Choosing the right BPMS

14 Aug
The following is a guest blog post that I wrote for BPM geek website. You can read the original post here.


Me: “Hello?”

Neal: “Hey, its me Neal.”

Me: “Neal…it has been a long time. How’s it going?”

Neal: “Its going well. My company has decided to invest in BPM software. I am leading the project. Since you have been through this, I thought you may be able to help.”

Me: “Sure. I am glad to help in any way I can.”

Neal: “Our CIO wants us to buy the best product that is out there. So tell me, which is the best BPM Suite out in the market today?”

Me: “It depends.”

Neal: “What do you mean?”

Me: “I don’t think there is a single, definitive answer to this. What is right for someone else, may not be right for you.”

Neal: “Can you explain? What is the approach should we take?”

Me: “Here’s my two cents…at a high level, choosing the right BPMS is no different from choosing any other software product. You need to carefully evaluate your requirements, your situation before making a decision. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered before you choose a BPM Suite.”

Neal: “Factors? Give me some examples.”

Me: “Have you identified the processes that you will be automating using BPMS? Are they simple straight-forward? Do you have any case or project management type processes? These may require a lot of flexibility.”

Neal: “We will be automating on-boarding of new employees to start with.”

Me: “Do you really need BPMS then? Perhaps, an HR application may suffice.”

Neal: “We already have an HR management system that can handle some of the basic setup along with benefits etc. but we also want to do things like granting user access to network and systems, send information to our payroll processor etc. Our HRMS cannot do all of that”.

Me: “I think you are on the right track with BPMS. As seems to be in you case, most BPMS implementations will need to integrate with other systems. So that is another important factor. You need to choose a product that can integrate easily with existing systems. Some provide built-in connectors for ERP, CRM and other applications. If you have to integrate with home-grown, legacy applications you may need customization.”

Neal: “Customization? When I looked at some product brochures and videos on vendor websites, it was all point, click, drag, drop and you are done.”

Me: “Ahh … BPMS utopia…but we live in the real world. It is likely that out-of-the-box you will be able to do 70-80% of what you need. For the remaining 20-30% you will need customizations, extensions etc. How easy are those going to be?”

Neal: “Hmm…didn’t think about that”

Me: “Actually, that raises another point. What skills are needed to make these customizations? Is the product built using Java technology, Microsoft technology or something different altogether? Do you have people who can do this? Or will you be depending on the vendor for this? I would venture to say that in any case you will need vendor support for the initial period but eventually your internal team could take ownership and run the show.”

Neal: “Great, this is just what I need. We are ready for take off”

Me: “No so fast buddy. Don’t forget the cost. These days with tight budgets you will need a good idea of how much all this will cost. There will be hardware costs, software licensing fees and professional services. You may also have to factor in your internal costs”

Neal: “Yes of course, total cost of ownership. I will work on that. This is great but where do I get started? What products should I be looking at?”

Me: “I suggest you start by looking at reports from research analysts like Gartner, Forrester, etc. As always the internet is your friend. Look at vendor websites, read blogs, browse discussions on LinkedIn and so on. Look at where different products are placed in the market and make your short-list from there.”

Neal: “And then?”

Me: “Arrange vendor demos and short-list further based on what you see. Once you are down to a handful of products, do a POC.”

Neal: “POC?”

Me: “Proof of concept. This is a deep dive into these products. Provide vendors with some use cases that are representative of your situation, have them implement it and see how each product fares. POCs typically last from a couple of days up to a week.”

Neal: “Fantastic ! Thanks for all this information”

Me: “You’re welcome. Remember, the bottom line is go with the one that best addresses your requirements. All the best.”

Neal: “Bye…”



What constitutes a social BPMS

23 Jun

On one the groups on LinkedIn, a few months ago there was an interesting discussion  – “Merely integrating an application built upon a BPM platform with social media/networking sites like Facebook/Twitter does not make it Social BPM. So what does constitute Social BPM?” The question was really about BPM Suites (BPMS) rather than the discipline of BPM. The consensus seemed to be that this is really a marketing buzzword that vendors have come up with and that the concept is still evolving. Integration with Facebook/Twitter may be relevant in specific use cases. A lot of BPMS implementations are internal facing and integration with these sites may yield no value at all.

So what is social BPM(S)? At its core “social” means collaboration and communication. It can mean collaboration and communication that occurs during normal course of business i.e. when a business process is in flight. This is interaction (such as email, phone conversations etc.) between users that usually happens outside the context of a typical (non-social?) BPMS. The ability to collaborate with others in the organization is a definite plus for all internal users. Take a simple use case for example. Person A needs to work on a task but needs input from person B. Person A can send an email to B or call B on phone. Sometimes, A may not know who the right person B is and may email an entire group, department or organization to figure it out. However, this interaction is now outside the BPMS. Features like micro-blogging and social networking  within an organization can help to capture this interaction.  Perhaps some of these interactions can even be used as trigger points for activity in the system. As I mentioned in Facebook for the enterprise,  BPMS vendors like Appian are starting to add such functionality to their products. It is only a matter of time until others follow suite.

Facebook for the enterprise

19 Feb

If you look back at the trends in “electronics era” (post-1970) , it is clear that popular consumer technology eventually creeps into the corporate world. First it was the personal computer, then the internet and the world wide web. Web 2.0  followed when companies realized the value of collaboration tools such as wikis and instant messaging and began  to pilot them. The trend continues with social media revolution. Facebook and Twitter have seen a meteoric rise in their popularity, so it was just a matter of time.

One of the first movers in this area, Yammer, was launched in Septermber 2009 starting off with a bang when it won the TechCrunch50 event in 2008. It was called Twitter with muscles and brains but in the two years since its launch it has not seen the sort of widespread adoption enjoyed by Twitter. The game changer could be Chatter from Originally launched in 2009 at its Dreamforce conference, Salesforce touted it as “Facebook for the enterprise”. The company described it as “a new secure enterprise collaboration application and social development platform”. Chatter was initially available only to their paid users. It appears to have gained so much traction that in December 2010 they unveiled Chatter Free – a new edition of Chatter that is completely free. Anyone with a verified company email address can join their company network.

Other companies have started jumping into the fray. One of the leading BPM software vendors Appian recently launched Tempo – a new addition to their product suite that brings real-time collaboration and social networking features. A colleague pointed out that in January business integration software vendor TIBCO launched tibbr. While tibbr is available as SaaS, it can also be deployed on premise. It boasts of having out-of-the-box feeds for events in and out of major ERP and CRM applications and the ability to leverage clients’ LDAP for user profiles etc.

It is likely that sooner or later all major vendors will extend their existing offerings (or introduce new products) to include  real-time collaboration and enterprise social networking. With Salesforce offering Chatter at no cost it appears that the process of commoditization of these products has already begun. The consumer social networking space has become unipolar with Facebook effectively crushing its competitors. In the enterprise space this is less likely to happen. As has happened with ERP and CRM applications it will be a multi-polar world. The challenge for end-user companies will be to decide which horse they are going to back. Once you start using one of these platforms the possibility of lock-in is very high. In large companies, if an enterprise solution is not rolled out quickly enough individual departments may choose different products. The challenge then will be compatibility between such products. This is definitely an evolving space and it will interesting to see how things pan out, say, in five years from now.

The future is cloudy

22 Jun

Nicholas Carr first gained wide-spread fame when he stirred the hornet’s nest with his article IT Doesn’t Matter published in the May 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review. This article caused an outrage in the IT industry and Carr was flamed by many industry big-wigs. He followed up with his book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage that expanded on the theme of the article and included rebuttals to many of the criticisms lobbed at his original article. In summary, his proposition in this book is that IT is becoming a commodity and the result is that while IT is necessary to survive, it no longer is sufficient to provide a competitive advantage.

Carr’s second book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google draws interesting (and convincing) parallels between evolution of the electrical grid and evolution of computing. In a sense, it picks up where first book left off. Does IT Matter? discussed what is happening (i.e. IT is becoming a commodity) and The Big Switch continues with how cloud computing it is making it happen. The book begins by tracing the history of power generation industry. In its infancy, towards the end of the 19th century, big companies were generating their own power on sites of their factories with windmills and water wheels. The discovery of electricity altered the landscape dramatically within a few decades. Instead of setting up and operating their own power plants, companies simply plugged into a ubiquitous electrical grid. Specialized companies were born whose primary focus was to generate and supply electrical power. Suddenly the playing field was leveled. You no longer had to be a behemoth and operate a power plant to be able to assure yourself a reliable supply of electricity. The same reliable supply of electricity available to a factory that employed thousands was now also available to a 10 person shop. Carr says that we are seeing a similar thing happening in the IT industry. In the early days everyone was writing their own custom software for essential business operations like accounting, inventory management, sales and so on. This meant and investment of millions of dollars in hardware and software resources. Soon, home-grown software began to be replaced by commercial off-the-shelf software like SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft etc. While not as intensive and expensive as writing your own software, it still costs huge amounts of money to buy, implement and maintain these packages.  These costs are still prohibitively high for small companies. Carr argues that with the age of internet and advent of Google AppsAmazon Elastic Computing Cloud, and other such companies, computing is becoming a commodity and is leveling the playing field. It used to take thousands of dollars and several weeks to obtain the hardware servers to run your business software. Now, the same computing power is available to you in minutes and at a fraction of the cost. You just pay for what you use. Similarly, enterprise-level software once available only to Fortune 500 companies is now becoming available to mom-and-pop entities on a subscription basis. This is a harbinger of things to come. The shift is beginning to happen.

All the parallels, arguments and examples put forth by Carr are very compelling and persuasive. In the last couple of years almost all the big IT vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP etc. have jumped onto the cloud computing bandwagon. Will computing and IT some time in the near future become as ubiquitous as electricity is today? Will organizations be simply able to plug into the cloud for all their IT needs? Only time will tell.

Veni, Vidi, Wiki

14 Feb

Mike Kavis has been blogging about his experiences and challenges in implementing and leveraging Enterprise 2.0 technologies in his company. His posts got me wondering about how business users could be informed about and trained on these technologies, when I came across Veni, Vidi, Wiki (a play on words Veni, vidi, vici which mean I came, I saw, I conquered in Latin) in Wired magazine. It is quite comprehensive and takes a 360 degree view on wikis.

Veni Vidi Wiki

It is one thing to get IT people excited about having wikis and using them. It is quite another to create awareness among non-technical folk. As I was searching the web to see if I could find any good tutorials on wikis for laypersons, I came across this awesome video called Wikis In Plain English (you can also view it on YouTube). I was amazed by how short and simple it is and how effectively it makes its case. Common Craft who produced this video have another one called RSS In Plain English (also on YouTube) which is just as effective a tutorial on RSS feeds.

On a side note, if you are searching for success stories using Enterprise 2.0 look no futher than this blog post by Bill Ives.

No Gartner Magic Quadrant for BPMS in the future?

31 Jan

Business Process Management (BPM) products have matured considerably and are now seeing widespread adoption. BPM industry segment has evolved from having standalone products to having full fledged Business Process Management Suites (BPMS). When selecting a BPMS, many organizations rely on reports from leading industry analysts such as Gartner Magic Quadrant, Forrester Wave etc.
I came across this interesting blog post titled BPMS and Gartner’s Quadrant Problem by Doug Henschen on Intelligent Enterprise site. It appears that Gartner may be moving towards a Business Process Platform (BPP) or Integrated Composition Enviroment (ICE) quadrant instead of one for BPMS. BPM is an evolving market and I suppose this is to be expected. This is reflected in the acquisitions of pure play BPMS vendors by more established infrastructure companies: TIBCO’s acquisition of Staffware, BEA buying Feugo and softwareAG acquiring webMethods. All pure play BPMS vendors are potential candidates for acquisition. So does that tilt the balance in favor of infrastructure vendors? It depends on what products are considered to be a part of BPP/ICE – BPMS, middleware, ESB, SOA governance, etc. If it is required that all these be delivered by the same vendor it will favor the heavy weights.

Oracle buys BEA – now what?

26 Jan

The big news in technology last week was Oracle’s purchase of BEA systems. There is a lot of overlap in their product lines, specially in middleware. The general consensus is that BEA’s lineup was superior to competing Oracle products. Although Oracle has revamped its application server in the last few years, it has failed to displace IBM WebSphere and BEA Weblogic from the top two spots. Many analysts believe that this acquisition strengthens Oracle’s middleware portfolio and will allow it to go head on against IBM in that arena. Doug Henschen of Intelligent Enterprise points to a Forrester Research analysis (you made need to register to view this free report) published last year when Oracle announced its bid for BEA. The Forrester report has side-by-side product comparison and pointed out products from either stable that are at risk of being replaced. However, they mention that there is high level of overlap between Aqualogic BPM and Oracle BPEL Process Manager and that there is no BEA product comparable to Oracle BPA Suite. I think it would be more appropriate to put Aqualogic BPM and BPEL Process Manager together with BPA Suite into the same bracket.

Anyway, what does this mean for Oracle and BEA customers? In the short term, probably nothing. Licensing and maintenance revenues from BEA’s existing customers will add to Oracle’s coffers. The last thing it wants is to lose this money by pushing these customers into a rival’s arms. It will continue to support these products for the next few years just like it is doing with Peoplesoft, J.D. Edwards and Siebel under its Applications Unlimited promise . However, it may stop enhancing these products and eventually raise costs so much that customers will eventually be left with no choice but to migrate. If Oracle chooses to cherry pick best of breed products for the long run, even customers with some of its existing products may face a potential migration – only in this case it will be an “upgrade”.

For new customers customers this means that there will be one less available option. Forrester’s analysis concludes: “Shops that want to retain an independent middleware vendor as competitive leverage against their major suppliers will now have to look to smaller, more risky suppliers, to open source software, and to second-tier providers like Sun and Software AG.”