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How to explain Business Process Management (BPM) in plain English

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Is business process management (BPM) a discipline, or a set of tools? What can BPM do in concert with automation? Here's how to break it down in plain terms

Business process management (BPM) is no newfangled trend. The early roots of what we call BPM today are commonly traced back more than a century, to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory of scientific management.

A lot has changed since then, of course, including the widespread use of the term “business process management” itself and the discipline and practices that term represents. The very meaning of the term also regularly shifts – meanings (plural) might be more accurate. Ask 10 people for a definition of BPM, you’ll likely get 10 answers that are at least slightly – if not significantly – different.

Here’s a fundamental example: BPM is usually defined as a discipline or practice – similar to DevOps, for example – rather than something you buy or otherwise simply implement and complete. It’s something that people do, rather than a particular BPM tool or framework. But even that’s not a given – BPM is also used as an umbrella term to include things like the software some organizations use as part of their work. (A purist might quibble with this and ask that BPM technologies be described as a separate category, such as “BPMs,” for Business Process Management suite or Business Process Management software. But we digress…)

Why is Business Process Management (BPM) used?

The name BPM sounds like something we should be able to define without much help: It entails managing business processes, right? But that’s too simplistic. BPM is a layered practice concerned with codifying, optimizing, and continuously improving operations or processes – especially of the sort that would otherwise be thought of as ad hoc solutions or the type of “institutional IQ” that walks out the door when people leave.

“Business Process Management (BPM) is the management of business processes that are typically buried in people’s heads, [as well as in] manuals, rules, laws, and worksheets. [These] inevitably get created and exist in any business, generally without enough governance around their long-term maintenance,” says Jim Tyrrell, senior principal solutions architect on Red Hat's public sector team. “These processes sometimes are created organically, other times via legislation, or sometimes are just made up on the spot.”

Let’s start with some definitions, in addition to Tyrrell’s above, that you can use. These can be helpful when thinking about the role BPM plays in your organization, or when explaining it to others. Then we’ll dig deeper into the relationship between BPM and IT and explore some BPM examples.

What is Business Process Management (BPM)?

“Business Process Management is a functional discipline for business process owners and operational teams to discover, document, analyze, audit, and optimize existing processes and implement new ones for better operational performance, improved risk management, and streamlined governance of the entire process.” –Marcus Torres, VP of product management, platform at ServiceNow

“Business Process Management defines specific organizational tasks, refines how those tasks get executed, and puts a system in place that can analyze and monitor how efficient the workflows are functioning. BPM isn’t characterized by a discrete task or operation. It is a holistic program, and one that requires continued re-engineering of myriad processes to fine-tune.” –Tony Higgins, CTO at Blueprint

“BPM is a methodology that follows certain steps to analyze, measure, optimize, and improve the business process. It’s used to streamline the way a company operates.” –Akram Assaf, CTO at Bayt

“BPM consists of various methods to discover, model, analyze, measure, enhance, and optimize the business processes. It coordinates people, systems, and data to ensure the business outcomes support the business strategy. BPM is an ongoing [effort] to improve business processes.” –Eric McGee, senior network engineer at TRG Datacenters

How BPM and IT fit together

BPM has not necessarily been thought of as an IT function, per se, even if IT may have been asked to procure, implement, or support traditional BPM tools. That’s because it transcends departments.

That said, there seems to be a growing relationship between BPM success and IT strategy. That’s because automation and data are playing an ever-larger role in BPM. And guess what: modern IT transcends departments, too.

“BPM software has been around for decades,” says Torres from ServiceNow. “However, the advancements in cloud computing, AI/ML, process mining, discovery, and integration have resulted in this practice evolving beyond optimization and towards automation.”

BPM + automation: How do they work together?

While BPM has always been concerned with increasing efficiency, in its earlier phases no one was really imagining – at least not in large numbers – the possibilities big data and technical automation could bring to the practice.

“The challenge for many businesses and organizations, and [an] especially acute [one] for government, is the consistency that can be lacking without some computer or technical automation around the use, storage, and reporting on these processes,” Red Hat’s Tyrrell says. “Automating these with technology also gives you the power to measure various activities and then make recommendations to improve them.”

So while some might see BPM as a legacy discipline, akin to a hulking monolith of an enterprise application running on creaky infrastructure, it may actually be entering another renaissance. Moreover, strategic IT teams are making that possible with their expertise and skills in automation, architecture, data, and more. BPM is no longer primarily the purview of business consultants and analysts.

How people describe BPM is even beginning to share much in common with many IT leaders’ priority lists these days. We held out on you a bit in the definitions section: Consider another one from Anurag Shah, head of solutions engineering for North America at Newgen:

“Business process management (BPM) is an approach that leverages process automation to bridge operational silos and transform the customer experience. BPM uses new-age technologies, including robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, to identify process gaps, connect front- and back-end operations, and develop agile business applications.”

BPM + digital transformation: How do they relate?

Here’s an expansion of Higgins from Blueprint’s earlier definition:

“BPM is a methodical, one-step-at-a-time plan for meeting specific business objectives. By injecting more defined planning and technical automation into existing business processes, the goal of BPM is increasing operational efficiency. The promise of a successful BPM strategy is the ability to deliver services and products faster.”

This is starting to sound a whole lot like how CIOs and other IT and business leaders talk about digital transformation. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that digital transformation is a supersized descendant of traditional BPM.

Here’s Laserfiche president Karl Chan essentially making that argument: “BPM is a holistic, strategic approach to digital transformation that concentrates on reshaping an organization’s existing business processes to increase efficiency, productivity, and transparency. This is an ongoing effort – processes should be assessed as organizations gain more insight into processes, business needs change, and technology evolves.”

In other words, modern BPM depends upon IT leadership and skills. Without it, companies will lag behind their competitors and peers, quite possibly because they haven’t invested appropriately in automation technologies and other technical domains.

BPM examples: Help with compliance

There’s another facet of the relationship between IT and BPM: IT can benefit internally from the discipline too, often for the greater good of the whole organization.

McGee from TRG says BPM can play a vital role in the safety, security, and compliance of a company, for example. With compliance, for example, BPM can help ensure standards are transparent and widely shared, not locked away in some dusty filing cabinet.

“BPM [can help make] sure all processes meet internal and external safety, compliance, and security standards, reducing liability, and safety concerns,” McGee says.

How BPM can help manage cloud

Tyrrell of Red Hat closes with another top-of-mind concern where BPM can help: cloud costs and other cloud management concerns. While Tyrrell notes you’ll have to ensure that your workflows don’t become too onerous (thereby hampering speed, flexibility, and other reasons you adopted cloud in the first place), BPM can give a boost to IT management in the cloud age.

“BPM plays a critically important role in ensuring the right amount of governance and auditing is placed around the creation of IT-deployed assets,” Tyrrell says.

“Managing the amount of zombie instances, especially as organizations move to the cloud, is critically important to manage the costs inherent in the pay-by-the-drink model employed by the hyper-scalers. Knowing what you are deploying also enables you to plan and schedule what will be needed in the future based on historic use patterns.”

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