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Does Your BPM System Understand Content?

Don't settle for content-agnostic BPM or dated workflow. Ask for ECM upgrades or look for BPM that can treat XML as content.
While workflow technology began in the 1980s as a feature embedded inside document management systems, business process management (BPM) software has evolved since then as an independent technology with such innovations as standards-based application integration, agile service-oriented architecture and real-time performance management. Unfortunately, most BPM offerings today aren't content-aware. Organizations hoping to automate content-centric processes are thus forced to choose between the workflow capabilities embedded in their ECM repositories or BPM systems that view those repositories as just another external information system. Neither choice is a good one.

Content-centric processes are those in which content either drives the process, such as in document imaging, or is the output of the process, such as in Web content management. Loan origination, for example, is a content-centric process. Data extracted from documents is used by automated business rules in the underwriting decision process, yet the original documents must remain retrievable for nonrepudiation, customer service, audit and compliance after the origination process is complete.

Workflow was sufficient when this content was paper-driven, but as documents such as credit reports and appraisals shift to XML messages, and organizations seek to eliminate human interaction altogether, simple workflow can't provide the agile integration architecture required. On the other hand, while most BPM systems can parse an XML message and automatically extract data to drive the process, they don't manage the original XML message as content and store it over a period of years — for nonrepudiation, customer service, audit and compliance.

To automate and manage loan origination, order management and other content-centric business processes, we need ECM-aware BPM with three essential features:

Prebuilt content operations. Every BPM system comes with a library of native activity types — operations that the system handles without any programming, selectable from a palette. These types of activities include sending messages or performing XML transformations. Content operations include checking out or checking in content objects, setting retention schedules, modifying metadata or publishing content to Web sites. ECM systems provide APIs for these operations but few expose them to BPM engines for standards-based integration.

Content events. BPM systems respond in real time to events issued by external systems. If a customer's contact data changes, for example, the CRM system can automatically issue an event, and if an inventory item is out of stock, the ERP system can do the same. These systems need not know how other systems will use the events. This type of integration is called "loosely coupled," and it's crucial to making processes flexible.

Content events are generated by the ECM repository when objects have been added, content metadata has changed or retention periods have expired. ECM systems use their own events, but few publish them externally for integration.

Support for XML's dual nature. BPM systems view XML as data, and they parse, validate and transform it as native operations. ECM systems view XML as a content object, and they provide check-in/check-out, retention schedules, index metadata and renditions. When XML is a customer submission — an invoice, a claim or a tax return — it's both data and content, and BPM systems must be able to manipulate its elements as process data and manage the original as business records.

Few mainstream BPM vendors have shown interest in making their tools ECM-aware, but FileNet and Documentum now offer ECM-aware BPM engines, including support for content operations, content events and XML managed as both data and content. Other ECM providers could promote ECM-aware BPM simply by exposing library services and XML operations as Web services and by publishing content events. Companies with significant investments in ECM and content-centric processes should demand it.

Bruce Silver is president of Bruce Silver Associates (www.brsilver.com). Write to him at [email protected].