Although the idea of business process management (BPM) has been around for nearly a decade - and before that, the concept of business process re-engineering (BPR) held industry's attention for the previous decade - the market for tools, technologies and techniques to help deliver on the BPM promise is only now coming into maturity. Indeed, in the current uncertain economic environment BPM stands out as one market area where there's very significant opportunity for growth.

MWD research has found that although overall IT spending remains flat (or even declines in some cases), organisations across industries are continuing to spend on BPM. Why? Because it can both help to drive operational efficiency, and also help drive business innovation and business model flexibility.

Nevertheless there's still a significant amount of confusion about what BPM actually is, and what technology can do to support BPM initiatives. Customers are faced with a sprawling technology and services market containing a mix of very mature and immature approaches and ideas, which can cause a lot of confusion.

One of the big challenges that can be faced by anyone wanting to explore opportunities associated with BPM investment is where it "fits" - simply put, is it a business thing or an IT thing? If it's a "business thing", as a CIO you need to find ways to proactively support business leaders looking to improve their processes. If it's an "IT thing", you need to build a case for its investment and sell that to the relevant business leaders. Once you've figured that out, how can you best start to formulate a strategy for introducing it?

To get an up-to-date picture of how CIO-level figures view BPM and how it can be approached in terms of implementation strategy, I recently spoke to Roger Scholes, IT and Finance Manager for ZF Trading, the OEM and aftermarket arm of ZF, a global automotive technology supplier; and Duncan Scott, the former Group CIO of DTZ, a global real estate advisory firm. ZF Trading is currently undergoing a business change programme that is seeing part of its organisation merge with another company in the larger ZF group; process change is a key part of this. When Scott left DTZ late in the summer DTZ had no current BPM initiative in play.

Is BPM just hype? (Read Neil Ward Dutton's article BPM, hype or window of opportunity)

First of all, I wanted to see what Scholes and Scott think about the current wave of industry interest in BPM. Is it helping or hindering understanding and adoption of the concepts and technologies?

Scott's point of view is that BPM is too often seen as an IT project whereas it should be something that's more driven by longer term business needs and by teams: "There's no doubt that a BPM initiative provides an important opportunity to look at your processes and align them more effectively with business strategies. BPM isn't not about technology; rather, technology is an enabler. However this isn't how many of the business people I've spoken to see it - many of them seem to think it's about IT trying to push more technology into the business. The natural reaction is to be sceptical."

Scholes (pictured) was quick to agree: "BPM is often seen as a fashionable label that hides an underlying agenda which is about yet again throwing technology at the problem of business change. However I do think that IT is well-placed to support business-driven BPM. In our group we're a service provider to the wider organisation; in the current climate BPM is very important to us. It's about how can we increase the return we get from our business investment generally."

The importance of organisational culture

The conversation then turned to how different kinds of organisation can present different challenges when trying to introduce BPM concepts. BPM is fundamentally a particular kind of approach to implementing and managing business change; and certainly, from our ongoing case study research programme, it seems that BPM initiatives frequently have to deal with the same cultural issues as any other kinds of change programmes.

Coming from a professional services environment, where (in his words) "thinking about business processes can be seen as ‘airy fairy'", Scott was interested to hear whether a manufacturing-based organisation would naturally find it easy to implement a BPM initiative. Scholes replied that it's not necessarily the case, even if the manufacturing industry has been the cradle of ideas like Six Sigma and Lean: "Even in ZF there are big pockets of people (for example sales teams) which are much more focused on the end goal than they are on a process. In sales, processes can be seen as a constraint; people want the freedom to be creative and act as a conduit between customers and the company. We've found that BPM success here is about not working too much in-depth, and also about focusing mainly on non value-adding activities in the ‘back office'. It's important to squash the idea that BPM work will constrain entrepreneurialism, creativity, and so on."

Scott elaborated on the situation in his own ‘native' industry: "In professional services, all orientation is around the client - everything else plays second fiddle. Even things that might make a professional services outfit more efficient end-to-end can become subordinates to clients' short-term needs. People will say about a BPM initiative ‘this is just a load of back-office boys trying to make everything better. That's fine - but how does it impact the client today?' Professional services organisations can be quite resistant to change." He went on to explain another issue that makes introducing process improvement to professional services organisations complicated: the corporate structure at such organisations. "Many professional services outfits are structured as partnerships with collegiate mindsets. In these types of structure, you can have significant challenges because of the fiefdoms that get built.

You can have lots of great improvement ideas and sponsors for those ideas, but they still have to push against the prevailing structure and culture. It can be very difficult to effect significant change unless you have a mandate from the very top."

Scholes countered with more advice about how to introduce BPM work, even in an organisation which is more naturally inclined to be friendly to the idea of business processes: "Although process improvement is part of the culture in ZF, still we don't typically refer to BPM in our work; we refer to ‘continuous improvement' or ‘efficiency projects'. Nevertheless, you can't overstate the value of the right culture. An overall culture where improvement is valued is a massive help when you need to get buy-in from stakeholders for a particular change."

Building trust

One of the things that can cause any business change programme to founder - and BPM work is no exception - is concern about jobs. If you're implementing technology to increase business efficiency, people's natural tendency will be to worry about if and when their post will be made redundant. Scholes highlighted how being clear about your objectives and communicating them well is vital in building trust with workers who might feel threatened as a result of process improvement work: "People have to be able to trust the management to do the right thing. We've been very careful to tell our people that this program is about enabling us to look for new opportunities, and releasing people to do more business-building work. It's not about reducing headcount. Something else that's helping is that we're taking time to show how this is a global effort within our organisation - it's about making the whole organisation more effective rather than about targeting one particular group of people."

Taking your first steps: focus on business issues first

Coming to the end of our discussion, Scott and Scholes wrapped things up by reiterating a message we hear loud and clear from successful BPM implementers across many industries: it's really not about the technology. Although a bad technology choice might ultimately scupper you, a good technology choice won't guarantee success. As a mathematician would say: good technology is necessary, but not sufficient.

As Scott says: "There is no technology silver bullet here. Working effectively with the culture and organisational dynamics in your environment are much more important success factors." Scholes wholeheartedly agreed: "One of the biggest dangers in BPM work, I think, is that you end up relying on a tool of some kind - that might be a technology tool or a favourite methodology. But you have to start with the business priorities, strategies, culture and incentives - and only proceed once all those things have been taken into consideration."

About the author:
Neil Ward-Dutton leads MWD Advisors' ongoing BPM industry research programme, which combines case studies, vendor and product assessments and implementation strategy advice. To explore this programme and read the free content available, visit

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Is BPM just hype?

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