Brian O’Neill writes that software tools for the management of business processes can facilitate standardisation, while allowing for a high level of diversity in application
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Author: Brian O’Neill, director – international business development, Documatics

Process management is a term that will be familiar to the majority of readers. Mechanical, electrical, chemical and microbiological engineering processes are defined in minute detail. The majority of these are managed, in part or wholly, by well-established methodologies, using well-established and, to a large extent, standardised tools.

The world of business process management is not nearly so well defined. There are those who would argue that elements of business are so diverse due to variances in culture, legal structures, model and application; that standardisation of process and tools is very difficult. Personally, I do not subscribe to that view.

I believe we live in an exciting era of opportunity in the creation and distribution of business process-management tools that will facilitate standardisation while allowing for a high level of diversity in application.

So, what are these tools, how are they typically applied and what is driving this great opportunity to standardise? The main tools of business process management can be broken down roughly as follows, with some slight overlap in places:

  • CRM – customer relationship management;
  • Accounting and finance;
  • Purchasing;
  • HRM – human resources management;
  • RP – resource planning;
  • PP – production planning;
  • MM – maintenance management;
  • Logistics;
  • CM – content management.

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SPECIALISED SUB-SYSTEMS

There are also a multitude of specialised sub-systems which are industry specific and fall under these broad categories. However, when one examines these systems closely, it becomes obvious that the tools being used and the processes to which they are being applied have common characteristics. Examples include:

  • User identification, validation and management;
  • They all define entities to be managed. For example: CRM – prospects, leads, opportunities, accounts, campaigns and contacts; Accounting – purchases, sales and accounts; Purchasing – suppliers, vendors and sub-vendors; HRM – departments, employees, agents, contractors, training and holidays; MM – items of plant, projects, specialist human resources, scheduling and suppliers
  • Template forms and documents;
  • Communication;
  • Process definition;
  • Designation and assignment of the roles of individuals within the process;
  • Scheduling of people and resources;
  • Monitoring and escalation;
  • Requirement for traceability, audit and reporting to meet the demands of security, regulatory compliance and decision support;
  • Archiving requirements.

Traditionally, software tools have been hard wired to the specific requirements of the industry and the process being managed, even to the terms and colloquialisms of the firm and local culture. This even applied to platform systems such as SAP and other enterprise systems.

While understandable and even desirable in some cases, this has led to rigidity in the nature of implemented information systems, which struggle to cope with the rapid change and evolution of business requirements in what has effectively become a global economy.

Modern business is all about responding to ever-increasing competition by constantly innovating and reducing costs through increased efficiency. By its nature, this demands information systems which can be quickly deployed, are pliable, easy to use, easy to access from anywhere, easy to integrate with, highly scalable, highly reliable and not prohibitive in price.

For these reasons, various technologies have emerged that supply the foundations on which solutions that meet these demands can be based, including internet distribution technologies and infrastructure that are collectively known as the ‘cloud’.

BUSINESS PROCESS SOLUTION

So how would one go about devising a business process solution around the requirements outlined above? Again, there are several strategies. The one I describe here is the approach that Documatics has taken, which has proved very effective when deploying to customers such as General Electric, Suncorp Bank, the Medical Council of Ireland, Coca Cola and over 400 others around the world.

Microsoft.Net was chosen as the underlying platform technology. This was a brave decision, given that this was quite a new and unproven architecture at the time. However, the fact that Microsoft owned 80% of the business market with its operating systems and office tools, and that .Net was laying the foundation for a move towards web-based technologies, seemed to make it a risk worth taking.

Microsoft SQL Server was chosen as the back-end database technology, again because of its proliferation and increasing reputation as an able and cost effective competitor to Oracle and others. Furthermore, using another Microsoft technology provided a unified overall platform.

Figure 1: Legal Evolve high-level architecture example

C# was chosen as the programming language because of its good object-oriented design, lending itself to the development of a robust, configurable business process layer via XML schemas. In addition to these technologies, third-party libraries provided further functionality and supported the distributed architecture we wanted to achieve.

Pictured is an example of a deployment of the Evolve Platform configured as an Office Administration application with remote offices and users (Figure 1).

We have combined these technologies to provide a very powerful set of business process tools that are not hard wired to the purpose to which they are being applied. These include:

  • Matter/case/project entity management;
  • Document management – full check/in check/out, revision, comparison and audit controls;
  • Workflow engine – to impose sophisticated, multi-branching, nested process management flows with roles and process controls, including auto escalations, task, appointment and document generation;
  • Libraries – multiple client-defined precedent, template document and forms libraries with pre-tagged documents that auto populate relevant information from meta-data;
  • Document generator – employing a user-friendly interface to allow the user to select and arrange documents to be included in the document generation request. The document generator will raster-in the selected documents (from multiple formats such as .Docx, PDF, JPEG and Xlsx) in the order selected, applying a configurable cover page, table of contents and pagination in the process;
  • Contacts and client-entity management;
  • Auto time recording and tracking;
  • Individual and shared diary management;
  • Data-driven flexible reporting modules;
  • Call logs;
  • Mobility modules;
  • Risk-management module – this allows for the creation and manipulation of meta-data and content to raise alerts or initiate risk management workflows defined by the client. It also supports compliancy and regulatory audit requirements in any process.

The architecture described in conjunction with many years of clever and sophisticated software programming has delivered a technology that allows Documatics to create a highly customised solution for any market or client that needs to tame and control a vital business process.

Currently, we have productised the platform for the legal industry (corporate and high street) with Legal Evolve™; corporate HR has TimeValue Evolve©; the insolvency industry is best suited to PIP Evolve©; and general office environment utilises Office Evolve™.

We continue to follow new opportunities for the platform. Applications are as diverse as managing all child adoptions taking place in Cook County, Illinois; managing ‘death row’ cases in the Office of the Public Defender in California; time tracking for a major drinks firm; and managing over 400 diverse and specialised legal firms around the world.

MOVE TOWARDS STANDARDISATION

So, what is driving this move towards standardisation? In brief, it is the confluence of the continuing consolidation of a global business market, where even the local specialist baker can have an international client and supplier base.

The emergence of Internet SaaS (Software as a Service), PaaS (Platform as a Service) and IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) technologies also plays a vital role. These allow standardised software platforms and applications to reach a far greater user base thereby promoting standardisation. In addition, increased user numbers using standardised technologies on a global basis promotes standardisation of terms and conditions.

Finally, the need to achieve greater business efficiency without the enormous capital expenditure that typified these systems in the past is also influential.

I believe that in the future, business will be able to draw down via the internet a standardised set of tools for any internal process challenge (i.e. accounts, HR, sales, production planning) that have features like those described above. They will be able to configure them quickly and easily to their own needs and, most importantly, pay for them as a service from their operational budget.

How much they pay will be linked to how much they use – not the depth of their pockets. The fly in the ointment will be a tendency towards monolithic providers and reduction of choice, in much the same way as the utility electricity system evolved in the last century. The good news from a business point of view is that it will be so much easier to get things done.

http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Software-1024x755.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Software-300x300.jpgDavid O'RiordanTechsoftware
  Author: Brian O’Neill, director – international business development, Documatics Process management is a term that will be familiar to the majority of readers. Mechanical, electrical, chemical and microbiological engineering processes are defined in minute detail. The majority of these are managed, in part or wholly, by well-established methodologies, using well-established...