Leading from the Middle

By Stan Gibson  |  Posted 03-07-2007

Aligning a company's information technology strategy with its business plan is often an elusive goal that CIOs achieve with varying degrees of success. New Web-enabled middleware for business process management is giving CIOs a fighting chance to bring businesses and IT into alignment more quickly, and efficiently, than possible before.

Although definitions vary, middleware is best understood as the layer of software that sits between a database and its applications and allows those applications to talk to one another. Web-enabled middleware takes advantage of Web services, such as extensible Markup Language, to enable applications to transfer information more easily.

Most big companies are saddled with any number of large applications that were developed using different systems and formats and don't allow for the easy exchange of information. In addition, companies continue to push more applications out to the Web. Processes that business are looking to improve with Web-based middleware run the gamut—from human resources and supply chain to customer relationship management—wherever inefficiencies may lurk. For just one example, middleware can help shave precious seconds from customer-service queries by automating the process of finding and pushing timely information from different databases to a customer service rep.

But in order to set up these new systems, the information processes behind them must be mapped out, automated, and then monitored for any glitches. Many of today's Web-enabled middleware packages contain tools that let business managers, with no technical skills, use a graphical user interface to define business processes and initiate the building of applications. The result: No longer must business managers submit a wish list to IT and get back applications created by the tech organization. And because the tools speed up the software development process—sometimes cutting down the time to map out and deploy a new process to a matter of weeks—companies can respond almost immediately to changing business conditions or customer demands.

"Middleware used to be used for point-to-point application integration—tying one kind of application to another. But now, it's being used to map out business processes," says Mervyn Adrian, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

Of course, no business process improvement project, including those using Web-enabled middleware, is without hurdles. For one, top management must be convinced that redesigning business processes is worth the effort. Second, business managers may be reluctant to get their hands dirty and engage directly in the IT system design. Overall, when looking to redesign a business process with a Web-based middleware package, the best course of action is to take it step by step.

Step 1: Take Stock

Companies embarking on a business process overhaul are likely to start with disconnected applications. The first step is to take stock of these "silos" and define the business processes that are in use. For example, sales, marketing and customer service applications may each have a distinct applications and databases. Yet when a customer phones the call center with a request, data from each of these applications, made available as a Web service and automatically delivered to call center staff, could prove very helpful in answering customers' questions.

Four years ago, Andres Carvallo was named CIO of Austin Energy, the Austin, Texas, utility that is the nation's tenth-largest electrical power company. When he arrived at the utility, Carvallo found five distinct lines of business: generation, transmission, distribution, wholesale energy and retail energy, each with its own IT operations. "There was no common enterprise architecture, no data warehouse, no business intelligence and no process modeling," says Carvallo.

The new CIO set about documenting business processes across all five units. To do so, he assigned four business analysts to interview 500 Austin Energy employees over a period of 30 days. The interviewers then compiled their notes into a 35-page document, highlighting the 72 most critical business processes.

Step 2: Pick Your Application

Once you understand your company's business processes, choose the best Web-based middleware tools for your needs. There are a large number of suites to choose from, which Forrester divides into two categories: integration-centric BPM suites (IC-BPMs) and human-centric BPM suites (HC-BPMs).

An integration-centric suite, such as IBM Corp.'s WebSphere business process management suite, is geared to tying together enterprise applications via Web services. Other major players in this space include Oracle Corp. and BEA Systems Inc. Human-centric suites, such as Pegasystems Inc.'s SmartBPM, take human interaction into account in the design and execution of business processes. Other vendors offering HC-BPMS include Savvion Inc. and Lombardi Software Inc. Pricing varies, but costs can be significant, depending on the maker and number of modules used: The Pegasystems suite, for instance, starts at $125,000. Forrester's Adrian predicts the two suite types will likely merge into a single product category in the next three to five years.

Some products, such as IBM's WebSphere Business Modeler and WebSphere Integration Developer, generate business process execution language. BPEL is used by developers as the basis of service-oriented architecture applications, which make different applications appear as Web services to one another, allowing them to call on one another to serve up data or perform tasks as needed. Savvion and Pegasystems claim their tools generate application code directly, without need of any modification by developers, which can further save time and expense. Still other middleware products, such as Lombardi's Teamworks, generate PowerPoint diagrams of workflows and businesses processes, but don't generate code at all.

Step 3: Start Modeling

Now the fun begins. Using the graphical tools that come with the BPM middleware suites, or if you prefer, a separate graphical package such as Microsoft Corp.'s Visio, it's time to map out the business processes in a workflow diagram.

"You map the processes into the modeling toolboxes and arrows and attach properties to those boxes, such as who is in charge of those processes and what are the expected inputs and outputs," says Carvallo, who used IBM's WebSphere Business Modeler. Using this kind of building-block approach helps business managers spot shortcuts that can save time and money. Some tools have simulation capabilities, enabling business professionals to run "what-if" scenarios to measure the impact of process changes.

At this stage it's important to make sure that line-of-business leaders are participating in the redesign of business processes in order to achieve IT and business alignment. "Make sure you bring in all departments, such as sales, finance, operations and human resources, to the project as early as you can, so they can describe their business processes. The way they look at it may be different from the way that IT looks at it," says Pierre Vedel, CIO of ELM Resources, a nonprofit that provides software as a service to the financial services industry for handling student loans. "Get them involved early and learn from them what they want—then put that into the tool," he emphasizes, which for ELM was the IBM WebSphere Business Modeler.

In some cases, business managers may require training to use the graphical tools. But one of the tools' strong points is their intuitive nature, which tends to keep training expenses at a minimum. However, business managers should understand that their involvement in the use of these tools will be ongoing: Once a new business process has been designed it will be subject to monitoring and optimization, for which their input will be needed.

In his experience, Austin Energy's Carvallo says the modeling process takes anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. After that, he uses IBM's WebSphere tools to generate BPEL code, which developers adapt to build Austin Energy's applications.

At this stage, one useful BPM middleware tool is a repository for storing information about your business processes. Mike Rulf, vice president of advanced engineering at USi, a hosted application provider and unit of AT&T Inc. said USi is using the Oracle Services Registry (made by Systinet and sold as part of the application server component of Oracle's Fusion middleware). USi uses it to capture and store business rules for future reference and redesigned business processes for later reuse.

Step 4: Monitor and Manage

Once the applications are running, monitoring how well the redesigned business processes are actually performing—and making adjustments where needed—is critical in assuring ongoing business-IT alignment. USi uses Oracle's Web Services Manager, another Fusion middleware component that allows administrators to view which parts of a given process have been completed.

USi uses an internally developed management framework to monitor business process performance, allocating server resources as necessary to meet the applications' needs. The company also uses the ARIS toolset, made by IDS Scheer and sold by Oracle as its Business Process Analysis Suite, which lets changes made in production applications be reflected back in the original diagram—a key feature for keeping IT and business processes in alignment.

Austin Energy has been overhauling its 72 targeted processes one by one. So far, the company has completed work on eight of them: customer service, mobile workforce, financial management, asset management, inventory management and three new customer portals. In each case, Austin Energy redesigned its business processes and Web-enabled legacy systems via BPM middleware to serve up data to end users. Monitoring the results of the redesigned business processes has shown that BPM middleware can deliver big paybacks. The biggest win so far has been cutting the time needed to handle customer service calls, by gathering information needed from multiple systems onto a service representative's screen in real time.

"A call used to take four to seven minutes. We got the time down to 32 seconds," says Carvallo. What's more, Austin Energy can now handle 5,000 calls per hour, compared with 400 calls per hour before. That capacity came in especially handy last May, when an ice storm hit the Austin area and 52,000 customers lost power. Says Carvallo: "Everyone was in awe."