Process of elimination

The fire alarm started exactly when the Royal York Hotel staff said it would, at 10:15 a.m.

David McCoy, who was about halfway through giving a keynote speech at the 2001 Executive Leadership Symposium, stopped in mid-sentence while a voice over the P.A. system issued warnings in English, French and Japanese. “It’s okay,” he reassured the audience as they all began murmuring like teenagers during a high school assembly. “We’ll get through this.”

For McCoy, a research director at Gartner Inc., dealing with the unexpected is just part of the process. He specializes in process: his presentation outlined Gartner’s vision for the next generation of workflow, called business process management (BPM). He doesn’t like the word workflow, however. “It carries too much baggage,” he said.

I know what he means. Workflow is one of the most difficult components of a technology implementation. Often neglected by the vendor and ignored by senior managers eager to save money through IT, it requires the kind of step-by-step analysis that puts most people to sleep. If it isn’t dealt with properly beforehand, however, poorly managed workflow can end up costing companies more than they bargained for in training and consulting help long after the IT project is complete.

McCoy sees BPM as taking workflow to the next level with better modelling tools and tighter integration within applications. Gartner is predicting that 40 per cent of enterprise customers will have eight or more products with BPM features by 2003, some of which they might not even be aware of. The tasks involved include basics like routing a document through an organization, but there are more advanced areas, like loans processing, for example, that are a big concern in the banking industry.

Despite the potential benefits to a solid BPM strategy, there are at least three reasons why many organizations will put it off until the last possible moment. For anyone who cares about such things, there are no real standards to speak of. It is not for lack of trying, but after the failure of the Workflow Management Coalition (WMC) to come with anything that vendors would adhere to, all that’s left are proprietary-feeling movements like IBM’s Web Services Flow Language and Microsoft’s XLANG.

Even if technology standards were anywhere on the horizon, there is still greater diversity in the way in which companies would pay for BPM. McCoy listed off at least 12 known pricing models, several of which I don’t fully understand. Though putting BPM as an embedded feature in customer relationship management products eliminates some cost, there will be other, more sophisticated standalone offerings that will be charged on a capacity basis.

Both of these issues are surmountable, but a bigger challenge is the lack of visible return on investment. Good management of business processes translates into things like consistent service between the call centre and the head office, or less frustration at the employee level. They are not, in general, things you can put behind a dollar sign. It is already going to take a pretty visionary CIO to spearhead the development of a BPM plan for their enterprise; getting the CEO to sign off on it will be even harder.

BPM carries with it the whiff of “next-big-thing” syndrome, and many enterprises probably aren’t ready for a new acronym and additional project management challenges in the near future. But this is worth it. We have all worked for companies where we spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to work around the system in some way to get things done. Then we leave, forcing those who come after us to figure out the shortcuts by themselves. Why not explore ways that technology could help us avoid those hurdles? A more streamlined organization would likely be better able to take advantage of a CRM installation anyway. Nobody likes dealing with process until it goes awry. BPM may finally map out some steps in the right direction.

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