E-Commentary -- Does BPM Have Legs?

Dec. 21, 2004
Time will tell if business process management is just more hype.

If you haven't heard the term "business process management" yet, you will. The only problem is, just what the heck does it mean, and should anyone care? Make no mistake, this is a path many manufacturers have been down before. Who could forget enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), manufacturing execution systems (MES), product data management (PDM), product lifecycle management (PLM), manufacturing resource planning (MRP II), supply chain management (SCM), business process reengineering, and so on? You get the digital picture. At times it seems as if manufacturers are trapped aboard a long-forgotten Apollo spacecraft, doomed to careen through a never-ending galaxy of high-tech jargon, acronyms and buzzwords. Buy one of these new software packages, the slick sales guy promises, and it'll revolutionize your business. Maybe. Or maybe you'll end up feeling like a guinea pig in space while some software vendor and a highly paid consulting firm labor for months to figure out all the places their code doesn't fit your manufacturing operations. In fairness, software is constantly evolving in an effort to support manufacturing management. In the 1970s and 1980s, "management information systems" was the ticket. MIS used computers to keep track of key business systems such as accounting and payroll. Even as early as the 1960s, when business computing was in its infancy, big manufacturers typically ran these processing systems on IBM mainframes using punch cards. In those days the want ads were chock full of positions for people who knew something about the new science of harnessing computers. Usually all this data was run at night, and reports were generated. People sifted through them to find the processing errors or exceptions and, if they were truly process-smart and data-shrewd, the trends. Okay, so just what is BPM? What business processes does it manage? Processes on the plant floor? Hey, we've already got plenty of systems that are specifically designed to do just that. They're called manufacturing execution systems. Sometimes they talk to the systems in the main office, and sometimes they don't. Supply chain management (SCM)? Forget it. After all the hype and blather about SCM in the late 1990s, few companies today have even the slightest inkling that, say, their only supplier of castings is about to be shut down by a strike at its supplier's foundry, or that an acute shortage of key electronic components is working its way like a virus up the manufacturing food chain. For the manufacturer, it's like getting food poisoning -- the supply-chain pain comes on all at once, with little or no warning. How about other business processes, such as those in the administrative areas -- order processing or inventory management? Nope, can't be either of those, because ERP is supposed to monitor them. What about financial accounting processes such as managing accounts payable and handling receivables? Here again, these are already covered in most instances by ERP software, which comes with its own set of financial applications. OK, let's not forget human resources. There are a host of processes that go on in that arena, from candidate searches to hiring, promotions and terminations, as well as managing employee benefits. Ah, but any ERP worth its shrink-wrapping can do all those as well. Give up? I did. As it turns out, BPM software promises things like process-monitoring metrics, analytics, corrective notifications, so-called business "dashboards," and the like. In other words, it's software that tells you how things are doing and screams out when something is going, or has gone, south. Hmm. Wasn't that what MIS was supposed to do 30 years ago? Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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