Put Plug and Play on the Process Checklist - InformationWeek

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10/26/2005
04:32 PM
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Put Plug and Play on the Process Checklist

The latest analysis from Gartner holds that "pure-play BPM" is dead; the new game is "BPM suites."

Consolidation is simple economic necessity in the software industry. To maintain revenue growth, it's often easier to enlarge the space than to increase adoption of what will soon be called a "point technology." Also, industry analysts like to redefine categories and continually raise the bar. And it's a convenient way for the larger vendors to step on the necks of those pesky startups. But users benefit as well. Instead of having to cobble together software components from half a dozen vendors, they can buy one solution pre-integrated as a single suite.

Business process management (BPM) software is the most recent example of this phenomenon. The latest analysis from Gartner holds that "pure-play BPM" is dead; the new game is "BPM suites." The difference is a bunch of stuff that used to be part of other software categories: business modeling and simulation, performance management and analytics, business rules management, content management and collaboration, even parts of systems management. Now they're part of the suite. And why stop there? As core integration technology is standardized and moved to the enterprise middleware "stack," why not include application servers, integration adapters, an enterprise service bus and Web services infrastructure as well? You need them, so why shouldn't they be part of the BPM suite, too?

Even if you leave out "true" infrastructure, meaning application servers and enterprise plumbing, BPM suites pose a new dilemma for technology buyers: If the BPM suite includes a business modeling and simulation tool, a business rules engine, an integration middleware stack, a content management repository and business performance analytics, what about your existing investments in those components — each of which represents a six- or seven-figure outlay? "Well," say the BPM suite vendors, "we're not saying you can't use those components, but you're not going to get the full benefit of the suite's native integration."

This is the essence of the problem. To get full credit from industry analysts, BPM vendors must complete the suite checklist. If they can't build a component themselves, they pick a technology partner and integrate the component somehow. Now they can offer a complete round trip of continuous process improvement, from business modeling to execution to analytics to optimization. But what happens if you substitute your existing modeling tool, rules engine or analytics for the corresponding suite component? Can you implement process change just as quickly? Can you as easily feed back performance results to incrementally improve the model? Unfortunately, maybe not.

BPM suites also fly in the face of enterprise architects' beloved reference architecture diagrams. Those mind-numbing multicolored monsters describe layer upon layer of standardized enterprise services that — perhaps one day — might replace the hodgepodge of incompatible, redundant systems scattered throughout the company. To the architects, these layered services are all based on best-of-breed technology, meaning they come from different vendors. The integration between them is assumed to come from the enterprise architecture, not from a suite vendor focused on BPM — what they consider a "point technology."

Instead of simply promoting an expanding feature checklist, industry analysts must demand a new style of BPM suite, one based on choosing key components such as business rules, integration middleware, business modeling and analytics. That would let customers extend their existing investments in these technologies without losing the suite's benefits. Customers, in other words, would like a BPM suite that plays well with others. Instead of allowing one particular rules engine, business modeling tool, message bus and analytics, the BPM suite must support a palette of popular offerings and provide the necessary integration framework, for example, to harmonize each component's diverse information models.

It's not easy. A small handful of BPM vendors have recognized the need and are creating the necessary hooks and services to snap in to existing infrastructures. For this to become a trend, however, industry analysts must proclaim that suites are more than functionality checklists; they're plug-and-play frameworks that can rely on best-of-breed components without losing the ability to change processes on a dime, measure key performance indicators across stovepiped boundaries and feed back performance results to incrementally optimize process design.

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

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