BPM Futures

Let data make that process dance

I was recently discussing BPM agility with a senior IT manager, when the topic of configuration files came up. “Many of my colleagues don’t like them” he said “we have hundreds of them, and they don’t like changing them because they don’t know what the consequences will be”.

It’s easy to smile at this, but practically all guardians of customised systems are in a similar position. The reason that I’m writing about it is because config files (or config data, to generalise) can be a powerful way to drive change to BPM systems if used correctly, because data can be significantly easier to change and deploy than code.

What sort of data might one want to externalise in order to improve BPM agility? A few examples:

  • Field labels
  • Text to be included in reports/alerts
  • Route/path ids and sub-process ids (to permit config-driven re-routing)
  • Data relating to rules (‘if value of loan > $1000 then’ will obviously be more flexible if the value – $1000 – is a variable) if the rules are not already externalised through a rules engine (which would be better still).
  • Data that drives which cases/process instances should adopt changed config values. Should changed values be picked up by closed or archived cases? Should they only apply to new cases, or cases with particular characteristics?

As the last point suggests, there is an important system design aspect to this, regarding when config data should be (re-)read and how much granularity is required to control change impact.

And of course, the data to be held will vary widely, depending both on the business processes and the BPMS used.

For this data driven approach to deliver significant improvements to BPM agility the mechanisms used must be thoroughly tested – part of ‘Agility Testing’. Unless one can be confident that changes to the config data will result in predictable outcomes, abstracting it will provide few benefits, since changes will once more need to be system tested, delaying deployment.

One significant source of comfort for the hard-pressed project manager is that Agility Testing can be carried out after the initial go-live. Not perfect, obviously, but a promise that ‘the system will become easier to change after the second deployment’ will put you ahead of many BPM solutions.

So are config files, as such, the best way of delivering the config data into production? Well, no. Config files are hard to add CRUD functions to (and so are often edited in Notepad – easy to make a mistake) and must be deployed (albeit it’s a very simple deployment).

Using a relational database (RDBMS) helps a lot, in terms of basic validation, and if already in use on your project it will be easy to piggyback on existing or planned resilience and recovery features. However, without a user interface (UI), the standard method of changing an RDBMS is via a stored procedure (for audit and repeatability reasons) and this, once more, will require testing and deployment.

A custom UI would be best. It needn’t be pretty – it will only be used by Admin users or Prod Support so some shortcuts may be possible in terms of corporate standards. However, it will need to be able to provide Read/Update (possibly Create/Delete) functions for quite an assortment of data, so some extendable way to segment the data, such as tabbing, will help. Most importantly it must include an audit log and, ideally, a function that will import an existing audit log, making the changes included.

The reason for the audit log import is procedural. Even though no technical issues should arise from changes made via the UI, there is still potential for the Business to have erred in their change request. So an initial deployment into a User Acceptance Test (UAT) environment may well be required. The UI may be used to directly change the UAT config data – indeed this should be so easy that it could be done with a business representative alongside. Once the Business is satisfied with the result, the audit log can be deployed into Production and run against the Production UI (as an import) with no further testing required, since the resulting Production changes will necessarily be identical to those in UAT.

The BPM project steering committee will need to assess the value of this sort of approach, since it clearly involves a cost. The degree to which config data can be used to drive agility in a BPM solution will vary, as will the value that the Business places on it.

And of course all of this works best within an A-BPM (Agile BPM – here today, Gartner tomorrow!) development framework.

Happy trails…