Two years ago, LexisNexis realized that its ability to serve new Web-based customers was severely strained. Thousands of small and midsize law firms represented a huge business opportunity for the company’s legal-information services, but they often had to wait 48 hours to have their Web accounts activated after signing up. For smaller firms seeking to buy documents in small quantities, often to apply to pending cases, such a delay was intolerable.
Clearly, LexisNexis needed to revamp its customer sign-up and order-fulfillment processes, which were designed for large law firms and the ordering of hardcover legal tomes. But instead of spending millions on a massive new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, LexisNexis chose a somewhat unorthodox and unproven route: by reworking some key workflows to require fewer manual tasks and installing a new kind of software (from Intalio Inc.) that choreographs the activities of several existing back-office systems, it was able to get new Web accounts running in a matter of minutes.
Equally important, though, is that the so-called business process management (BPM) software that made this speed-up possible is spurring changes within Lexis-Nexis that any company would welcome. Thanks to powerful new modeling tools that can fully describe even the most complex business processes, company executives report, the IT department is working more closely than ever with business-unit managers. Contention and misunderstanding are giving way to avid collaboration. Indeed, business managers themselves are fine-tuning important processes virtually on the fly, with only minimal involvement by the IT department.
“In my view, if there’s a business process,” says Allan McLaughlin, senior vice president and CIO of LexisNexis, “it’s the business department that owns it, and IT’s role in it should be transparent.”
That’s a goal, of course, for which many executives have been aiming ever since consultants Michael Hammer and James Champy began urging Corporate America more than a decade ago to start identifying and reengineering its most critical business processes. But reengineering called for a slash-and-burn approach, using automation to eliminate massive amounts of manual work. BPM, in contrast, emphasizes the monitoring and fine-tuning of business processes, as such becoming a critical business process in itself.
Howard Smith, CTO (Europe) at Computer Sciences Corp. and co-author of Business Process Management: The Third Wave, sees BPM (which should not be confused with business performance management, an emerging approach to financial analytics) as the very basis for most future enterprise software. Today’s ERP and customer-management systems, Smith says, are splendid at manipulating data, but they tend to embody a single business process. By focusing on BPM techniques, however, it will be possible to create highly malleable applications that can be quickly and safely altered to handle a broad range of processes.
For example, the process of managing a sales campaign necessarily varies depending on industry, product, type of customer, and at what step in the campaign each customer happens to be. That calls for a level and kind of flexibility that packaged software often lacks. Today’s BPM software can modify existing applications to make them more flexible; down the road, it may be built into many different types of software, providing new flexibility as a matter of course.