Alphabet soup can be a tasty lunch, but when we’re bombarded with business-speak it can become tedious. There’s CRM and BI and BA and ERP and NFC, and hordes of others.
Add a new one to the list: BPM, or business process management. It means looking at what you do and how you do it, and coming up with new and more efficient processes, usually using automation.
Entrepreneurs undertake this when they think their business is no longer running efficiently. Then rinse and repeat – as companies grow and change, improvement is not a one-time effort.
BPM software can help map processes – those performed by computers and manual efforts – and design new ones. Some products include built-in templates showing workflows and rules for various functions, based on best practices. These “recipes” ensure a consistent, high-quality product, just as attention to ingredients, accurate measurement and proper technique ensure that the dishes in a restaurant taste the same from day to day.
Using Software AG’s webMethods suite, AutoTrader.com speeded up its order fulfilment by more than 70 per cent, and achieved a 400 per cent reduction in orders needing time-consuming clarification. PDG S.A., Brazil’s largest construction and real estate company, used Software AG’s tools to streamline its financing approvals, cutting the time required to a few hours, from more than a week.
A mix of manual and automated processes can be particularly hard to manage, as clothing retailer Mark’s Work Wearhouse discovered. It used IBM’s WebSphere Business Modeler to help it sort out its inventory management processes.
“BPM really came into play because we had some manual-based processes but they weren’t integrated. We didn’t have a good holistic view of how they all tied together,” says Rhett Waley, solution architect at Mark’s. “BPM forced us to really analyze our existing processes and look where the bottlenecks were and figure out how we could improve them and generate an automated solution.”
Automation is an important part of BPM because it makes a process predictable, and therefore manageable. The workflow is laid out, step by step, and can be monitored. Manual workflows, on the other hand, are at the mercy of the humans performing them; if someone misses or alters a step, things may go wrong and few will know why.
Businesses of all sizes can profit from BPM techniques, and from some of the technologies developed to help with the process. Vendors who began by addressing big business’ needs are now offering products sized – and priced – for small- and medium-sized businesses.
While Software AG’s ARIS, a business process modelling platform, for example, costs about 20,000 euros (about $26,000 Cdn.) for a modest setup, the company provides a stripped-down version, ARIS Express, at no cost. ARIS Express provides models for organizational structures, processes, application systems, data and more.
The company says that no BPM expertise is required, and training materials are available on the community support site. All results can be transferred into the full commercial package if the customer decides to make the leap. As is true with most free versions of commercial products, the company does not provide direct support for ARIS Express, relying instead on its more than half million users to assist each other.
Matt Green, vice-president of product management at Software AG, says his company markets a number of products that allow a small or medium business to grow into as it expands. “We’re trying to get a customer for life,” he says.
Helping smaller customers get started is the hard part. Because many BPM product suites are expensive and need managing themselves, vendors are beginning to turn to software as a service (SaaS) products. With SaaS, the vendor hosts and manages the product, and the customer pays just for usage. It’s a cost-effective way to get the benefit of enterprise-class software without the hassles.
And that can mean finding and streamlining inefficient business processes, making the bottom line look much happier.