Business process management and its precursors have been around for decades. Over the last few years, however, the use of BPM and the tools enabling it have undergone a significant shift, buoyed by advancements in robotic process automation, process mining and low-code development platforms. Gartner has gone so far as to create a new concept called hyperautomation to characterize the cutting edge of scalable business process automation.
Although BPM is not 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 own processes are getting more automated, intelligent and user-friendly. This is 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. The greater sophistication, reach and metrics of BPM are also giving business process experts the ability to deliver more meaningful results.
What is the future of BPM?
Here are six specific ways that BPM is evolving in the enterprise.
1. Citizen-developer tools, automation drive democratization of BPM
Business process improvement -- the aim 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 Dr. Setrag Khoshafian, principal and chief scientist of Khosh Consulting and author of How to Alleviate Digital Transformation Debt. The following are those three pillars:
- First, citizen developer-centric BPM tools enable more users across the organization to identify, implement and measure ideas for process improvement with guardrails.
- Second, process automation on steroids simplifies the creation of BPM bot workers that are almost indistinguishable from human workers through intelligent process work management.
- Third, 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 make it easier for process experts to implement the appropriate guardrails for using these tools more broadly. But this is an area that still needs more work, Khoshafian cautioned.
He also expects new digital enablers, like 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 it easier to draw process diagrams and maps, but it was left up to developers to put these process designs into practice. This added delays and created problems when maps and applications got out of sync.
"BPM cannot stand alone as it has in the past," explained Dana Daher, senior research analyst in the CIO practice at Info-Tech Research Group.
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. Incorporation of BPM functionality into software platforms extends its reach
The trend toward the 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 Nucleus Research, an IT advisory service. "BPM functionality 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 have the 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 said.
4. Automated process discovery provides complete map of enterprise-wide processes
John Blankenbaker, principal data scientist at SSA & Company, a global management consulting firm, believes that the advent of automated process discovery will be the most significant advance for BPM.
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, thus 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 around, providing a complete blueprint of an organization's processes.
The offline actions of the human actors in a process still need to be discovered via traditional interviews and observations. However, 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 is helpful that most business processes are roughly similar. The most significant differences are in how 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. This will make it easier to understand how the process works and how to optimize it.
5. Adaptive process management supports agile, iterative process modeling
In the early days, business process modeling was mostly handled with simple flow diagrams. These are 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 in the revenue growth practice of Axiom Consulting Partners, leading its data science center of excellence.
For example, a customer onboarding process for an enterprise software vendor may differ depending on software configuration complexity, systems integration needs and types of users. The sequence of activities in this onboarding 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 Integration Cloud already enable users to model structured and unstructured business processes. As these same BPM systems increase in sophistication, they will also be used as an orchestration layer, calling on other applications, ranging from legacy tools to RPA software to AI or licensed applications, like ERP systems.
"This evolution in functionality will significantly improve not only the flexibility of these systems, but also the power and reach of process automation," Carroll said.
6. BPM shifts focus to systems of engagement, customer and employee experience
Early BPM efforts focused on how processes moved data to and from systems of record. Improvements in BPM capabilities will make it easier to improve processes that interact with the systems of engagement.
Anthony Macciola, chief innovation officer at Abbyy, expects that, as enterprises increasingly see customer and employee experience as a critical competitive differentiator, they will adopt BPM for dynamic monitoring of front-end processes, more so than for back-end systems.
This will improve both customer and employee experience. BPM's focus on front-end processes will continue to grow as AI, chatbots and interactive mobile applications increase the number of ways in which customers and employees interact with enterprises.