In light of the recent acquisition of BPM vendor Global 360 by OpenText, the question of the relationship between enterprise content management (ECM) and integrated business process management (BPM) software is, once again, in the spotlight.

If ECM and BPM are two distinct set of software tools, outside of IT departments, there appears to be some confusion as to what to expect from either, with some businesses looking to enterprise content management to solve issues where they really should be looking at business process management.

While enterprise CMS aims to manage the content across the enterprise -- and most enterprises understand that -- many are less clear on what BPM does, or, more important, what it should do. At the core of this is a misunderstanding of what business process management is. So in light of that, we decided to have a look at what it is and what approach businesses should take to it.

Recent Integrations

In fairness, the confusion is understandable, given the number of vendors that are now looking to integrate BPM into their principal ECM packages.

OpenText (news, site), for example, after the acquisitions of Metastorm and Global 360. has said that, while integrating the respective BPM packages into ECM Suite 2010 will be a challenge, this is the next step in its strategy for these products.

In December last year, Alfresco entered the BPM fray, and unveiled in April this year its first preview of the Activiti Business Process Management workflow engine integrated with Alfresco (newssite).

Laserfiche’s (news, site) Rio combines ECM functionality with business process management security and auditing tools.

To distinguish the two, then, it is important to understand what business process management actually is and what it might do for your enterprise.

BPM Definitions

The two have become so intertwined that AIIM (news, site) now offers a certificate program in Business Process Management. In the introduction to the course, AIIM sets out its concept of business process management as follows:

BPM is a discipline that leverages software and services to provide total visibility into your organization. Discover, document, automate and continuously improve business processes to increase efficiency and reduce costs."

Clearly there are a number of different items here, but worth noting is that, while software and technology are a core element, it also indicates that business process management is not exclusively about that.

Rather it offers data and content visibility across the enterprise. It is as much a way of looking at that content, or data, and creating processes across the enterprise that offers the most efficient way of using that content to create a more efficient and cost-effective organization.

As the business of an enterprise is in a continuous state of evolution, it stands to reason that business process management is not something that is done once and forgotten about, but an analysis that is ongoing and takes changing business environments into account.

In a previous examination of BPM, we saw that BPM that can respond to those changing circumstances is referred to as Agile BPM, but in large enterprises, this can be difficult and many will have to be satisfied with ongoing assessments of their processes.

The result is that business process management can been seen to consist of a number of ongoing steps. These include:

  • Analysis of current practice
  • Modelling of new process for better efficiencies
  • Implementation of those processes
  • Monitoring of how effectively those processes are working
  • Managing the processes
  • Automating the processes

.From this, we can also draw another conclusion: Business process management is not just technology, although, in the automation of processes, it plays a key role.

Business process management suite elements

Business process management suite elements

Like all technologies, the software involved is helpful, and even essential, but it necessarily requires that enterprise identify processes, what those processes aim to achieve and how best to implement them.

And again, there is an important point here, and one we have seen many times before with other software packages: The software itself is not going to improve processes unless rigorous analysis and planning of what is required and desired is done first.

Identifying Processes, Business Purpose

IBM (news, site) has been working the business analytics beat hard over the past few years. Business analytics applied internally, offers enterprises a view of how their enterprise is performing in many areas, including business process management.

Keeping in mind what we said earlier -- that BPM includes services as well as software -- it has been in IBM’s interest to provide enterprises with a step-by-step guide to improving processes once they have been identified as being faulty.

IBM's guide to improving processes

IBM's guide to improving processes

Its BPM software Blueworks is offered as an easy-to-use and implement cloud offering, but even there it recommends that enterprises stand back and look at their overall business processes before rushing out to invest in any kind of software. Analysis should look at:

Business value

Enterprises need to define business goals and strategies and assess how well they sit with current processes. This will help identify the best processes and products, as well as helping the enterprise move its overall business forward.

Short-term projects

By identifying and starting with small, short-term projects with goals that are deliverable in relatively short spaces of time, enterprises can develop process improvement skills and experience, as well as demonstrate the business value of this process. Without being able to show concrete benefits, it will probably be difficult to get funding for larger and longer-term projects.

Extended processes

Once a number of short-term process improvements have been implemented, it should be possible to extend them across the business, and develop an enterprise-wide process improvement strategy.

While there is undoubtedly merit in that, there are also problems. Ian Louw is a BPM consultant who works with enterprises to help them implement a BPM strategy. In a recent blog post, he identifies some of the practical challenges around the implementation of BPM in an enterprise. They include:

  • Focusing on automation supersedes developing improved processes
  • Business goals are not prioritized and roadmaps ill-defined
  • Concrete metrics are not developed measure outcomes
  • The role of BPM in the enterprise technology stack is not defined
  • BPM solutions are not planned in conjunction with enterprise IT architecture

Business Process Management Considerations

So how do you get around this? There are a number of different ways, but again, the key element is planning and identifying your goals. According to Louw, there are three principal areas that enterprises should consider before implementing BPM solution.

1. Outlining business problems

  • Identify business problems and how they relate to business objectives
  • Ensure IT and business teams are clear about the fundamentals of the project as it relates to their enterprise
  • Idenifty metrics and performance indicators

2. Resolving business problems

  • Ensures process transformation takes priority over technology
  • Select suitable technology platforms for identified goals
  • Ensure technology is scalable and designed for change
  • Apply gradual rather than immediate solutions

3. Measuring

  • Have clearly defined process metrics that relate to established business goals
  • Clear roadmap once individual goals have been achieved

In June this year, we looked at how business process management and enterprise content management overlap in some detail. We saw that some organizations struggle with understanding whether they need an ECM solution, a BPM solution or both.

While enterprises need to be clear on this before investing in either or both systems, a deeper understanding of what business process management is would probably be a good starting point.

Like all other IT issues in the enterprise, planning is key, and without knowing what you are buying, or what you actually need, you could end up investing in something that will just gather dust in the corner.