BPM is a management approach focused on aligning all aspects of an organisation with the wants and needs of customers. It is a holistic management approach that promotes business effectiveness and efficiency while striving for innovation, flexibility and integration with technology. Business Process Management attempts to improve processes continuously. (As with many aspects of performance improvement it is difficult to resist the comparison here between the Western toolset and that of the Japanese kaizen culture.) It is argued that BPM enables organisations to be more efficient, more effective and more capable of change than a functionally focused, traditional, hierarchical management approach.

As a managerial approach, BPM considers processes to be strategic assets of an organisation that must be understood, managed, and improved to deliver value-added products and services to customers. This foundation is very similar to other Total Quality Management or Continuous Improvement Process methodologies or approaches. BPM goes a step further by stating that this approach can be supported, or enabled, through technology to ensure the viability of the managerial approach in times of stress and change. In fact, BPM is an approach to integrate a ‘change capability’ into an organisation – both human and technological. As such, many BPM articles and pundits often discuss BPM from one of two viewpoints: people and/or technology.

Note that in the IT community, the term 'business process management' is often used as synonymous with management of middleware processes, i.e. workflow, or integrating application software tasks. This viewpoint is restrictive and this should be kept in mind when reading software engineering papers that refer to 'business processes' or 'business process modelling'.

BPM can be used to understand organisations through expanded views that would not otherwise be available to organise and present. These views include the relationships of processes to each other which, when included in the process model, provide for advanced reporting and analysis that would not otherwise be available. BPM is regarded by some as the backbone of enterprise content management.

Because BPM allows organisations to extract business process from technology infrastructure, it goes far beyond simply automating business processes. BPM enables business to respond to changing consumer, market, and regulatory demands faster than competitors - creating competitive advantage.

Business process management activities can be grouped into five steps: design, modelling, execution, monitoring, and optimisation.

BPM has been particularly adopted by the software industry, keen to sell products which purport to ‘help organisations manage their processes’ i.e. BPM systems.  When BPM was first introduced it was totally misleading but now the software capability (often described as middleware) to make this effective does exist. In practice the business process is modelled and presented to the end-user in a flexible and easy-to-use method which provides the required data to the different underlying operational systems and facilitates the management reviews and approvals required.

For example, corporate Human Resources can benefit significantly from a BPM system when they seek to introduce a new recruitment system in a large retailer. The Store Manager in Coventry can still use the recruitment process (or alternatively be guided by the BPM software through an improved process) with which he is familiar but the information required will go into the new system (rather than the old), approvals by the Regional Manager can be controlled, alerts provided to the Store Manager, and all without any significant new system training! Also changes to the process can be introduced overnight (e.g. when a restriction on hiring changes the approval process) and the next day it is already in place. That has to be a real improvement but it does come at a significant cost.

  • Of course, some people may wonder why a business is engaging in a system change with no change in associated processes. MLG would rarely promote such an exercise; we would argue that a system change for its own sake is questionable. Such effort should be driven by the attainment of performance improvement and this can only be achieved by changing the way that processes are carried out. “Keep on doing what you’ve always done and you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got”, as we would say.
  • However, we have to recognise that there are occasionally changes that are driven by the need to rationalise the IT infrastructure, perhaps to reduce third party support costs. The retailer in the example above may have introduced a company-wide ERP system a couple of years ago but retained an existing HR package to minimise the level of change within that project. Now the time has come to adopt the relevant module of the ERP package – no business benefit as such but still a sensible move for the company.

The best aspect of BPM is that the business processes we have today are likely to be with us for many years – albeit different in significant details (e.g. we shall still need to recruit people) – and so significant investment in establishing excellent processes and maintaining them can not be a bad thing.