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BPM to its friends, but what is it?

Business Process Management (BPM) is one of the "in" phrases, and it is used to describe technology that helps automate--or manage--business processes. Peter Abrahams discusses the technology further in this column.

Market Analysis

BPM to its friends, but what is it?
Business Process Management is one of the in phrases and is used to describe technology that helps automate, or manage, business processes. The problem with the term is that when it is used by a vendor it means whatever their piece of technology does. So if a vendor says they support BPM then we know which ball park they are playing in but not the rules of the game. Before asking them to explain it is helpful to have an understanding of what it may include.

Let us go back to basics and forget about technology and understand what a business user understands by the term. I used to work for a large organization and they had a complete Web site that just had definitions of business processes. The definitions described the processes, the many computer systems that supported parts of these processes and also the manual human driven tasks involved.

Business processes come in all shapes and sizes as can be seen from this set of random examples:

  • Run a credit check
  • Take an order
  • Process an order
  • Respond to a request for proposal (RFP)
  • Write an article
  • Choose new products for a catalogue
  • Process a mortgage application
  • Create an annual report
They vary in many ways:
  • Duration is a few moments or many months
  • Solely programmatic to mainly creative
  • Single individual involved to large groups
  • Mainly automated to mainly manual
  • Repeatable to unique
  • Simple linear route from start to end or complex web of possible routes
  • Human knowledge and judgement, that can not be codified, is needed in varying degrees
They also share certain common attributes:
  • They are initiated by some external event or timer
  • They eventually complete or abort
  • They are made up of discrete steps or tasks
  • Messages or documents are passed between tasks
There are rules that define which task(s) a message is passed to Business Processes go through a lifecycle which is made up of these major steps:
  • Model - the process as it is understood by the business managers
  • Develop - the process definition and integrate existing technology and processes
  • Deploy and monitor - collect statistics on use
  • Analyze - both real time usage of the process and after the fact
  • Modify - the processes to improve them based on the analysis
This defines a continuous cycle of process improvement. What benefits will a business achieve by going through this cycle:
  • Improve efficiency - reduce resources and cost and increase speed of process
  • Remove errors - that are both costly but can also damaging to the reputation of individuals and enterprises
  • Transparency of process - showing to internal and external audits that the process has been executed according to defined and agreed rules
  • Collection of statistics - that will help with the understanding of the processes and assist with business process improvement.
These common attributes and the spectrum of shapes and sizes suggests that ideally all business processes should be implemented using a single technology. Although this technology is closely related to messaging, EAI, B2B and workflow it can be separate and call on them when and where necessary.

This overall description of the BPM ball park should help position any particular solution that purports to be in the space, showing its strengths and weaknesses.

Copyright 2003. Originally published by, reprinted with permission. provides IT decision makers with free daily e-mails containing news analysis, member-only discussion forums, free research, technology spotlights and free on-line consultancy. To register for a free e-mail subscription, click here.

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