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New software enables business managers to fine-tune important processes virtually on the fly, with only minimal involvement by the IT department.

And that’s just the beginning. New software, called a process engine, is designed to keep track of every document and transaction involved and make sure different computers exchange the right data. The great benefit of this approach is that simply changing the high-level process model can automatically reprogram the process itself, perhaps expanding its capacity or rejiggering a few of its underlying business rules. In this way, BPM could make the enterprise itself a programmable entity, ready to turn on a dime to meet every new challenge.

In theory, anyway. For now, companies may be satisfied knowing that a tweak to a given process doesn’t have to entail a technological headache as systems are retooled.

Hammer Time Again?

It was exactly 10 years ago that Michael Hammer, with his best-selling book Reengineering the Corporation, put Corporate America on notice about the vital importance of business processes. Until then, processes within corporations were more a subject for business-school theorizing than boardroom strategizing. But with Reengineering, Hammer not only contributed new words to business jargon (while raising the bar for the sale of business books), he and co-author James Champy also managed to persuade thousands of managers to recognize and rethink complex, cross-functional processes like order-to-cash, for example.

Hammer, still writing about and preaching the benefits of process-centric management, is mostly enthused by all the talk these days about business process management (BPM). Much of it builds on his original thinking. “Technology is now available that enables companies to do things with their processes that they really couldn’t do 5 or 10 years ago,” he says. “Technology is an important enabler of real BPM.”

Hammer worries, however, that new technology is dominating the BPM discussion and distracting managers from the deep cultural changes that are needed. “I think of BPM as a way to run a business that focuses on end-to-end business processes,” he says. BPM is not, he states, simply the installation of a process-modeling tool or new software that watches the flow of documents around an organization.

He is particularly dismissive of claims, heard mainly from certain providers of advanced BPM technology, that software is now at hand that can automatically translate a high-level description of some business process into executable code. He grants that modeling tools are better than ever and that “they can’t hurt,” but they cannot capture, much less overcome, the most important obstacles to process efficiency — the boundaries between departments of a company, “where managers typically try to hold on to their authority,” he says.

“There is a burgeoning [BPM] software arena,” concedes Hammer, “and I think it does give more impetus to real process work.” But new technology as the sole source of processes that are more measurable, manageable, or malleable? “I’m not holding my breath,” he says. “BPM initiatives need to be elevated above the nether reaches of IT and made more strategic and backed with upper management’s commitment to true process thinking.”


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