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Radical promise of BPM

by David Longworth
March 24th, 2003

Mark Evans is a CTO who takes a no-nonsense view of his role: "We are the people in the trenches. We have to get things done."

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Business process management is spawning a radical approach to IT and a new class of BPMS vendor. But for some, the shock of the new may be too much to take:
  • How one customer uses BPM to co-ordinate processes across its ERP system
  • BPM seeks to standardize process management
  • It operates at a higher layer than application integration
  • BPM appeals to business users but technologists are harder to convince

Glossary terms: business process, BPM, pi-calculus, EAI, RDBMS, lookup tool

That's why, when implementing an ERP system at Texan energy company Tesoro Petroleum, Evans turned to the up-and-coming field of business process management (BPM) to bridge important gaps in the SAP software.

"We wanted to use process management to extend business processes and fill in what I call the white space," he explains. "ERP systems cover 55-65 percent of what you need, but you have manual processes and integrations. We wanted to take the processes and co-ordinate the architecture from cradle to grave."

Evans isn't alone in using BPM to bend conventional enterprise software packages to match real-world business requirements. After a decade or more when process management has conjured a succession of management theories and fads — think business process re-engineering, quality management, six sigma and supply chain management, to name but a few — business process management is now entering a new era with the onset of IT architectures that support it, backed by standards that underpin it. But some quarters are still resisting the lure of BPM.

The solid architectural underpinning differentiates BPM from earlier initiatives, says Howard Smith, CTO of IT services company CSC and author of a new book on the topic, Business Process Management: The Third Wave. He predicts BPM will have a bigger impact than the invention of the relational database, which was taken up enthusiastically in the early 1980s by one Lawrence J Ellison (founder of Oracle), and became the foundation for a whole generation of business applications. Smith says the upcoming shift from data to process will have an even more long-lasting effect: "BPM is the next 50 years of IT."

Process approach
It was certainly no theoretical exercise at San Antonio-based Tesoro Petroleum — real dollar benefits and problem solving were at the forefront of its initiative, which used software from Dallas-based BPM specialist Fuego.

Tesoro originally introduced the Fuego BPMS as a front-end to the SAP system to improve customer service and accuracy of data entry, and has since begun rolling it out across the business. Now the system performs a complete sequence of functions: it automatically retrieves price and tax information from the SAP database and runs a credit check, it guides the user through fulfilling the order, it updates inventory and posts sales information to SAP, and it automatically sends billing information to the accounting system for invoicing. The cradle-to-grave process that Evans had aimed for from the outset is now a reality.

"The reason people are thinking of and implementing BPM is that they face a host of process related issues," explains Smith. "That's similar to what happened with data because it all became embedded in applications, and people said there had to be a better way of managing the data. But now applications have become the problem, with business process fragments locked away in stovepipe applications, and people want a better way to manage end-to-end processes. The IT litter across the organization has become so voluminous that people are looking for a way to renormalize it and put it into a standard form."

That standardization is the key to the analogy with relational databases. Smith argues that BPM systems provide the same infrastructure capability as an RDBMS, but applied to application processes rather than simply data. Thus they can describe and visualize all the existing information and reuse existing IT assets — "in the same way that pre-existing data was still usable when the RDBMS became current. Data was just redescribed in relational form."

All not what it seems
One effect of the current fascination with process is that a large number of vendors are coming out of the woodwork as BPM players. Beware, though, says Smith, they may not be what they seem: "Many companies are describing their products as BPM when what they're really doing is relabelling existing products. We want to be precise."

Smith recommends two tests to separate the real contenders from the pretenders. First, ask if the product allows business processes to be developed and fully managed without going down into the technical plumbing of existing applications. If you're expected to tinker with the underlying application infrastructure — even at a web services level — then the product fails the test.

For the second test, he recommends asking if it has "pi-calculus inside." According to industry body, pi-calculus gives BPM systems a solid mathematical underpinning, comparable to the relational algebra that serves as the foundation for an RDBMS. It bases its specifications for process design, deployment, execution, maintenance and optimization on pi-calculus mathematics. Smith has just been re-elected to the organization's board, sharing chairmanship with Ismael Ghalimi, co-founder of BPMS vendor Intalio.

Not all BPM vendors go as far as embracing pi-calculus, but all agree with Smith's insistence on keeping BPM separate from the underlying technical infrastructure — even though that can be a difficult message to put across.

Technical resistance
"No one got it early on," says Rick Mattock, director of product marketing at Fuego. "The analysts were saying BPM was just a set of features and function of EAI and the process stuff was a way to hook it all together. But then [with EAI] you still have the message bus and you still have the adapters."

In contrast, a BPM product is designed in such a way that you can generate a process layer in between the presentation and the application layer. Unlike EAI, it avoids digging down into the underlying application infrastructure. But as Fuego's London-based rival Genient is also keen to emphasize, it's a lot more sophisticated than simply screen-scraping information from the presentation layer. Genient prefers to describe its approach as creating a "composite application" made up of the separate processes and functions, which automatically adapts to changes in the individual components.

For companies looking to break the expensive and time-consuming technical cycle of application development and integration, adopting a BPM enterprise architecture could be the answer. "The business process must become a first class citizen in the world of automation, where everything is a process that interacts with other processes," declares Smith. "With that achieved, companies won't have to constantly rip into the technical plumbing each time they want to change or implement new business processes."

The BPM message plays well with business people, since it speaks their language and allows them to take control. But Fuego has discovered that its biggest challenge is convincing technical people of the value of its approach.

"We want to make rock stars out of them, but they don't always want it," says Mattock. If IT has committed to an EAI strategy, they're often reluctant to forsake it for Fuego's BPM alternative, he explains. "They want to put things on a message bus and while we play well with others — it's not rip and replace — if they have things working, it can be difficult to get them to accept a new architecture."

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Business Process Management Initiative

Vendor website


Business Process Management: The Third Wave
coverby Howard Smith, Peter Fingar Thought-leader analysis of how and why emerging business process management techologies will enable business agility and the real-time enterprise. (311 pages, Jan 2003, Meghan-Kiffer Press)


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