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What is business process management (BPM)? How has it changed over the last decade? How can it make your life easier and why do you care? We gathered some pressing business process management questions and picked the brains of Manoj Das, Manas Deb, and Mark Wilkins, the authors of the Oracle Business Process Management Suite 11g Handbook.
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Is there an encompassing definition of business process management? What are some of them out there and what is yours?
Mark Wilkins: The term BPM has been in use in both business and IT circles for a long time and its meaning is now, for the most part, universally agreed upon. Although there are various different statements out there, they are all very similar and differences arise out of emphasis for particular aspects -- or products -- within BPM. Our definition in a nutshell simply states, “BPM is defined as a strategy for managing and improving the performance of a business through continuous optimization of business processes in a closed-loop cycle of modeling, execution and measurement.”
We strongly believe that BPM is a practice for continuous improvement of business processes, providing opportunities for flexibility and control at the highest levels of the enterprise.
While others may prefer to emphasize techniques or technologies, such as a document-centric approach or different notations, the only important variations arise between the key process types in orchestration, choreography and case management. When the technology handles all these process types effectively, it becomes a simple matter of applying the necessary disciplines in order to capitalize on the ultimate goal of business improvement.
What is the business-IT gap, and how can business process management -- both the concept and the technology around it -- help reduce it?
Wilkins: The business-IT gap has been a hot topic for most of the past decade. It refers to the widespread failure of IT to meet the expectations of the business and realize its potential as a tool for business improvement. In their book, Business Process Management (BPM): The Third Wave, Howard Smith and Peter Fingar talked about obliterating the business-IT gap by placing control of business process management purely in the hands of business practitioners. This utopian concept lacked the tools to enable such feats by businesspeople alone. Today's BPM tooling is far more capable and brings us much closer to the goal of IT -- providing the tools to enable the business to operate unencumbered by the constraints of technology.
Another underlying element of the business-IT gap is concerned with communication. IT has always been plagued by miscommunication of requirements. When adequately supported by suitable tooling, BPM becomes a highly collaborative activity between the business and IT, effectively eliminating discontinuity.
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You wrote that BPM is a multibillion-dollar market and it's growing around 15% each year. Why is it growing so rapidly?
Manas Deb: Over time, businesses have focused their management strategies on a series of technology-related themes, starting with the data-centric approach. This was followed by the functionally focused IT applications that make up the majority of our current siloed legacy applications. The third corner of this triangle -- the collection of business processes that are directly responsible for overall business performance -- has proven to be the most difficult to isolate and manage. Recent advances in technology and standards have changed this for the better, which is why BPM in its current manifestation is so significant to business today.
At one point you mention the phrase integration spaghetti. Can you explain what that is, why it's a problem and how IT shops can get a better view of their business through IT?
Deb: Integration spaghetti is the metaphor used to describe the results of former IT techniques, particularly point to integration and its successor, enterprise application integration, which was set in motion to connect the functions found in vertically isolated silos of business applications in order to manage the horizontal (frequently referred to as “cross cutting”) core business processes. This approach led to ever-increasing numbers of interconnections and dependencies and was a case of IT caught in compromise trying to solve a problem of its own making -- which is why many organizations had siloed applications. Today we've moved beyond that situation and instead we encapsulate business functions as SOA [service-oriented architecture] services with standardized interfaces, discovery mechanisms and management, regardless of the applications or platforms that contain them. In this way, SOA has been one of the core technologies that have enabled us to separate technical concerns and manage the flow of business process through a collection of autonomous business services without the constraints of the otherwise rigid applications in which they reside or the fragile interconnections between them.
Why is using BPM a better option than customizing packaged applications yourself? Can you tell us a bit about a case you’ve seen where BPM has greatly improved the productivity of an organization?
Manoj Das: There are three main reasons why using BPM is a better option than customizing a packaged application:
- Usage of standards-based, easy-to-use and more modern and capable tools and technology.
- Separating custom features from the application lifecycle will allow for more rapid iterations and improved agility.
- Isolating customizations makes it easier to upgrade the application later.
Because of these advantages, we are seeing many customers decide to use application packages without much customization. University of Adelaide is an example of a client where the necessary customizations for PeopleSoft HR were done in Oracle BPM Suite.