While digital business transformation is all the rage these days, many of the concepts being applied were originally pioneered over 20 years ago when various types of business process management (BPM) platforms were first developed. The primary difference between now and then is that BPM was primarily limited to use cases involving highly repeatable processes. Within the context of a larger digital business transformation initiative, the opportunity now is to marry BPM platforms with a raft of emerging technologies that are in the main being employed to digitize front-end interactions with customers and suppliers.
In fact, industry analysts such as Forrester and Gartner have in the last year been making a case for renaming the entire BPM category. They contend that monikers such as digital process automation or digital business automation better reflect the effort to modernize business processes.
Business Process Management and Digital Transformation
Regardless of naming conventions, to make it simpler to achieve digital business transformations, providers of BPM platforms have been making the software they provide more accessible by providing access to low-code application development tools that make it simpler to customize the overall environment. Most BPM platforms include workflows that have been optimized for specific use cases. Low-code tools enable IT organizations to more easily customize their BPM implementations to meet their own specific requirements. While there’s a lot to be gained from automating a repeatable backend process, many organizations still want to be able to differentiate themselves by optimizing a specific process or, in some cases, customizing a process on behalf of a specific customer. Low-code tools enable organizations to customize their BPM instances without necessarily having to engage the services of professional services organization.
BPM and New Automation Technologies
But recent advances in BPM don’t just focus on making the platforms more customizable. As it turns out, BPM is also the fulcrum at which many organizations will be applying machine and deep learning algorithms to further automate processes. These algorithms are used to train models that over time learn about events occurring within a business process. Armed with that information, these models can then make recommendations or dynamically adjust a process to respond to changing business conditions. To be effective, these models require access to large amounts of data that is typically generated by a BPM platform. Once completed, these models are then used to drive robotic process automation (RPA) to enable employees to tune processes without necessarily requiring them to have a degree in data science or even be able to program.
Judith Hurwitz, principal analyst for Hurwitz & Associates, says interest in RPA is spiking now because organizations want to eliminate human labor associated with performing repetitive tasks. Not only is that labor expensive, Hurwitz notes that humans are more error prone. The challenge is that RPA, much like BPM, is not easy to implement.
“It’s hard,” says Hurwitz. “There’s no free lunch.”
In fact, Hurwitz notes, the organizations making the most money when it comes to RPA and BPM are systems integrators, which she says is proof that the technology remains beyond the capabilities of the average organization to implement on its own.
Extending BPM Further
Nevertheless, digital business transformation is helping fuel a major resurgence of interest in all things BPM. The market research firm 360iResearch forecasts the size of the BPM market will grow from $6.9 billion in 2016 to $15.6 billion by 2023, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.29 percent.
Much of that growth is being driven by the ability to now extend BPM software to more easily orchestrate loosely coupled processes, says Malcom Ross, vice president of product for Appian, a provider of BPM software that can be deployed on-premises or invoked as a cloud service.
“Organizations are building more composite applications that span multiple third-party processes,” says Ross.
Ross added that requirement is also one of the primary reasons that more BPM implementations are being driven into the cloud. A cloud-based deployment is not only easier to manage and update because the provider of the application takes care of those tasks, it tends to be much more programmatically extensible than an on-premises deployment that has been extensively customized, says Ross.
Use cases for BPM span everything from machine-to-machine processes to scenarios concerning interactions involving both humans and machines. There is no segment of the enterprise that BPM cannot be applied to, whether it simply involves automating the processing of forms or entire manufacturing processes. The challenge many organizations struggle with is first defining those processes in a way that enables them to be automated, and then secondly, allowing enough flexibility for exceptions to the business process rule to be enabled. After all, there are always going to be those instances when a customer requires something truly unique.
Business leaders, alas, don’t always appreciate the amount of software engineering required to make a process simple. They see how web-scale companies have digitized processes and are generally terrified that it’s only a matter of time before new competition employing more sophisticated applications arrives. A recent survey of 728 business executives and members of corporate boards conducted by North Carolina State and Proviti, an IT consulting firm, makes it clear that digital business transformation is now the top concern of the majority of business executives.
However, a separate survey of 1,000 IT leaders conducted by TEKsystems, an IT services provider, finds that while 85 percent of respondents agree that IT organizations are expected to enable business innovation, only one-third claim their IT team is transforming part of the business today. Even two years out, only 41 percent anticipate their IT is truly fulfilling the role of driving innovation.
Most business executives don’t have a firm grasp of what level of investment is required to truly digitize a business process on an end-to-end basis. Most IT executives also don’t have a firm handle on what processes to automate, much less how best to go about it. Put it all together and it may very well turn out that, in a lot of cases, that rise of digital business transformation may do as much to highlight just how wide the divide between IT and the business is as it does to actually bridge it.