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WSO2 Enterprise Integrator 4 min

Business Process Management to the rescue – Part 1

Hans Bot
Hans Bot
Senior Solution Architect
BPM to the rescue firefighters training live fire
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Business Process Management to the rescue - firefighters-training-live-fireTraditionally, business processes used to be the exclusive domain of business managers. Depending on the nature of the process, some activities were supported by applications – e.g. invoicing, or customer relationship management. Over the years, more and more activities have become fully automated. Perhaps the term straight-through processing springs to mind, or business process improvement. Today business transformation is all the rage – yet further blurring the traditional separation between the business and the IT domains. However, the ‘impedance mismatch’ between process domains in the business and the data silos in IT is far from solved.

Exploring the problem

Houston, we have an alignment problem. Still. Business process management (BPM) technologies are widely advertised to help bridge the worlds of ‘business’ and ‘IT’ (whatever separates the two). Bringing a different paradigm to business application development, it might be tempting to believe this will solve most, if not all of the alignment problems. And, you know, it just might. And here is how.

Setting the stage

Business processes are pretty easy to understand. They always start with a type of business event, and end when the execution of the event is finalized. Processes can be complex or simple, long-lived or short-lived, fully automated or completely manual in nature. And, most importantly, depending on the context of the case at hand, each instance may evolve differently. From an IT-perspective, a process-orientation is a different paradigm from traditional, data-oriented systems.

1. At the car wash

This is a pretty straightforward process. For every customer someone Business Process Management to the rescuedoes an intake, collects the payment, programs the machine, does some preparation, and finally the machine runs the selected program. There is little or no variation. Perhaps there are a few exit points to consider, if the car is not fitting, or the payment fails.

2. Getting car insurance

This process is a little bit more interesting. It often starts with making a promise or tentative offer. Then you receive the application. You validate the application. Then you assess the application, and finally you take a decision. If the decision is positive, you send out a contract, if not, you just send a letter of rejection, which may be contested (in which case you start a separate process). And then there are the exceptions. The client may withdraw his application.  He might have committed fraud in the past. His driver license may be invalid. Or his car might get stolen. Or he moves house. And so on. A full-blown process model needs to cater for all those kinds of intermediate events.

3. Applying for a patent

On a high level, applying for a patent is dead simple. You file an application, the application is validated, an examiner does his examination, the decision gets published, if no-one opposes a grant within a set period of time, the decision becomes final. Not that difficult at all. However, if you look into the details, there can be many parties involved, with opposing interests, and a number of roles, with different responsibilities. Also, the actual flow of events tends to be quite different in each case. The process typically takes seven years to complete, some 50% of applications don’t make it to the end, for various reasons. Depending on the nature of the applications, quite different rules may apply. You simply cannot establish novelty, inventiveness, and applicability  in GMO-food in the same way you would judge a fuel cell or a medicine. And there is always room for interpretation. Hence there are multiple levels of complexity. And did I already mention the fact that a single examiner might be involved in hundreds of cases running in parallel, in each of which he may act in one of a number of different roles?

4. Applying for an immigrant visa

Like the patent process, immigration is a highly complex, long-lasting, unpredictable process. Here the business rules are even harder to apply, because they change frequently over time, and differ for each different geographical region of origin. Also personal characteristics such as sexual orientation and religion have to be weighed. Even the behavior of an applicant during the period his application is assessed can be taken into account. Other than that, the business rules may very well change retroactively, for instance to honor the jurisprudence of a legal case. Note that the set of rules valid at the exact time of entry into the country of refuge will apply all along the application. Of course, for the employees of the immigration service, acting in many different cases, this makes for a major challenge.

5. Solving a crime

You don’t need much phantasy to picture the inherent complexity of activities that can be involved in the process between “a crime has been committed” event to “the criminal has been convicted” event. To say that each case is different, is likely an understatement. If there is a happy flow to the process at all, this is probably an exception rather than the regular flow of events.

By now, you’ll get the gist that the common label “business process” masks a plethora of different contexts, scopes, scales and hidden complexities. Larger processes tend to have multiple actors/roles involved, with different responsibilities and entitlements. Some processes are highly predictable, both in effort as in possible outcomes, whereas others are fundamentally unpredictable. Some processes process many types of documents, which may be quite complex by themselves. And the inherent complexity of the business logic involved in executing the process varies heavily.

Obviously, a business process management tool is no silver bullet. It can be of great help, but to tackle the real-world complexities, you will probably need other technologies, such as business rules management, machine learning, data analytics and enterprise application integration as well. And use them sensibly.

In the next part in this series, we’ll take a look at some of the main best practices of business process design which will help you drive a successful BPM implementation. It may come as no surprise that a structured approach works best.

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