Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SMBs and the BPM vendors' dirty little secret

What's the hidden trend in the business process market? Targeting the benefits of business process management at small and medium sized businesses (SMBs). I strongly believe that the SMB market is underserved by the traditional BPM suite vendors, because their business models don't allow, and because they have industry analyst rankings to chase. This is a shame, as in my opinion there SMB market for real process improvement ranges up to a level of $250 million companies. Not so small really.

One of the big issues with traditional BPM software is just too expensive, or the cheaper stuff requires just too much custom software development to be appealing to mid-sized businesses. BPM tries to be 'everything to everybody', rather than 'enough for you'. It is impossible to build a generic suite that doesn't need a huge investment in custom software development to glue it together in any way you want.

Want to know the dirty little secret that really proves this point? If it was truly easy to deploy BPM, why is it so rare for BPM vendors to install their own software in-house. Is it too big and complex for what they really need, and they can't free up the resources to do the work? Or maybe it doesn't offer them the value to justify the effort?

Brian Reale has an article on ebizQ today that talks about business process improvement, or workflow, from an SMB perspective, and his thoughts mirror mine:
Every business manager instinctively knows which processes are inefficient, and probably has a vision of how they ought to work in an ideal world. But there's also a sense that a lot of effort would be required to make this happen. Three-letter acronyms such as 'BPM' recall other three-letter acronyms, such as ‘ERP’, conjuring up unappealing thoughts of expensive, months-long implementation projects.

Brian goes on to list six items that are important points to pay attention to when selecting a product for your new workflow implementations. I do feel that these are very much centered on what his open source product offers, though we all skew our writing to our products, so he is forgiven for a couple of the points. The two that I can really buy into though are these:
1) Flexibility. Choose a tool that lets you create the documents and processes that you need, rather than one that requires you to change your ways to fit with what it provides. For example, does it let you create, edit and format your own forms, or does it just provide standard forms templates?
4) Ease of Use. A workflow automation tool should not require specialist technical skills to operate. Look for one that’s easy and intuitive to use and that can get you up and running quickly without extensive user training. If it’s a web-based tool, make sure it’s properly architected for a web environment, and not just an old client/server package with a web front end. Check that help and support are easily obtainable.
If these truly are features of his product he has picked well, as I believe they are essential for SMBs, so companies don't have to spend more on implementation than the product itself. Also, Brian's points do help to guide buyers away from Big Blue's, 'this is not really an IBM product, so don't run away' web-based offerings; and the other enterprise software vendors out there doing the same thing with infrastructure products with a little lipstick.

I have been working on some similar concepts for a product that is inherently easy to get up and running. Consected is an online (SaaS) system that helps businesses of any size to run and automate workflows and business processes that help their employees to improve the way they deliver, organize, find and escalate work without requiring a complex software to be developed or installed.

Consected, and Brian's company, Colosa, have similar aims for their customers. Ease of use, flexibility and a cost that can be stomached by SMBs. Beyond that, I'm sure we are very different, but that's a good thing. There is room for everyone in the vast SMB market that the traditional vendors choose to ignore.

A post from the Improving It blog

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Bank branches are only good for one thing. Closing your account.

The Bankwatch blog had an interesting post this week: Survey shows shift in consumer preference away from visiting bank branches. I'm sure that there are many ways you can slice and dice the data, though I have some feeling that although this is not just about bank behavior, much of it is their own making.

The reducing number of people using branches is probably a reflection of the rate of transactions in all retail outlets. If there are less people pounding the pavement to go shopping, its likely that they'll also not be walking in to a bank.

There is also a bank MO that comes into play: trying to lock me in to their services. For example, when a bank insists I perform certain transactions in person (Citizens, when I want to withdraw a CD for example) that could be done by phone or Internet (ok, phone if their online banking system sucks), I tend to close ALL my accounts. If I'm going to make the effort of going to the branch, I'm going to make sure that I close everything, all in one go. Restrictive practices do not lock me in, they make me feel trapped and resentful.

I wonder how many people feel the same way, and whether that number is growing as the generation of kids who only know a 24/7 online world start earning cash that is deposited directly to their bank account. Why on earth would they want to deal with a 1970's style institution that insists they stand in line in a branch, waiting for someone to assist them. Unlikely, when even calling a call center in Mumbai, being in line is no worse than having to listen to crappy muzak and catching up on some Facebook or Twitter time.

Some banks seem to have it right: Bank of America, despite have an expansive branch network has started to say that certain transactions can only be done online. Which is good, as their online service is well thought out, and works well. (Its a shame you have to be a US citizen to open an account with them, even when you already hold an account, but that's not effecting much of their customer base I'm sure.)

Citizens Bank, maybe they're suffering from old school Scottish banking thinking. Plus they need systems and workflows to manage transactions that are not completed there and then by a teller in a branch. Nothing fancy, but enough to get the job done (contact me - online - I can help you!). Citizens, and likely many other banks, need to think about transitioning to an online only world, or just shutting their old-fashioned doors for good.

A post from the Improving It blog

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When Business Process Management (BPM) is a waste of time

The great selling point of business process management (BPM) technology is that it will boost the efficiency of your operations, reduce waste and provide visibility. Or some other combination of appealing words. This can be true, to varying degrees, largely dependent on the actual business problems that need to be solved and how much of a mess the business is in already. After many years around process and workflow software, I'm coming to the conclusion that there are two styles of business improvement / workflow / process project requirements:

  1. BPM automation
  2. Everything else

If you have a business improvement project, you probably only should use BPM tools if you are absolutely focused on automation and systems integration, rather than enabling the interactions of people. Otherwise it seems like a misplaced investment. Let me dive into this a little more, so you can see what I mean.

1. BPM automation
When it becomes more important that the process runs without fault or error every time, and can be represented as rules and logic, then putting a person in the middle of it is naturally going to fail. We've all had rough Monday mornings, or Friday afternoons where we just want to leave for the weekend. People have not evolved over the millennia to make perfect decisions in an office environment. But they are great for decisions that require judgement, intuition, intelligence, or where the work being done is not valuable enough to require the investment to achieve complete automation.

If you're going to make the huge investment to try and codify your current human-run business processes with BPM tools, you often should consider cutting out the middle-man (literally). See what can be done to move the manual intervention out to the edges of the process. Let people handle the 5% of really complex stuff, the errors, the escalations, reading and data entry of scrawled correspondence, and the touchy-feely customer services - the things that machines can't do. Let the BPM tools process the work 'staight-through' wherever it is possible, making perfect decisions in split-seconds, finishing the process with an automatic update of another system, or throwing a really complex case to an intelligent worker.

2. Everything else
In my opinion, most human-to-human BPM solutions (i.e. those that move work from one human worker to another) end up becoming glorified collaboration tools with a few rules scattered around. Most of the time and effort involved in implementation of new BPM solutions becomes a matter of working out how to make the workflow flexible enough to meet the many interactions that real people in real offices must perform to get work done.

Go ahead, remove the waste from that process you want to improve (I agree that is important), but don't get too tied up in trying to map it out and enforce the new process at every little interaction, because frankly, if you feel you need to do that you probably need to reconsider your use of humans in the process.

Projects that fit the 'Everything else' bucket can be nicely categorized. Typically they
  1. do not warrant the huge investment and effort required for full automation, but do still need improving
  2. can not be automated, because people absolutely have to be in the middle of the work

If you have a project that fits either or both of these categories, consider using a tool that is better suited to the type of work that is being done. BPM is probably not it. Find a tool that does not require 3 months of wasted time analyzing how to improve human interactions, before actually delivering anything. In short, consider tools that are designed for humans: out of the box solutions that do what you need already; work management tools designed for human workflows; collaborative and case management tools that provide structure around an otherwise unstructured set of operations.

If you want to improve your business but don't want to completely automate it, select a tool that assists people in doing their jobs, not one that is actually designed to prevent workers from doing the many things that need to be done.

A post from the Improving It blog

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