When does workflow become business process management?

5th December 2010

While the Mitsubishi Corporation has been using the workflow functionality in IBM Cognos TM1 to standardise and streamline the budgeting processes across its regional European operations, media and publishing company Archant has been using the Appian Business Process Management Suite to remove repetitive tasks from its advertisement design and production processes and reduce its dependency on paper workflows. So you might describe both organisations as using workflow software to improve their management of business processes, and you would be correct. But as FSN writer Lesley Meall has found, the question of whether they’re both using business process management software is not so easily answered.

If your area of professional expertise is more finance than technology you may be surprised to find that a line can be drawn between workflow and business process management (BPM), even when workflow is being used to manage business processes – and you will not be alone. According to Janelle Hill, a vice president in Gartner Research (who specialises in business process management disciplines), even IT professionals are confused. “It amazes me that so many still think that BPM is just another name for workflow,” she says, though anybody who doesn’t make a living specialising in this area may find the differences between the two as confusing as they are enlightening. 

Hill describes workflow as “a form of flow management technology that coordinates interactions between people and software systems,” something it does across manual and automated or systematised tasks – which is pretty much where it started out 20 years ago. But since then, workflow has evolved; now, as well as being embedded in many different types of individual or “point” software application, workflow acts as a “ middleware-like technology” that is “shared as a utility across multiple applications”, and it comes in specialised forms that can “put software controls around human tasks”, so that they can be better co-ordinated and managed. 

This is illustrated, to some extent, by Mitsubishi’s use of IBM Cognos TM1. “Users in profit centres used to create individual Excel spreadsheets containing their budgeting figures,” explains Günther Bergdolt, technical manager at the Düsseldorf subsidiary, but a lack of standardisation made the Europe-wide consolidation process error prone and time consuming. So the international trading company decided to introduce a budgeting system that could centralise data entry and capture across all of its European subsidiaries – and one of the key requirements was workflow that could control and accelerate the planning process. 

Precise requirements for the workflow were defined and a cross-country organisational structure for departments and permissions was mapped onto the IBM Cognos TM1 multidimensional database, automating the business planning process. “At the lowest level users enter budget figures for their respective region, at the next levels plans are grouped according to permissions and the checked,” says Bergdolt, and because TM1 integrates with SAP and IBM Cognos 8 BI, there have been other benefits too. “As well as accelerating the planning process, we have made a significant improvements in reporting on a pan-European basis,” he adds. 

This all seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it; but it isn’t, because in one sense this is business process management, and in another it is not. Clearly, business processes are being managed, but as they are being managed using workflow functionality in an enterprise budgeting and planning application not workflow functionality in a more extensive and comprehensive BPM suite, this is not “the best composition environment for doing BPM”, as defined by Gartner, in this diagram.

Gartner BPM.jpg

Although it’s not immediately obvious from this diagram (showing what are described as 10 “gears”), BPM suites do include workflow functionality. “This is our depiction of the full functionality found in a good BPM suite,” explains Hill. The workflow technology is hiding behind the gear for the “Process Execution and State Management Engine”, which Hill also describes as the “BPM engine” (which might also be termed a “workflow engine”). But however it is labelled, this is a much more advanced and all-encompassing type of workflow than the type which simply coordinates interactions between people and software systems, as Hill explains. 

“BPM disciplines emphasise a holistic approach to coordinating work across all resources – people, information, machines and systems,” she says, requiring a different approach to workflow. “BPM suites, the leading form of BPM-enabling technology, coordinate work across all resources in the same manner,” she explains.  “It’s embedded in the BPM suite, and does all forms of work including routine tasks, decisions, collaborative activities, research, case work, etc,” adds Hill, while pointing out, as the diagram above shows, that a BPM (workflow) engine is just one of the ten functional technologies, or “gears” that are involved. 

This is illustrated, to some extent, by the media and publishing company Archant’s current and planned future use of the Appian BPM Suite. “Our existing systems prevented the production and advertising side of Archant’s business from being nimble enough in collaborating with customers to produce high quality content to strict deadlines,” says Duncan Macdonald, applications service manager at Archant, because the processes for initiating an advertisement, approving images, and sending a final advertisement to the production team for publishing, were excessively manual and paper-based. 

Macdonald expects the recently installed BPM suite to help the production and advertising departments to “increase their agility, reduce errors, and deliver high quality customer service,” as well as improving the way that these departments engage with their internal and external customers, better allocating work, and providing metrics on past and current performance. But this is just the first of many process-driven areas of the business where the media company plans to exploit its new system. “The Appian BPM Suite will also give Archant a single platform that can be used to drive improvement in other areas of the company,” says Macdonald. 

It’s interesting that advertising production is the area where Archant decided to pilot its use of the BPM suite. It did this after initially evaluating a niche application from a specialist vendor of production publishing software, because it realised that the Appian BPM Suite would enable Archant to meet its ad production needs and address multiple business process issues across the enterprise, integrating many of the legacy systems it has in place via the web services and service oriented architecture that characterise BPM suites (which isn’t immediately obvious from the Gartner diagram). 

But as one of the things that Archant hopes to achieve with the pilot application of its BPM suite is a move away from paper-based processes, a workflow engine seems to be a fundamental requirement (even if Gartner describes it as a “process execution and state management engine”) as does document and content management (which is also rather dependent on workflow), and didn’t even make it onto Gartner’s list of the functional components that are desirable in a BPM suite until earlier this year. All of which goes a long way towards explaining why so many people think that BPM is just another name for workflow – even if it isn’t.