Business process management and its precursors have been around for decades. But over the last few years, the use of BPM and the tools enabling it have shifted significantly, buoyed by advancements in robotic process automation, process mining and low-code development platforms. Gartner has even created a new concept called hyperautomation to characterize the cutting edge of scalable business process automation.
Although BPM might not be as sexy -- nor typically hyped -- as a cutting-edge automation technology, it plays a crucial role in ensuring enterprises automate the right things. Moreover, the tools supporting BPM's processes are getting more automated, intelligent and user-friendly. These advancements are opening the doors for a much larger audience of business users to participate in business process improvement in ways that mirror the citizen developer trend in IT. BPM's greater sophistication, reach and metrics are also providing business process experts the ability to deliver more meaningful results. Several trends are expected to mark BPM's evolution and influence on business processes in 2024.
1. Citizen developer tools and automation drive democratization
Business process improvement -- the goal of BPM -- has traditionally been driven by expensive process experts brought in to dissect opportunities for change. These ideas were not always accepted by the managers or users involved in executing these changes. The next wave of BPM could benefit from greater participation across the organization.
"The BPM future is really about cultural change driven by three pillars especially," said Setrag Khoshafian, principal and chief scientist at Khosh Consulting and author of How to Alleviate Digital Transformation Debt. Those three pillars are as follows:
- Citizen developer-centric BPM tools enable more users across the organization to identify, implement and measure ideas for process improvement with guardrails.
- Process automation on steroids simplifies the creation of BPM bot workers that are almost indistinguishable from human workers through intelligent process work management.
- Full-cycle process mining will make it easier for users to discover and improve process maps without the help of process experts. It will also be easier for process experts to implement the appropriate guardrails for using these tools more broadly. But this area still needs more work, Khoshafian cautioned.
He also expects new digital enablers -- such as IoT, augmented and virtual reality, and blockchain -- to extend the domain of BPM.
2. Intelligent business process automation increases process efficiency
Early BPM software made process diagrams and maps easier to draw, but it was left to developers to put these process designs into practice, creating delays and problems when maps and applications were out of sync. "BPM cannot stand alone as it has in the past," reasoned Dana Daher, associate practice leader at global business consultancy HFS Research. Technology advances have pushed the enterprise toward intelligent business process automation that weaves AI, machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA) into the fabric of processes to improve efficiency. These intelligent systems will incorporate data to provide greater insights over time.
3. Incorporating BPM functionality into software platforms extends reach
The trend toward deployment of platforms where businesses can consolidate much of their IT stack under a single vendor offering will increase the use of BPM, said Isaac Gould, research manager at IT advisory Nucleus Research. "BPM functionality," he added, "will soon become widely available to both SMBs and large enterprises alike." Large software vendors like Oracle, Workday, Salesforce, Microsoft and SAP already offer BPM functionality as part of their platforms. With the rise of low-code development platforms and integration platforms, businesses will no longer need to source BPM-specific solutions. "Organizations undergoing a digital transformation initiative should consider the BPM functionality and roadmap of their prospective technology platforms," Gould advised.
4. Automated process discovery provides a complete map of enterprise-wide processes
The advent of automated process discovery will be the most significant advance for BPM, according to John Blankenbaker, principal data scientist at management consultancy SSA & Company. The first embodiment of process mining tools analyzed log files from a single critical system, such as an ERP platform, to understand which business units accessed and updated which data, enabling organizations to construct a picture of business activity. This approach has evolved to a place where the actions of multiple systems are stitched together to determine how data flows and provide a complete blueprint of an organization's processes.
The offline actions of humans in a process still need to be discovered via traditional interviews and observations. But as more process steps move online, keyloggers and location trackers can capture more manual processes.
Building a coherent process map out of a series of events is complex. It's helpful that most business processes are somewhat similar. The most significant differences are in the way things are named. Blankenbaker expects to see improvements in machine learning techniques that look for recurring patterns to help harmonize different naming conventions across similar processes, making it easier to understand how the process works and how to optimize it.
5. Adaptive process management supports agile, iterative process modeling
Business process modeling in the early days was mostly done using simple flow diagrams -- highly structured visual representations of a mostly inflexible sequence of activities. Flow diagrams are a great tool for ensuring consistent execution of steps in a highly regulated process. "As the field evolved, BPM system vendors realized that, practically speaking, most processes don't always follow exactly the same sequence of steps," said Donncha Carroll, partner, co-founder and head of data science at Lotis Blue Consulting. A customer onboarding process for an enterprise software vendor, for example, might differ depending on software configuration complexity, systems integration needs and types of users. The sequence of activities in this process would vary in ways not known at the start.
Adaptive process management can accommodate the treatment of unknown factors that become apparent during process execution. Tools like Oracle Cloud Integration already enable users to model structured and unstructured business processes. As these BPM systems increase in sophistication, they will also be used as an orchestration layer, calling on legacy tools, RPA software, AI and licensed applications like ERP systems. "This evolution in functionality," Carroll noted, "will significantly improve not only the flexibility of these systems, but also the power and reach of process automation."
6. Process modeling takes off
One essential aspect of BPM lies in developing tools to better understand and improve business processes. Expect more enterprises to take advantage of innovations in process modeling, said Dee Houchen, head of the global market impact at SAP Signavio. Enterprises have previously explored automated tools for process mining and mapping to understand existing processes. Process modeling takes this capability to the next level by allowing teams to ask what-if questions and align results with business goals.
IT leaders are under pressure to demonstrate the value of IT investments in supporting business strategy, Houchens said. So, they need to know the current state, what works well, what doesn't and the potential impact of new deployments. Process modeling can help map business processes to the IT infrastructure that facilitates those processes. A holistic view of systems and processes safeguards complex IT transformation. One additional aspect of this trend is increasing interest in process observability to understand the potential for optimization and improvements. This development mirrors the growth of observability tools in application and microservice management at the process level.
7. Process simulation improves decision-making
Expect enterprises to take things up a notch with process simulation, said Bruce Orcutt, senior vice president of product marketing at Abbyy. Process simulation allows process-centric business owners to evaluate changes and better understand their impact based on all the historical facts their systems have accumulated. "This helps leaders make informed decisions regarding resource allocation and process changes before being implemented," Orcutt explained, "ultimately leading to optimized operational efficiency and customer satisfaction."
8. Low-code and custom development find common ground
Innovations in low-code/no-code development have played an essential role in turning new ideas into smoother business operations. But that hasn't been the case for many organizations. In government, for example, customers often require heavy customization that can reduce the benefits of low-code/no-code tools, said Lorraine Landfried, senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. "Many of our clients," she explained, "have valid reasons for wanting to maintain their legacy systems but want something to orchestrate those systems better." These types of enterprises, she predicted, will increasingly take advantage of teams that follow the Agile methodology and use BPM. Approaches like model-driven development will improve understanding of business processes with tools that use the Business Process Model and Notation and Decision Model and Notation to facilitate collaboration between IT and business teams. New approaches for modeling system behaviors as processes also will improve code reuse capabilities.
9. Generative AI reshapes business processes
Generative AI is reshaping every aspect of the business. BPM can play a significant role in building better processes more aligned with business goals and stakeholder incentives. The speed and scale of generative AI are helping companies reimagine processes and workflows to take advantage of emerging technologies, said Bret Greenstein, partner and generative AI leader at PwC. Generative AI can improve workflows and specific tasks, reduce downstream work and ease process scalability. Greenstein cited a company that integrated generative AI into the front end of its business process to assess incoming requests and recommend actions that "dramatically" changed process flows and reduced the volume of requests. "BPM has historically focused so heavily on human activity and system interactions," he said, "but now it has to account for generative capabilities as well."
10. Continuous business transformation alters BPM landscape
Business transformation has traditionally focused on time-bound projects. "The BPM landscape is rapidly shifting toward capabilities that deliver continuous business transformation," said Shawn Brodersen, executive vice president and head of SAP at IT service consultancy Capgemini. Several factors are contributing to business transformation as part of a continuous and ongoing process, including the following:
- An acceleration of tool convergence digitizes and connects the business architecture to application-enabled processes -- all mapped and monitored against target business key performance indicators.
- AI is getting better at enabling process optimization, simulation and intelligent process capabilities.
- Implementing BPM capabilities when designing and building core applications makes BPM an essential part of architectural patterns.
George Lawton is a journalist based in London. Over the last 30 years, he has written more than 3,000 stories about computers, communications, knowledge management, business, health and other areas that interest him.