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How to create flexibility with executable agile BPM tools

Learn about a new generation of tools that are fulfilling the vision of a more executable and agile BPM.

Traditionally, enterprise architects have turned to business process management (BPM) to make sense of complicated workflows for improving business processes and ensuring compliance with GRC mandates. BPM suites (BPMS) promised to create executable business processes. But these tools have fallen short when it comes to back-end integration and UI customization, said Neil Ward-Dutton, co-founder and research director of MWD Advisors, a BPM analysis and consulting firm in the U.K.

In recent years, a number of organizations have turned to Agile development methodologies to improve the software development process, spanning development to deployment. Ward-Dutton believes that a new generation of agile BPM tools can bring the same benefits to business process improvement.

Emerging tools supporting this vision of more executable and agile BPM include Bonitasoft Inc.'s Bonita BPM, Alfresco Software Inc.'s Activiti, Red Hat's JBoss BPM Suite, Software AG's webMethods iBPMS Platform, IBM's Business Process Manager and Appian's BPM software. Key improvements in these tools include better integration with existing enterprise applications, centralization of data across many separate applications and improved UI customization.

Making models executable

Ward-Dutton believes that a transition is underway, with the release of new BPM capabilities that promise to reduce the number of compromises organizations have to make to implement executable business processes. These new tools will help BPM to complete the journey from a niche technology to one where most companies can see the value and deliver against real business cases. In essence, the technology is becoming more attractive to mainstream IT shops.

For example, Bonitasoft is making the UI customization and development easier using front-end development tools that simplify the process of personalizing the applications. On the back end, they are making it easier to manage data directly from the BPM platform.

Until recently, Manitou, a European leader of maintenance and construction equipment supply, was using paper processes, with a lot of individual tasks handled in different ways. Their first objective was not to go paperless, but rather to understand the route a particular piece of paper took from person to person, and how it would go astray or be lost somewhere along the way.

Manitou recently adopted Bonitasoft BPM to transform a fairly complex process into a process-based application and automate it entirely. Sebastien Froissard, IT development manager at Manitou, said

"We started by modeling our processes, and then looked at how to optimize them with automation. After modeling, we started the development. It took some time, as our processes were rather complex. Then, we tested our applications, put them into production and trained our employee end users on the applications."

Plan for change

One of Manitou's biggest challenges was training users to use the new automation via the applications. With paper, employees could handle them as they wished, and it was not necessarily a standard process. "With the new applications, we standardized the processes to ensure that the same sequence of tasks was always followed by the right people," Froissard said. "We had a few reluctant users, and we listened to them, helped them get used to the system, did training and more training, so they become comfortable and familiar with it."

The new applications have helped not just productivity, but also improved the quality and speed of work without pushing people to actually work faster.

Manitou would like to go mostly paperless in a few years. "As an equipment company, we handle a lot of paper," Froissard said. "Maybe we can't replace all of it, but we expect to scale up to about 15 processes at least."

Planning for business agility

Even with improvements in the underlying tools, enterprise architects need to adopt some best practices in order to enable an agile BPM development lifecycle in a successful manner. These include centralizing data, working openly and collaboratively with stakeholders, colocating technologists and business analysts, and starting small.

One good practice is to centralize data in the BPM application, which makes it possible to quickly build and deliver business process applications in a way that manages data that is not managed anywhere else. In small companies, this could help streamline the development of customer onboarding applications. For example, a bank might need to implement a process to address anti-money laundering laws. Even though there is an existing system of record, this process may require additional data relevant to compliance.

Ward-Dutton said a good practice is to work openly and collaboratively by bringing together end users that will be affected and whose jobs will change from the beginning. Organizations should avoid a Waterfall approach to implementing new business processes, which often leads to project failure. Another good practice is to colocate technologists and business analysts in the same room. This makes it easier to share ideas and implementation strategies more fluidly and effectively.

It is also a good practice to really understand the enterprise's existing situation before trying to change things, Ward-Dutton said. "It is only when you understand the current situation, and where the cost and quality issues are, that you can understand how they can be improved," he said. "Some enterprises get great improvement when not doing this, but this kind of analysis can lead to much better results."

If this process is approached in a lean way on a small scale, the initial exercises can be done in a few days to a week. Ideally, a core team of business analysts and technology people take the time to scope out the project upfront, and then run a workshop for a larger audience to bring in the stakeholders to work through the system. This doesn't have to be done in great detail either. "Doing something as simple as using sticky notes on a blank wall can help to get everyone on the same page around figuring out what is broken and what can be improved," Ward-Dutton said.

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