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Business Process Management: Bridging the Gap between Business and IT

Business process management tools help solve many of the problems with traditional architectures by isolating application code from rapidly-changing business processes. This article is a good managerial overview of the issues, benefits, and components of BPM.

rganizations the world over are looking for better flexibility and higher productivity. They need software applications that are not only long-lasting but also adaptable to change. Business process management (BPM) is a revolution in the software industry today that's providing such capabilities. BPM may be defined as the practice of improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and operational agility of an enterprise by automating, optimizing, and managing its business processes. BPM enables business processes to be designed independently of any single application and then leveraged as shared business logic.

This article provides an overview of BPM and workflow, and then briefly discusses how the two differ. It then highlights the features and benefits provided by a complete BPM solution and links to widely used BPM products (both proprietary and open source).

What is a Business Process?
A business process is a sequence of one or more related, structured activities that has a clearly stated objective and a deliverable or outcome. In this PDF file, the Workflow Management Coalition (WFMC) defines a business process as "A set of one or more linked procedures or activities which collectively realize a business objective or policy goal, normally within the context of an organizational structure defining functional roles and relationships."

Business Process Diagram (BPD)
Business processes are generally depicted diagrammatically, in a graphic form called a business process diagram (BPD). A BPD is actually a process diagram drawn using a business process designer. It is based on a flowcharting technique and consists of graphical objects that represent a network of related activities, the information about the activities, and the flow that defines the order of execution of these activities. These graphical objects have distinct symbols and shapes that help distinguish various types of activities.

According to the Workflow Management Coalition, workflow is the "automation of a business process, in whole or part, during which documents, information, or tasks are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules."

Workflow Management System (WFMS)
Large organizations have many such workflow operations—and these benefit from being grouped and managed just as do other businesses processes. A Workflow Management System (WFMS) is software that manages workflow execution, by interpreting the process definition, interacting with workflow participants and, where required, invoking external IT tools and applications. Note that all workflow systems are process oriented.

Bear with me while I finish defining workflows, then I'll compare them generally to business processes so you can see how the two fit together.

Components of WFMS
WFMS have two basic components:

  • A workflow modeling component, which lets you model workflows visually.
  • A workflow execution component that's responsible for launching and managing workflows.
Benefits of Workflow
Because workflows are such common business operations and are usually labor-intensive, they also consume a measurable percentage of business costs; therefore, automating them provides a number of benefits, including:

  • Reduced operating cost. Workflow automation reduces the unit cost to execute a transaction.
  • Increased efficiency. Business process automation can eliminate many unnecessary steps.
  • Better control. Automation standardizes working methods and provides audit trails that can improve managerial control.
  • Improved customer service. Improved consistency and control result in better customer service.
  • Flexibility. Automated processes are relatively easy to change as business requirements change, and—unlike changing human-driven processes—modifying an automated process results in immediate and permanent change.

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