at $750 million and expects the number to top a billion this year. IDC's Byron is not surprised to see such a crowded field. "Lots of software companies have products that can be easily adapted to become BPA engines," says Byron. "You could, for example, use the engine under the BMC Remedy help desk for BPA."

In all the noise, one thing is clear: BPM will not be a replay of BPR. "We see a tremendous interest in BPM," says Bernhard Borges, distinguished engineer with IBM's Business Consulting Services. "But you aren't going to see a return to massive, multiyear, multimillion-dollar projects. Companies are more savvy about what they can expect to accomplish now."

Mark Leon is a freelance business and technology reporter.