BPM Futures

Where are the Process Apps?

Recently reading that 2011 is to be the Year of the App Store,  I visited some App Stores to look for BPM Apps. The results start by unearthing some real BPM Apps and conclude with a vision of the App Store as a whole new paradigm for BPM.

You’ll be amazed to read that there are currently 134 BPM Apps for the iPhone alone, and equally disappointed to learn that nearly all of these relate to music (beats per minute). One of the features of today’s App Stores* is that their search and filter features are remarkably limited considering that a successful search is intended – presumably – to conclude with a sale.  Is there ever going to be a better business case for additional features? Anyway, I digress…

As the table below shows, the type of BPM App best represented in the App Stores I visited could be described as a ‘BPM Participation App’, that is, an App that acts as a client to a remote BPM server allowing the user to start and track cases, and complete work items from an Inbox. Note that the table is simply the result of myself as a ‘mystery shopper’ visiting these stores (which included an Australian filter in some cases) – there may be other BPM vendors with an iPad story (for example), but they just weren’t in evidence in the store on the week that I looked.

BPM Apps Table

(click to enlarge)


Leaving aside the final two (which I’ll come back to), the list is interesting in that it includes few BPM household names.  Metastorm is the obvious exception, with an iPad/iPhone client provided by partner BTI’s Nymbul product. Software AG is also there via IDS Scheer, whose APG product is an iPad/iPhone front end to the ARIS Business Server/Process Governance framework (albeit a ‘Preview’ release).

Of the others, Activiti deserves a special mention because it is advertised as being entirely free of charge, including the open source BPM server. Also SPM Workflow, a Taiwanese product that not only has a wonderfully original graphical audit trail, with each step apparently a gatehouse on the Great Wall of China, but also has the first new original and useful native feature I’ve seen for a while (maybe I don’t get out enough) – a manual reminder function. So if you look at the audit trail and see the case is stuck with Jim, you just select the ‘Reminder’ button and a message is shot off telling him to get a move on!

Most importantly all of these require that you host a BPM server before you’ll get any business benefit from the App.

The final two on the list, Cordys and RunMyProcess are different. Each of these is a complete BPM system, cloud-based and accessed through a web browser. They may not be Apps in a technical sense (no download required) but they certainly are in the sense of this article – they are distributed (amongst other channels, no doubt) through the Google Apps Marketplace site, where access can be purchased immediately, on a per user basis.

Cordys is relatively well-known to BPMers and, like Metastorm, features in the Gartner 2010 BPM Magic Quadrant Report. RunMyProcess doesn’t, though its web site states that it was designated a Gartner ‘Cool Vendor’ in 2009, and it certainly looks intriguing. These two are quite clearly not the only cloud-based BPM products out there (Blueworks Live and Tibco Silver come to mind). But if you go shopping at your local App Store, Cordys and RunMyProcess are what you’ll find.

As I understand it, their target market is any organisation, big or small, private or public sector, that wants to build and manage its own processes without actually investing in their own BPM platform. This is essentially the traditional BPM market, expanded down towards SMEs that could not previously afford the upfront investment that BPM has tended to require.

Moving on from this list, what interested me most were the first hints of ‘Process Apps’. Process Apps (my term, as far as I know, but hopefully useful) being self-contained Apps that provide a service to the consumer, with the service actually – or at least potentially – fulfilled through a BPM platform.

For example, a PR professional or copywriter could define and offer a process that combined the manual task of writing a press release with automated updates of the PR (or variants on it) into a range of social networking media. This Process App could be published through an App Store as ‘One Hour PR’, priced at, say, $99.  The potential for adding human tasks to this type of process will expand significantly as service marketplaces, such as eLance, start to provide BPM-compatible services and plug-ins.

So far I’ve found just two examples of Process Apps, both for Insurance Claims (in the iPhones store, search ‘insurance’) – ‘Just Car Insurance iClaim’, and ‘nib Health Insurance’ each support insurance claims through their App. Now I have no way of knowing whether these particular Apps pass off the claim to a claims process in a BPMS or to a dedicated Claims system, or to a hive of busy worker bees using pencils and paper. However, the principle is clearly there – the App, which is provided free of charge, provides the entry point to a remote process with great potential for value-adds (Just Car iClaims provides info on local tow truck services, for example, and case tracking would be an obvious add-on).

Of course ‘insurance claim’ is a classic example of an ‘enterprise’ process, in the sense of scale – if you can afford to underwrite insurance policies, you can probably afford your own BPM system, cloud-based or otherwise.

The individual or small company offering the ‘PR Process’ mentioned earlier would most certainly not have these resources, though. For such an organisation cloud-based BPM is a necessity. And, importantly, it is not sufficient.

The gap in the market today appears to be for a BPM App (provided by a SaaS BPM Platform Provider, perhaps like Cordys or RunMyProcess) that encourages small developers to sign up with a view to developing and reselling their own ‘Process Apps’. Such ‘Process App Developers’  won’t be integrating with an Insurance Policy or ERP system, but they will join simple human services with existing consumer SaaS applications to deliver new, better and above all cheaper business processes, particularly for SMEs.

The benefits from this will flow mainly to the end consumer. In the same way that much software that would previously have been boxed and sold for, say, $20-$50 is now available in App Stores for $4.99, there is no reason why business processes should not provide similar economies of scale. And the profits of the successful Process Apps will be shared by the App Store, the BPM Platform Provider and the Process App Developer.

To support this, App Store owners and BPM Platform Providers will need to combine forces to allow the Process App Developer to

  • Easily publish his or her Process App in one or many App Stores where it may be accessed by individual consumers. This means the BPM Platform Provider developing a ‘Process App Publication’ BPM App for iOS4 (for example) that supports such publication functionality, underpinned by an appropriate commercial agreement with the App Store owner (eg  Apple), if necessary.
  • Easily invoke, and where necessary pay for, third party services called from the Process App. This is means not only providing uniform and very easily used technical interfaces, but also a marketplace in which to buy them, including on a per use basis. In the ‘Web Services Department’ of the App Store, perhaps?
  • Easily publish the Process App as a service that may itself be called by other Process App Developers, in the same ‘Web Services Department’.

Combining the traditional BPM virtues of ease of process build** with new App Store publication and subscription functionality will encourage and support a whole new world of competing micro-processes, benefiting all involved parties.

If 2011 is to be the Year of the App Store, will 2012 be the Year of the Process App?

* In researching this article I used iTunes to search the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPad; Zune for the Windows Phone; Ovi Store for Nokia Apps; Chrome App Store and Google Apps Marketplace for the web. I was unable to access many Android Apps via the Android Market site because this requires an Android handset. If anyone can suggest any other Tier 1 app stores, I’d be interested to hear about them.

** I repeated the word ‘Easily’ four times in the previous bullets deliberately – I believe that the platforms that will really succeed in this new mass market in Process App Development will probably re-think process definition usability. A great example of making the complex easy that is completely unrelated to BPM – have you ever wanted to create animated films? Too hard? Well first check out this fun animation on the topic of Quantitative Easing, and then the site that allows you to build one like it. If you have 30 minutes to spare, that’s how long it will take you to create your first film. XtraNormal has an interesting approach to monetising the service for developers, with a contractual solution for commercial film makers apparently in the pipeline.

Back to basics – why use a BPM system?

January in Sydney tends to be a quiet month for business, only really coming to life after Australia Day on the 26th. From the 4th onwards there is a gradual return to workplaces that are abuzz with new projects, new sales opportunities, new marketing campaigns, all scheduled to start towards month end or early February. As a result, energy levels of those at work tend to be higher and minds – less stressed than usual, perhaps – a little more open to reflection. So, with that audience in mind, here is a blog about the bedrock of BPM systems (BPMS), and indeed BPM in general, that is, the reason why any business should bother to use it.

The benefits of using a BPMS can be summarised as:

  • Higher productivity
  • Faster process times (eg end to end)
  • An order of magnitude improvement in process transparency/visibility
  • An entry point to a virtuous circle of process understanding, improvement and execution
  • Better control over the process (eg through the use of embedded business rules)
  • Improved job satisfaction for operational staff using the system

Of these the most significant – in terms of both impact and universality – is undoubtedly process visibility. Businesses that lack a BPMS – or alternatively core or ERP software that fully encompasses their business processes – are like vehicles driven in a thick fog. Data about the past is patchy and unreliable, data about today incomplete and highly reliant upon personal observation, and data about the future seriously compromised.  (‘Data about the future’ can be both hard – today’s backlog, how much work is in pending and when it falls due – and relatively soft, for example resource forecasting based upon historic productivity data). Most obviously true of operations teams, this extends further into customer interaction. For example, without accurate end-to-end process times there is little chance of understanding the customer experience except by analysing complaints.

Whilst senior business managers can be passionate in demanding visibility, Boards can demand more. IT investments do not always produce a return and, to continue the fog analogy, we may not be able to see much out the windows but we’ve got this far OK, there is some rear and side vision, and the future’s always going to be largely uncertain.

Which is where the higher productivity benefit comes in handy. Higher productivity in the operations teams can pay for the initial project and the ongoing IT costs, whilst the benefits arising from enhanced visibility (tightly focussed process improvement in operations lowering costs, better informed product development and customer service increasing revenue) are spread across the business.

Some productivity benefits pretty much come with the territory – work distribution, management of pended/diarised work and enquiry handling are all areas where the BPMS will automate previously manual tasks, delivering benefits pretty much by default. Other areas like load balancing (between teams or individuals), exception handling (eg duplicate requests) and re-work management can take a little more work to achieve results. Hard benefits from these and other BPMS features are commonly augmented through add-ons such as automated outgoing document management and integration with core systems, which – whilst initially adding to project costs – can be relied on to provide further productivity improvements.

Faster process cycle times, particularly end-to-end times, routinely arise from a BPMS implementation. Naturally, additional focus and effort can drive further improvement. Where tiered service levels are required, the BPMS can use prioritisation to ensure that outcomes are optimised – something that can be especially hard to achieve where processing is manual.

Process control may be a more or less compelling reason to use a BPMS, and may mean high-end technical control and/or regulatory control. Running business processes through a BPMS will prove to the regulator – and to other stakeholders – that the process has been followed in a specific case (through the audit trail), and is followed in general (through sharing the process definition). Automating business rules will ensure 100% compliance with those rules that are automated and typically will make it harder for a careless or rogue employee to break others. It will also provide control where a – highly automated – process must happen so fast that people are no longer able to participate except on exception, that is, straight through processing.

And improved job satisfaction? Well, whilst rarely at the heart of the business case, the evident satisfaction of employees in receiving better tools for their work certainly makes change management that much easier. And doesn’t everyone want happier employees?

OK – that’s it. Your revision for the day is complete. And as a reward, here is my favourite viral video of the holiday – the Brooklyn Space Program. Any connection with BPM? Just inspiration from their ambition and ingenuity, and perhaps aspiration that we could achieve as much with so little. Maybe we need to recruit some younger project team members?