During a discussion in a technical forum within GAVS, a senior architect introduced concepts from BPM to a larger audience. One of the members of our technical staff, a serious ERP practitioner, was able to relate to many of the concepts of BPM to features in typical ERP systems and was wondering about how BPM is different. This topic has been discussed by the community at large – here’s a great article in ebizq from almost two years back that deals with this topic at length. Not much has changed since then other than increased adoption and maturing of standards in the BPM space. Here, I embellish those views with some of my perspectives.
One of the reasons for the perceived overlap in functionality between these two distinct technologies is because, at the highest level, we describe both as solutions to the same business problems. They are both touted as the means to realize the same set of use cases. Where they differ is in their approach to enterprise integration which results in different levels of applicability in an organization based on their profile.
The ERP approach focuses on presenting a unified and consistent view of the data that used to reside within applications in each department. The ERP system keeps the state of data in sync with the activities that happen within each department. A BPM, on the other hand, focuses more on process flows and human interactions and relies on underlying applications or systems to maintain the data. With an ERP system, it is the repository of enterprise data.
ERP Systems also have the ability to describe process flows and workflows. However these features typically are limited in terms of the flexibility and agility that some enterprises may need. To get a perspective on this, Garth Knudson talks of 20 months to implement an ERP compared to 3 months for a BPM in this article. The agility BPM solutions provide from a change management perspective is also well chronicled. ERP systems come with canned process flows and workflows “out of the box”. If the existing policies and procedures within an enterprise align well with a canned workflow that a vendor’s implementation offers, or if an organization can adopt the procedures recommended by the ERP system, one is in luck. However, in situations where the requirement is for the system to align with the existing policies and procedures within an organization and the canned implementations need to be further customized, BPM solutions offer more agility. Advancements in SOA technologies allow various applications that live in an enterprise, be it bespoke or “off-the-shelf” to expose their functionality in a loosely coupled manner. BPM tools exploit this effectively by cobbling together these services without worrying about the implementation details of the underlying application. This ability to execute processes that have disparate applications and people interact with each other without the applications even being aware of each others’ existence is core to the agility and flexibility that BPM tools offer. As stated earlier, the core of ERP systems is the one large database that all departments in an enterprise will share. For these reasons, I tend to view an ERP as a mega-application and BPM as more of a meta-application.
Another way to frame this discussion, albeit a slightly techie way of doing so, is to view this in the context of the familiar Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern. A BPM plays the role of the controller since its primary function is that of orchestrating the features from various applications, systems and roles to execute a business process. The various applications and data sources that represent the reservoir of enterprise information are the model. The view component that represents the aspects of how the information is presented to the different role players is less material to this discussion.
Thus far, I have focused on the technical aspects of how an ERP is different from a BPM. So how does all this matter to business? We already talked of the agility this brings. Consider a typical scenario that involves mergers/acquisitions/divestitures. From an IT perspective, the problem space moves from one of integrating processes within various departments in an organization to integrating processes across multiple departments and multiple organizations. Each of these organizations or some of them may have adopted different IT strategies, different ERP/CRM/BI systems intra-organization. Pretty soon, one has multiple implementations of similar functionality and different systems that have varying levels of maintainability, availability and having different SLA thresholds. Over multiple iterations, an application remediation/portfolio rationalization exercise is not an option, but an imperative. BPM based approaches offer an elegant option of allowing the businesses of the enterprises to integrate people, policies and procedures quickly by tweaking the controller without disturbing the underlying model. The backend components can then be integrated by making incremental modifications to the implementation without disturbing the interface. Without the benefit of the clean separation of controller functionality that a BPM offers, the customizations that need to be made in the ERP system becomes prohibitively expensive or users need to modify their behavioral patterns to accommodate idiosyncrasies of the backend applications. Even without mergers/acquisitions, other ecosystem changes like a mobile workforce, increased automation allowing for individuals to take on multiple roles, B2B/B2C initiatives keep moving enterprises to the edge. From an IT perspective, the solutions to integration challenges are not significantly different from what was discussed earlier.
To conclude, ERP and BPM offer different approaches to integration within an enterprise. They do have some overlapping features, but predominantly complement each other. BPM systems offer significantly higher levels of flexibility and agility. Standards like BPMN and BPEL extend the shelf life of applications and avoid vendor lock-in while adopting BPM technologies. BPM systems also extend the value proposition of ERP systems in highly mature enterprises that are constantly optimizing. Try searching for “beyond ERP” or industry specific terms like “shop floor to top floor” on your favorite search engine.