Impact Keynote: Agility in an Era of Change

Today’s keynote was focused on customers and how they improving their processes in order to become more agile, reduce costs and become more competitive in the marketplace. After a talk and intro by Carrie Lee, business news correspondent and WSJ columnist, Beth Smith and Shanker Ramamurthy of IBM hosted Richard Ward of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Rick Goldgar of the Texas Education Agency and Justin Snoxall of Visa Europe.

The message from yesterday continued: process is king, and is at the heart of any business improvement. This isn’t just traditional structured process management, but social and contextual capabilities, ad hoc and dynamic tasks, and interactions across the business network. As they pointed out, dynamic processes don’t lead to chaos: they deliver consistent outcomes in goal-oriented knowledge work. First of all, there are usually structured portions of any process, whether that forms the overarching framework from which collaborations are launched, or whether structured subprocesses are spawned from an unstructured dynamic process. Secondly, monitoring and controls still exist, like guardrails around your dynamic process to keep it from running off the road.

The Lombardi products are getting top billing again here today, with Blueprint (now IBM BPM Blueprint, which is a bit of a mouthful) positioned as a key collaborative process discovery and modeling tool. There’s not much new in Blueprint since the Lombardi days except for a bit of branding; in other words, it remains a solid and innovative way for geographically (and temporally) separated participants to collaborate on process discovery. Blueprint has far better capabilities than other online process discovery tools, but they are going to need to address the overlap – whether real or perceived – with the free process discovery tools including IBM BlueWorks, ARISalign, InterstageBPM and others.

Smith gave a brief demo of Blueprint, which is probably a first view for many of the people in the audience based on the tweets that I’m seeing. Ramamurthy stepped in to point out that processes are part of your larger business network: that’s the beauty of tools like Blueprint, which allow people in different companies to collaborate on a hosted web application. And since Lombardi has been touting their support of BPMN 2.0 since last September, it’s no surprise that they can exchange process models between Blueprint and process execution engines – not the full advantages of a completely model-driven environment with a shared repository, but a reasonable bridge between a hosted modeling tool and an on-premise execution tool.

As you get into demanding transaction processing applications, however, Smith discussed WebSphere Process Server as their industrial-strength offering for handling high volumes of transactions. What’s unclear is where the Lombardi Edition (formerly TeamWorks) will fit as WPS builds out its human-centric capabilities, creating more of an overlap between these process execution environments. A year ago, I would have said that TeamWorks and WPS fit together with a minimum of overlap; now, there is a more significant overlap, and based on the WPS direction, there will be more in the future. IBM is no longer applying the “departmental” label to Lombardi, but I’m not sure that they really understand how to make these two process execution engines either work together with a minimum of overlap, or merge into a single system. Or maybe they’re just not telling.

It’s not just about process, however: there’s also predictive analytics and using real-time information to monitor and adjust processes, leveraging business rules and process optimization to improve processes. They talked about infusing processes with points of agility through the use/integration of rules, collaboration, content and more. As great as this sounds, this isn’t just one product, or a seamlessly-integrated suite: we’re back to the issue that I discussed with Angel Diaz yesterday, where IBM’s checklist for customers to decide which BPM products that they need will inevitably end up with multiple selections.

The session ended up with the IBM execs and all three customers being interviewed by Carrie Lee; as a skilled interviewer who has obviously done her homework, this had a good flow with a reasonable degree of interaction between the panelists. The need for business-controlled rules was stressed as a way to provide more dynamic control of processes to the business; in general, a more agile approach was seen as a way to reduce implementation time and make the systems more flexible in the face of changing business needs. Ward (from BCBS) said that they had to focus on keeping BPM as a key process improvement methodology, rather than just using TeamWorks as another application development tool, and recommended not going live with a BPMS without metrics for you to understand the benefits. That sounds like good advice for any organization finding themselves going down the rabbit hole of BPMS application development when they really need to focus on their processes.

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