How social collaboration and cloud computing are changing process improvement

Business Process Analysis (BPA) is a fundamental technique for analyzing and improving business performance, whether or not it results in the automation of the business processes. In the past, BPA was performed mainly by specialized process analysts and architects, with very little involvement from other stakeholders and process participants. The quality and speed of the analysis can be greatly improved by including stakeholders in collaborative analysis and design, which requires easy-to-use, cloud-based BPA tools to remove any barriers to participation.

This paper provides an introduction to the value of BPA and social collaboration, explores why BPA, social and cloud form the perfect partnership for business process improvement and wraps up with some practical use cases for social BPA in the cloud.

The value of BPA

BPA, the practice of identifying business process-related problems and determining solutions and improvements, has been in existence far longer than process automation: As long as people have looked for better ways to do things, there have been techniques for documenting, analyzing and improving how tasks are accomplished. Unlike IT-focused solutions, however, BPA is business-led: Business analysts and users work together using BPA tools to document and analyze the existing processes, then streamline and redesign complex processes to make them more efficient and improve quality. This type of process innovation through analysis, led by the business rather than IT, may be a precursor to automating processes, or may result in adjustments to existing systems and manual procedures.

Although most Business Process Management Systems (BPMS) used for process automation provide some BPA functionality, they do not provide full analytical capabilities, nor do they serve the needs of the majority of BPA projects that are never be automated using a BPMS. Instead, we have seen the rise of dedicated BPA and Enterprise Architecture (EA) modeling tools used by business analysts to create and optimize business models. BPA may include complex analysis techniques and representations, such as simulation, value stream analysis, SIPOC, risk analysis, SWOT and process mining; it can also include related model types, including organizational, network and data models, in addition to process models. Typically, only the process model — and in fact, often only a subset of the process model — is transferred to a BPMS if required for automation.

In short, BPA may be part of a process discovery, design and BPMS automation continuum, but is often used independently of a BPMS for more complex and comprehensive business-led analysis.

BPA can provide significant benefits:

  • Analysis of business processes provides a visualization of processes for a common understanding, highlights process bottlenecks and weaknesses, and identifies potential savings. In many situations, process improvements can be performed purely by changing manual procedures, with no systems enhancements required, so can be done quickly and at very little cost.
  • In advance of a BPMS or other system implementation, BPA provides powerful tools for designing optimal future-state processes that improve efficiency and reduce costs, with the process expenses well-understood in advance. Without BPA, many BPMS implementations simply automate the existing manual processes, reducing the potential for improvement.
  • For organizations with multiple locations, a BPA tool that allows models to be easily shared across the organization provides a framework for creating standard business models and procedures, reducing the time and effort required to establish those procedures in each location.

Social collaboration

For the past decade, collaboration within — and beyond — enterprises has been an increasing trend. By tapping into talent wherever it exists, whether in far-flung corporate offices or key customers, co-creation can be distributed across the value chain. This has the benefit of incorporating ideas from all stakeholders directly, not as interpreted by an analyst, thereby dividing the labor between multiple parties while improving the quality. More innovative ideas are likely to occur, and “tribal knowledge” is captured and shared.

Social collaboration within business typically takes one of two forms: either it is focused on social interaction that strengthens weak ties within a large or geographically dispersed organization, or it is focused on goal-oriented social production. Collaborative BPA falls into the latter category, by permitting multiple people, both technical and non-technical, to participate in the discovery, modeling, analysis and optimization of a business process. In this type of social business software, the social aspect is integrated directly into the work that people are performing, so that the collaboration has a direct business purpose. This trend towards social as a feature of core business applications (rather than a separate tool), or “purposeful collaboration”, is predicted to increase within many enterprise applications, and accelerate the acceptance of collaboration within enterprises.

A collaborative BPA environment can provide a rich set of social features beyond the standard business analysis functions:

  • Using a shared repository ensures that everyone is looking at the same version of the business representation, creating a shared understanding and documentation of the business: the “institutional memory” of the business processes.
  • Different participant roles may have different permissions — full editing versus comments only, for example — and any changes made by any participant can immediately be seen by others.
  • Different roles may have a completely different view on a set of models, due to skill levels or permission to access information, so that a user that is less process-savvy may see a simpler view of a process than an expert process analyst. For example, a user unfamiliar with the Business Process Modeling Notation standard may see a simplified view of a process model, and provide feedback through typed notes rather than graphical manipulation of the model.
  • Users may elect to “follow” certain processes in which they have an interest, even if they are not involved directly in the collaboration, providing the opportunity for anyone to add their comments on how to improve the process at any time. This would typically be viewed via an activity stream interface, similar to that seen in consumer social software.

Collaborative BPA allows a wide variety of participants to be involved in documenting and improving business processes. A recent report by Deloitte2 discusses how social software can be transformational to business performance, highlighting capabilities that most contribute to enterprise-wide adoption and transformation:

  • Collaborative creation and preservation of enterprise processes and practices, allowing for discovery and re-use in other areas
  • Cross-silo collaboration across enterprise hierarchies and boundaries
  • Bringing together skills from different areas to drive innovation

As more people participate in collaborative BPA, new ways of analyzing and solving problems will emerge as people from different areas of the enterprise bring a fresh perspective. This network effect — when a tool becomes more valuable as more people use it — has the ability to improve the quality of the business analysis, as well as improve awareness of changed business processes and ease change management.

Moving to the cloud

Why are software applications moving to the cloud? Cloud infrastructure is optimized for elasticity, making it easy to start small, then grow and shrink dynamically, typically with a much smaller cost and time scale than on-premises software installations. Often, cloud infrastructure can be more reliable than on-premises, since it is based on a highly available pool of computing resources rather than a single server, and can provide equal or better performance. With collaborative applications, once the collaboration extends beyond one organization, or even becomes widespread within a large organization, cloud infrastructure is essential to provide a shared collaborative platform.

Moving BPA to the cloud leverages all of these advantages. Elasticity is important for cost control and to enable rapid growth, since BPA projects typically start small with a few analysts, then scale up to a larger team and potentially many reviewers and commenters; as the improved processes are put into practice, the project scales back to a smaller team of analysts, then eventually the number of viewers decreases. Rather than buy on-premises software licenses, servers and ongoing maintenance for the peak number of users, cloud-based BPA allows organizations to increase and decrease the user base on demand. Cloud BPA can be set up within minutes without IT involvement, allowing a BPA project to start without delay and achieve a fast time-to-value. Costs are typically per user per month, matching expenditures to the actual number of people involved at any time rather than the maximum number over the life of the project. And since it’s all browser-based, there’s no software to install (or upgrade) on users devices. This low-cost entry point makes it suitable for any size of organization: These capabilities are no longer restricted to large organizations that can afford more expensive on-premises BPA and EA packages.

Once on the cloud, people can participate in BPA from distant corporate offices, home offices, partner and customer locations, and even mobile devices. This democratizes process improvement by allowing anyone to collaborate, from anywhere, on any platform. A common shared repository ensures that everyone is looking at the same information, and that any change made by anyone is immediately seen by everyone involved.

Cloud adoption for all types of software is increasing, and most organizations no longer consider cloud infrastructure as riskier than on-premises solutions; rather, they see it as the only possible alternative when elasticity, cost and time to value are important factors. Recent breaches of security by government agencies have made cloud users understandably nervous, but cloud providers are offering more alternatives for the location of the cloud servers, and improving security through the use of private encryption keys that are held by the user rather than the provider. It’s also important to consider the relative risk for the type of information being stored in the cloud environment: With cloud BPA, the models and analysis stored in the public cloud may represent some valuable intellectual property, but rarely include any personally identifiable information about the user organization’s customers.

Use cases for social BPA in the cloud

Although cloud-based, collaborative BPA could be used in almost any BPA scenario, there are some use cases where it is especially appealing.

First, the ability to collaborate across multiple locations and organizations enables the following uses:

  • Multi-national organizations that have similar processes in different locations and want to involve process designers and reviewers in multiple countries. Although this could be done using an on-premises BPA solution, a cloud solution provides easy access regardless of the internal connectivity between the corporate locations.
  • Organizations that need to involve business partners or customers in process analysis. Cloud based BPA allows both internal and external participants without costly VPN configurations, and the collaborative features allows partners and customers to be restricted to comment-only or allowed full process editing, depending on their skills and required input.
  • Business process consultancies that need to share projects with their clients. Cloud BPA allows for easy sharing, plus easy scalability as projects are started, ramped up and completed. It also allows ownership and control of the project artifacts to pass from the consultancy to their client, depending on their agreement. Furthermore, since the consultancies can’t control the end-user environment of their customers, a browser-independent cloud solution typically enables a wide variety of desktop operating systems and mobile devices for different types of users.

The last scenario above, of consultancies and clients, also benefits from the elasticity of cloud solutions, that allow many users to be added quickly, then just as quickly decommissioned at the end of a project. This scalability and the related cost benefits is the key driver behind several other use cases:

  • Organizations starting on their process improvement journey often need to see results before they can justify a large-scale roll out of BPA capabilities, but then need to be able to scale quickly to meet their needs. This is particularly attractive for small- to medium-sized companies that can’t justify the initial cost of an on-premises solution, and may not have the administrative IT staff to support it.
  • Higher education institutions, such as universities teaching process analysis and design, need to expand and contract the number of users based on student enrolment. As with consultancies, they can’t control the computing environments used by the students, so need to support a wide variety of operating systems and devices using a browser-based cloud tool.
  • BPM Centers of Excellence (COE) are often the initial point of standardization for BPA software in the organization, as well as process improvement ideas and methodologies. A scalable, cloud-based solution can be used internally by a COE, then exposed and scaled up for fast enablement of subsidiaries, departments and projects.

Summary

BPA, social and cloud are truly the perfect partnership. By combining the analytic capabilities of BPA, social features for purposeful collaboration, and cloud/mobile infrastructure for democratization of process improvement, cloud-based social BPA can transform process improvement efforts:

  • Start fast with no capital investment or on-premises installation
  • Start small, then grow and shrink the participants dynamically
  • Extend reach to collaborators in different locations
  • Include stakeholders of all technical and analytical skill levels