At the Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust, a revolution in patient care is under way. Looking for ways to speed up the critical process of diagnosing and treating patients with early-stage cancer, the Trust is turning its back on cumbersome, paper-based processes that run the risk of patient notes being separated or mislaid.
Moreover, it hopes to eliminate the need for constant re-entering of patient data into multiple data systems, and aims to work more closely across departments, and with other medical agencies such as third-party medical testing laboratories. It is also looking to automate much of the process – from the time a patient makes the initial visit to their general practitioner, through preliminary tests and consultant referral, to case resolution.
Using a combination of software from business process management tools company Metastorm and medical software specialist Infomed, with consultancy services from InterWorking, the Trust hopes to provide patients with consistent advice and uniform, high quality medical care.
Southampton is by no means alone in trying to ensure that business processes are not encumbered by the flow of data across disparate IT systems, says Charles Goody, director of InterWorking. “Most organisations rely on paper-based communications, or on clerical staff who constantly re-key the same data into different systems, in order to support an end-to-end process,” he says. “But the smoothness (or not) of any business process shows the outside world how good your company is at doing what it purports to do best.”
By managing IT infrastructures along so-called ‘top down’, business process lines (that is, identifying the individual tasks that make up a business process, and the technical elements that support them), analysts argue, organisations can build flexible, responsive systems at speed, usually exploiting an underlying and pre-existing software infrastructure. This approach is typically referred to as business process management, or BPM.
As Goody points out, efficient business process management is increasingly an imperative for organisations from every sector. Indeed, for companies in the private sector, it is a matter of competitiveness and, according to some market analysts, profitability.
“Enterprises that continue to hard-code all flow control, or insist on manual process steps and do not incorporate business process management’s benefits, will lose out to competitors that adopt business process management,” warn analysts at technology market research company Gartner.
The attractions of BPM for IT directors are clear. By more closely aligning the IT architecture with business processes, they are able to demonstrate more clearly the contribution IT makes to the company as a whole. By establishing a process-level view of the entire corporate IT architecture, they are able to more easily integrate individual elements of that environment. By preserving their company’s investments in mission-critical legacy IT systems, they participate in business-wide cost-cutting initiatives.
The business as a whole also benefits. Business process management, say its proponents, enables a large company to react swiftly to changing business conditions, across all of its departments. Equally, it enables disparate trading partners to work collaboratively, with their systems acting together as if part of a greater whole.
UK-based business process management supplier BsoftB Technologies, for example, works with companies in heavily regulated industries where business rules – and therefore processes – change frequently. One customer, for example, is British Nuclear Fuels, which has a 12% share of the world’s nuclear energy market. “This is a company that can’t afford to make mistakes in process, because to do so could be disastrous,” says Richard Wall, sales and marketing director at BsoftB. “And like many companies in this sector, up to 30% of engineers’ time can be spent searching for drawings and documentation. BPM should be about delivering to the user exactly what they need to support the business.” BsoftB’s technology, he explains, guides users through BNFL’s complex web of systems, and routes documentation to the appropriate personnel as they require it.
Defining business process management technology, however, is not easy. Suppliers offering process management tools come from a wide range of different backgrounds – such as web services, integration middleware, and application development – and no analyst group has categorised the players in the sector clearly. As a result, it is no surprise that prospective customers are confused.
“It would be nice if our customers were actually interested in business process management for its own sake, but most of the customers we have signed to date approach us simply because they know their business processes are not working well, and in some cases, they’ve hit a dead end and need help quickly,” reports Kim Lewin, vice president of Metastorm for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
BPM also requires a massive shift in the way that IT departments view the IT architecture. They must view software applications as services, rather than big blocks of data and functions. BPM also requires substantial initial investment and a radical shift in working practices: business process management demands a new way of managing services, new software for organising them, and new tools for building service-based applications.
Business process management, in essence, is about creating a new ‘fat’ middle layer in the IT architecture. “Some vendors call it the fourth layer of IT architecture. Others refer to new composite applications, the next generation of workflow, the new platform for applications or, simply, smarter middleware.
Whatever it is called, the key element is the process virtual machine: “a single, unified modelling and execution environment that can be applied to the support of any business process,” says a recent report, The Emergence of Business Process Management, by the research services division of IT services company, Computer Sciences Corp (CSC).
How does it all work? To start with, most organisations are littered with disparate software packages that need to share data. For example, a customer query made through the customer relationship management (CRM) system may need to find out manufacturing details from the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, credit details from the finance system, and delivery data from the supply chain management system.
The most common way currently available to enable systems to ‘talk’ to one another is by using an enterprise application integration (EAI) system. Software from Tibco, Vitria, IBM, SeeBeyond and others can find the data, translate it into the right formats, and make sure it is delivered to the right place at the right time.
But this is not enough, say the new wave of suppliers. While EAI solutions perform data transformation, transportation and synchronisation, they say, these products do little to manage at a process level. (In fact, the EAI suppliers have done much to introduce business process-level functionality into their products in recent years, and consultants at CSC advise that organisations that have a significant backlog of integration projects should use an EAI platform from one of these suppliers as the starting point for a BPM project.)
With BPM, however, business processes are far more transparent; organisations build a top layer application that has a real-time, automated ‘conversation’ with all the various systems in place. Business process management software aims to capture all the business processes so that this can be done more or less simultaneously. It also creates an environment where these processes can be quickly changed.
Given its wide-ranging implications for an organisation, however, it is no surprise that implementing BPM goes far beyond technology issues. “Like any business competency, process competency requires three things: a sound understanding among senior managers of its importance and potential for the business; clear targets from strategists defining precisely how it is going to be exploited; and a rich set of skills among implementers which enables them to do the job effectively,” say CSC consultants.
For the IT department, BPM will require a range of skills and organisational approaches that may not already be in place. At the heart of business process management are data standards. “Standards are driving the choice of business process technologies for any company that is interested in ‘future-proofing’ itself,” agrees Jim Liddle, principal European solutions architect at business logic and development management software company Versata. And in future, Liddle predicts, standards will be even more critical: “Web services with its standard interfaces will have a big impact. It will make integration much easier, as will other standards such as JCA [Java Connector Architecture] and JMS [Java Messaging Service].”
In the short term, developers will need to have an understanding of unified modelling language (UML) tools and how they relate to IT architectures. This is because current business process management tools typically use a role-based activity diagram for the description of business processes within the enterprise – one of the artefacts within UML. Ultimately, it is from this diagram that a fully executable application is built,” explains Liddle of Versata.
“A typical early scenario is that an analyst or business user will draw out a business process using the high-level user interface tool. A developer will then make this work by enabling integration on specific components, applying business rules, and so on,” he continues.
Ken France, group IT director of building company Laing Construction, is keeping a close eye on the development of business process management – and the skills he may need if Laing Construction chooses this route. So far, the company has made small steps in this direction, by deploying EAI software from business process specialist Excelon to integrate internal systems along business process lines – but it has yet to upgrade to Excelon’s full BPM product.
Nevertheless, the integration project prompted France to invest in UML training so that, in future, IT personnel at the company will already have a clear understanding of how to handle new and changing business processes.
UML, however, was principally designed to enable software engineers to understand business processes at the level of software implementation, and basically represents processes as software objects.
A new modelling language is needed, say CSC consultants, which will provide employees with different points of view [such as business users, business analysts, business managers] with a common language for defining processes and allowing their direct execution.
The most notable proposal in this area today is published by the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI.org). Its language, BPML, is a meta-language that offers a generic execution model for business processes that can be translated into specific languages for different vertical markets; for example, CPFR for collaborative planning, forecasting and replenishment processes, FpML for securities trading processes; and TMF for telecomm-unication services provisioning processes.
“Once a company has stepped into process manage-ment, it can’t do it without standards, because it would then be reliant on a single vendor, and most say they can’t be in that position,” adds Howard Smith, chief technology officer for CSC in Europe and co-chair of BPMI.org. Familiarity with BPML, he claims, will be a prerequisite for organisations that wish to manage processes, as new models of enterprise software that keep business processes separate from business logic emerge.
The shift to BPM, argues Smith, is inevitable. “There is pressure on businesses to run processes more efficiently. There is pressure on them to find new ways of doing things. There is the emergence of new technologies that are set for huge growth. Every company’s path will be quite different, and there will be many disagreements along the way. But the adoption of BPM will happen.”