Technology integration usually means just that - integrating this technology with that technology, yoking this system to that system. But, as vendors of workflow and business process management (BPM) solutions point out, you can't forget people. While technology certainly enables the routing and processing of information and tasks, people - real, live human beings - are still involved in many business processes. In the area of workflow, for instance, they still review, edit, approve, analyze, and report on documents even as those documents pass electronically and automatically through several processing stages. The key to efficient workflow and BPM is, then, to link not just systems to systems but also systems to people.
EAI - The Next Step For Workflow
According to Tracy Shelby, AWD (automated work distributor) systems officer, DST Systems, Inc. (Kansas City, MO), BPM solutions should combine traditional workflow with EAI (enterprise application integration). The union is necessary, Shelby says, because workflow and EAI solutions have tended to be built around mutually exclusive assumptions. "EAI products have been focused on enabling systems to talk to each other - primarily via Web transactions. However, these products have not had a strong focus on what happens if you have to get a person involved in the process," he explains. "By the same token, workflow vendors have been focused on how to move work between people. They don't always account for steps that aren't completed by people. The reality is that, in some business processes, a human being may come into play in only one step."
In a typical BPM scenario, steps in the sequence frequently alternate between automated electronic processing and human tasks. Shelby offers the example of processing a mutual fund application. In the first step, an imaging solution captures a mutual fund application sent in by a customer. Then, workflow tools route the image to a person responsible for keying in additional data. The application is then pushed to a program that verifies the information against an existing database. Workflow takes over again and routes the document to administrative personnel who review and approve applications. Once approved, the application is pushed from the workflow system to a back end transaction-processing system. "An integrated system can take an HTML-based form that was manipulated by human data entry, verify the fields, do address scrubbing, check for exceptions that require routing to additional individuals, and open an account," Shelby says.
Many Processes, One Interface
Brian Brown, general manager, Worktiviti, Inc. (Cincinnati, OH), agrees that tying workflow solutions to enterprise applications is essential for efficient BPM. As he sees it, a BPM solution must provide a consistent way of accessing information scattered across the enterprise. That's because people working in one department may need to access information housed in other departments in order to process forms or complete sequenced tasks. "Companies tend to create islands of information. Mergers and acquisitions compound the problem," Brown says. "A BPM solution must be able to deliver critical pieces of information from all repositories. Staff in particular departments can't be expected to be experts in all of the applications and databases used by the company."
For Shelby, a crucial element of consistent access is what he calls "multichannel compatibility," or the ability of the workflow engine to apply the same business rules to differently formatted data. "Companies receive information from scanned documents, faxes, e-mails, the Web, and EDI (electronic data interchange)," Shelby says. "If a company receives a customer's request for an address change, for example, an employee ought to be able to process the request in the same way no matter how it was received."
Not only can BPM tools help companies to establish a single way of handling multiple data types, they can also help to pull information from disparate applications and databases into a unified interface. Brown notes that a leading baked goods company had, over the years, implemented different applications for managing various aspects of its product lines. Some applications managed databases of recipes; others handled nutritional information. Employees involved in developing and marketing new products had to know how to run several different applications in order to access all relevant information. "Now that a BPM solution has been integrated with the existing legacy systems, users can work from a single interface to perform their functions," Brown explains. "They can do their jobs in less time, with fewer errors, and with less training."
Ask Vendors To Open Up
For end users to reap the benefits of optimal BPM integration, more enterprise application vendors will have to offer their APIs (application programming interfaces) to BPM providers. "BPM solutions have a definite need for open interfaces with ERP [enterprise resource planning], SCM [supply chain management], and CRM [customer relationship management] applications," Brown says. He also notes that there aren't any major technological barriers preventing vendors from making their products work together.
Customer demand should continue to push vendors on both sides to open their applications for seamless integration. "We are receiving more and more questions from customers about how to bring their enterprise systems in line with traditional workflow tools," Shelby says. "That's the reality we see when we receive RFPs [requests for proposals] from customers."