Putting Tasks on the Fast Track

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2004-11-01 Print this article Print

Still shuffling paper for routine forms? Business process management software can supercharge tasks that are stuck in an analog world.

Two years ago, Park University in Missouri couldn't keep up with the flood of paper swirling into its admissions office—and as a result, it was losing revenue. The private university in Parkville, Mo., stored hundreds of thousands of paper documents in 47 large filing cabinets in the registrar's office. "It was a paper nightmare," says Sara Freeman, Park University's chief information officer.

But besides irritating the staff, according to Freeman, the delays from processing reams of paper documents were causing enrollment numbers to be lower than they should have been. "We were actually failing in getting students in the door," she says. "We weren't able to process applications quickly enough. We were simply not getting the job done."

Freeman was part of the team that set out to fix the process. The group, working with Xerox Global Services, decided to use workflow and electronic-forms software from FileNet to automate application handling. The system was up and running in the fall of 2003; today, it scans and files more than 1,000 applications and other documents per day, routing them through work queues based on a complex set of rules.

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The university used to take up to 30 days to process an application. Now, it's done in about a week, Freeman says. "The only thing holding up the process now is getting transcripts from other schools," she says. This year, the university's enrollment increased to 22,617 students at 41 campuses across the U.S. and enrolled in online courses, up 7% compared with 2003.

And the university sees opportunities to automate other paper-based processes with FileNet's software, including human-resources forms, faculty assessments and contracts. "By early 2005," Freeman says, "we'll have no more paper forms."

Such business process management (BPM) software can create, manage and track steps in a workflow associated with just about any task that involves more than a few people. The products in the category, though, have typically focused on processing high-volume forms, such as insurance claims or invoices. The software can automate—and dramatically speed up—laborious, mind-numbing tasks, like figuring out whether a particular document (say, a job posting) needs approval and which department or individual should receive the form. It can also ensure that an invoice doesn't slip behind a copier somewhere along the line.

Vendors in this fragmented market include giants like IBM and Microsoft, as well as smaller companies that specialize in sophisticated business process management applications, like Metastorm and Pegasystems.

The area is getting some fresh attention because the software could help companies comply with government regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires companies to institute documented controls over internal financial processes. But to some, that's like buying a corporate jet to deliver overnight packages.

"Just using BPM to get compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley is missing the point," says Bob Farrell, chief executive officer of Metastorm. "You should use it to run your business better."

That was the aim of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. In 2002, the insurance provider was looking for a better way to connect its 180 customer-service agents to its mainframe-based claims-processing system. In December 2003, it deployed Pegasystems' claims-automation processing software, which applies rules to check and correct common errors on forms and routes them to different groups of agents based on their areas of expertise (such as, say, chiropractor claims).

The following month, the company's call-handling time improved by 17%, says Stephanie Ledoux, assistant vice president of customer and provider service. The average length of a member-service call at its two service centers dropped from 608 seconds and 631 seconds to 573 seconds and 464 seconds, respectively. "This has made the process much more efficient," Ledoux says.

But there are some gotchas. It's not always obvious how business processes work in practice, and that can make them tricky to document.

Occidental Petroleum's George Otott discovered the importance of fully scoping out a business process before deploying software to manage it. The Los Angeles-based oil and gas producer initiated a project this year to automate payment request authorizations, using FileNet's eForms software. Otott, Occidental's manager of corporate systems and document management, says his group spent a lot of time gathering requirements from the accounting group but overlooked some manual processes in the treasury group, which disburses payments.

"The time savings for the accountants weren't being realized, because the automated process we'd put in place didn't save time for the treasury group," he says.

Otott's team has since reworked the system, and the company's payments are now made automatically through Oracle Financials using data from the FileNet forms.

Meanwhile, some customers caution that BPM software is a complex creature—and not necessarily as simple to implement as some vendors suggest.

For example, Charlie Lisanti, an information systems consultant at Tetra U.S., a fish-supplies distributor in Blacksburg, Va., says Metastorm's workflow designer is easy to use and includes a wizard that builds the underlying code that manages business processes based on answers to a series of questions. Even so, he says, it's not a task that non-technical employees could immediately pick up.

"You can't go to somebody who answers the phones and say, 'Here, generate a process for us,'" Lisanti says. "You need a basic understanding of computer logic and programming."

Still shuffling paper for routine forms? Business process management software can supercharge tasks that are stuck in the analog world.

Group Dynamics

Category: Business process management

What It Is: Software that automatically routes documents, forms, information or tasks through a series of steps based on preset rules.

Key Players: Adobe Systems, BEA Systems, FileNet, Fuego, Fujitsu, IBM, Metastorm, Microsoft, Oracle, Pegasystems, SAP, SeeBeyond, Siebel, Tibco Software, Vitria Technology, WebMethods

Market Size: $750 million in worldwide business process automation deployment revenue, 2003 (IDC)

What's Happening: In a field crowded with more than 100 companies, pure-play business process management software vendors lead with applications tailored to specific industries while larger vendors see the category as part of a bigger picture.

Expertise Online: The BPM Institute (www.bpminstitute.org) provides articles, reports, newsletters and discussion forums on business process management and workflow topics.


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