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6 October 2009

Business Process Management software

By Andrew Clifford

Business Process Management software would be much more useful if it was presented more conservatively.

My clients and contacts frequently suggest using business process management (BPM) software, but often I argue against them.

BPM software is used to build applications that automate business processes. A simple example is employee expenses, where an employee submits an expense claim that has to be authorised and then paid. BPM software goes much further than simple workflow, and can integrate IT systems, and view and control process activity.

BPM tools are used to build applications which involve passing information from person-to-person, and person-to-system. They are also good for some types of integration, such as managing incoming messages from other organisations.

Supporters of BPM software have a very ambitious vision. BPM software can transform your business. Managers can create and change processes by themselves, even in real time. You can use graphical tools to design and enforce business rules. You can integrate legacy systems at the click of a button. BPM is the glue that holds your business together.

I argue against this because it breaks a lot of IT good practice. For example:

  • Clear system boundaries and responsibilities are vital for IT. BPM thinking deliberately breaks boundaries down and cuts across responsibilities, presenting processes as corporate glue. But in the long term, this means that nobody has clear ownership, and the BPM solution quickly becomes unloved legacy.
  • Any business change needs to be carefully managed. There are very few situations where processes could realistically be changed at the click of a button.
  • Business rules are an important asset that need to be verified and maintained through time. Visualisation of process flows is helpful, but extending this to a full graphical programming for business rules complicates long-term management. All non-trivial rules and data are best embodied in conventional code and databases.
  • System integration requires a lot of discipline to avoid a management nightmare. Interfaces need to be particularly rigorous to work well with flexible BPM software. BPM software that just accesses databases belonging to other systems is unmanageable in the long term and completely inappropriate.

All applications require a mix of process flows, data storage, rules and interaction. When you design a system, you pick a base technology that meets the main requirements. If you have a management reporting system, you base it on database products. If you have a highly interactive system, you base it on web servers. If you have a lot of information flows, you base it on BPM software.

To me, BPM software is a good tool for building certain sorts of applications. But those applications must follow the same rules as any others - they have to have clear boundaries and responsibilities. Because they touch many areas, they need more, not less, focus on ownership, change control, rigorous development and long-term management.

I think that BPM software suffers because it is presented too ambitiously. I do not suppose many people believe the hype. But BPM lacks a more honest, simple, down-to-earth presentation that would help people like me accept it and design with it. If you promote BPM, perhaps a less ambitious vision would be more successful.

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