REDMOND, Wash., March 2, 2004 — Business processes are in place everywhere. In essence, they are what make businesses run. And while the concept of business processes has been around a long time, today’s technology offers organizations a needed new way to address them.
Over the past several years, business complexity has increased faster than value. With implementation costs on the rise and enterprises facing ever more mergers and acquisitions, the ability to use business processes as a tool to ease integration is becoming far more prevalent. Smart companies recognize that they can model their business processes with software and capitalize on them.
That customer thinking served as the impetus for a sharpened focus on business process management (BPM) in Microsoft BizTalk Server 2004 — the latest release of its integration solution, launched today. BPM addresses the lack of end-to-end visibility into business processes that’s a sore point for many companies. Consider a typical procurement process: A company gets a purchase order from a customer, the PO gets sent to its accounting application, then to someone who needs to stamp it for approval, and from there to its manufacturing systems, until eventually the product is delivered to the customer. As a rule, the information workers at such a company know these steps occur, but they have no real insight into the process as a whole. Plus, the process often features little automation, leading to inefficiency between steps.
Scott Woodgate, lead product manager for the E-Business Server team at Microsoft, explains that BPM can fill that gap by efficiently connecting people, data and trading partners.
“With BPM technology, you get the ability to automate your business processes as well as visibility into the running processes,” Woodgate says. “What’s more, you more easily change the business processes you’ve captured so you’re more flexible in responding to competitive pressures or embracing new opportunities.”
BizTalk Server 2004 is designed to take integration technology to the next level by supporting enhanced business process orchestration. The new version helps companies better manage and automate their business processes to make those processes smarter and more effective.
“Our key investment in this release of BizTalk Server has been the dramatic innovations we’ve made in BPM functionality, in exposing that functionality through new business activity monitoring capabilities, and in providing a new mechanism for specifying business rules to further enhance flexibility,” says Ted Kummert, corporate vice president, E-Business Servers at Microsoft. “By building these core BPM technologies into our solution, we can offer customers a powerful BPM experience that fits the way they do business today.”
Kummert notes that the ability to orchestrate interactions in a highly flexible and automated way builds on the solid enterprise application integration (EAI) and business-to-business functionality that BizTalk Server customers already rely on.
For added business value, solutions built with BizTalk Server 2004 work easily with familiar tools in the Microsoft Office System to give information workers effective control over business process design and monitoring. For example, integration with the Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 program (included with BizTalk Server 2004) enables information users to input rich, dynamic XML-based form data into business processes. Similarly, business analysts can model business processes using the popular Microsoft Office Visio diagramming and data visualization tool. And, information workers can monitor and analyze running business processes from within a Microsoft Office Excel 2003 spreadsheet, then make decisions about those processes.
The following scenarios, both real and hypothetical, illustrate the business value that customers can derive from the integration between BizTalk Server 2004 and these three Microsoft Office System applications.
InfoPath Links Information Workers to Business Processes
Historically, one of the key challenges in integration and BPM is that while huge amounts of data might be stored in enterprise applications — such as enterprise resource management (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) solutions — as much as 80 percent of all business data can get “trapped” on desktops. In other words, this data resides in documents that employees have saved on their PCs, but it’s not necessarily available to all information workers throughout the enterprise. The InfoPath information-gathering program is in essence a forms-based way to enter that data into a business process and pass it from desktops to back-end systems.
Take, for example, a bank with a loan-application process that touches its mainframe, its CRM application and another custom application. The bank wants to manage the processing of that loan application throughout the enterprise, from start to finish. Assume that a customer of this bank wants to change some information on his loan. A bank employee can enter that new information into InfoPath, and the InfoPath documents can be routed to BizTalk Server through Web services. BizTalk Server then uses an automated process to route that information to the appropriate critical system(s), perhaps also forwarding it to an online portal where the customer can access it.
Swedish Hospital of Seattle recently discovered the value of BizTalk Server and InfoPath integration in the healthcare setting. The nearly 100-year-old medical center sought to improve staff productivity by replacing the Emergency Department’s paper-based patient records system with an automated patient data-management and collaboration platform. The hospital moved to a custom-developed clinical forms and collaboration solution that integrates mobile PCs, wireless connectivity and Web services with its mainframe-based clinical and financial database applications. Two of the solution’s three major components were BizTalk Server 2004 and InfoPath 2003. (The solution’s third component is a document library managed by Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003.) BizTalk Server automates the processes needed to collect and report personal and clinical data for each patient, check documents in and out of the document library, and forward the data to the hospital’s medical and financial databases. InfoPath enabled developers to create XML-based, electronic versions of the paper forms that the staff used to document patient care and personal information. InfoPath also helped developers build a user interface that enables doctors, nurses and administrators to access form templates, update patient data and manage patient documents.
“The value of the integration between BizTalk Server and InfoPath is the ability to link an intuitive XML-based form with back-office databases, where it’s critical to maintain up-to-date and accurate customer health records,” Woodgate says, noting that Swedish Hospital uses the BizTalk Server HL7 Accelerator for HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “In a day and age when accountability, data retention and data collection are important from a legal and a customer satisfaction standpoint, this kind of solution is really cutting-edge.”
Deploying the clinical forms and collaboration solution will enable Swedish Hospital’s emergency services staff to reallocate administrative time to more patient care, reduce errors in patient records-keeping, and perform trends analysis on its emergency care processes. As a result, the hospital expects to realize a 74-percent internal rate of return (IRR) and a 13-month payback on its investment.
For a scenario that could apply to virtually any industry, assume a business process that requires an employee planning a vacation to fill out an absentee request form. Using InfoPath, an employee could simply fill out a template form, entering the dates she plans to be away and asking for approval. InfoPath provides rich, XML form-based validation to ensure the information she enters is correct. And, with the integration between InfoPath and BizTalk Server, she can send the data from that form directly into a business process using Web services technology. Once the absentee request information is entered in the business process, BizTalk Server could be configured to route it to the company’s back-end HR application to update her employee record, plus send it to her manager to make sure the request is approved. The integration makes the absence-request process simple to track, trace and monitor.
Visio Lets Information Workers Design Business Processes
Because business processes tend to span broad functional areas, they are often better understood by less-technical business analysts than they are by programmers. Thus, good communication between those business analysts and developers is imperative. Within this context, a familiar tool like Visio can forge connections that help ensure the resulting business process works as intended.
“Visio provides a structured means for a business analyst to create a business process, then hand it off to a developer for technical implementation as an executable business process,” Woodgate explains. “Visio provides the flexibility for the business analyst to understand the initial process, and the ability to change business processes over time and communicate those changes with the developer.”
Consider the scenario of a business analyst in a global financial-services organization who’s designing more efficient business processes. Assume he wants the business process to work such that if a customer applies for a loan in Europe and the loan has certain specified characteristics, it must be sent to his company’s U.S. division. He may also want to build in other exceptions. For instance, if the loan is for more than $200,000 but the customer is a member of the bank’s “Gold Club,” or if the applicant is a 20-year banking partner, the application should be treated in such-and-such a manner. The business analyst can design this process visually in Visio, then use the export-import functionality between Visio and BizTalk Server 2004 to export the design to the developer.
As another example, assume a developer is using Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003 (included with BizTalk Server 2004) to design a procurement process for a manufacturing company. A business analyst uses the Visio drawing tool to map out the various steps of that procurement process: receive PO, send PO to back-end ERP application, and so forth, until the full path is drawn. She then sends the Visio diagram directly to the developer, vs. the traditional method of printing the design, walking down the hall and handing the developer a sheet of paper — then hoping he gets it right. Later, if the developer asks the business analyst to modify the business process, she can easily look back at the Visio diagram and determine that a “manager approval” step is needed right after the step of sending the PO to the ERP application. She can simply update the Visio diagram to reflect that change without needing a deep technical understanding of how the behind-the-scenes technology works, then hand off the revised business process to the developer to implement.
Excel Integration Offers View into Running Business Processes
Once a business process is up and running, a company benefits from being able to analyze that process and monitor its health. Insight into important business metrics helps information workers understand how processes work, catch and resolve any glitches, and make decisions based on their findings. Woodgate notes that tight integration between BizTalk Server and Excel provides a mechanism to get detailed reporting and visibility into applications that have been tied together using BPM technology.
Information workers often ask key business questions that don’t have ready answers. For example, a purchasing manager may want to know the total value of all POs in the system at any given time, how many POs are sitting on someone’s desk awaiting approval, or how many POs are approved and denied each day. A sales manager may want an hourly update on the products being ordered, while an operations manager may inquire how long a certain step in the manufacturing process actually takes. Traditionally, seeking answers to such questions could provoke a months-long IT development project that equipped systems to collect the information. However, once a business process has been modeled, it’s easy to ask questions of that process by simply configuring it.
Information workers using Excel in concert with BizTalk Server can produce PivotTables and charts that bring answers to the surface in real time. For example, from within Excel the purchasing manager could pull up the total value of all POs at a moment’s notice. He could also instantly see if an approval step was taking longer than expected, then take action to resolve the issue by adding resources or shifting approval authority to another employee. Such answers come to light without having to build any additional reporting infrastructure, because the necessary functionality is built into BizTalk Server. The enabling technology is called business activity monitoring, a new feature in BizTalk Server 2004. A recently coined industry term, business activity monitoring (BAM) provides advanced monitoring for key business activities in the enterprise.
A retail industry scenario shows how BAM works and illustrates the integration between Excel and BAM for monitoring of running business processes. Typically, retailers have many point-of-sale (POS) systems. A retailer using the BPM technology in BizTalk Server to connect its POS systems could take advantage of BAM to display the value of transactions moving through those systems in real time. The fact that the POS systems also collect inventory numbers and credit card information extends the value by facilitating business practices such as fraud detection. For example, a manager using BAM could watch for simple patterns and trends, such as the same credit card being used for two high-dollar purchases in the same electronics store in a short time frame, or a certain CD suddenly being out of stock despite POS systems showing 10 copies in inventory. By using BAM to spot and analyze such trends, and tools such as Excel to view them, information workers can react appropriately — for example, alerting loss prevention managers to possible in-store theft or reporting credit fraud to authorities — to mitigate business losses.
Creating Flexible, Responsive Business Processes
In building a sophisticated BPM solution, Microsoft recognized the need to go a step beyond just modeling and abstracting business processes. To accommodate the many customers who want to make decisions within business processes, Microsoft product developers also included a new business rules engine in BizTalk Server 2004.
To understand how business rules work, consider the absence request business process highlighted earlier. An HR manager might want to create a rule within this process that says an employee’s request for time off will be granted, assuming that employee hasn’t already exhausted his or her annual leave, and that the employee has no important deliverable for the week(s) in question. Similarly, a manager charged with approving expense reports might want to create a rule that says any entry over $100 automatically gets routed to his or her manager for approval.
“Those kinds of decisions, and the criteria for them, tend to change quite a lot,” Woodgate says. “With the business rules technology now in BizTalk Server, customers can abstract decisions that used to live in code and use a simple tool to modify those rules. This gives customers a lot of flexibility to change the rules that drive a business process and have those changes automatically reflected on their running systems without involving the IT staff.”
Woodgate adds that the new rules engine, combined with BAM and the enhanced orchestration functionality, will enable customers to develop much more responsive and flexible business processes.
“Those three technologies working in concert offer customers the ability to create processes more quickly than ever before, create and change rules on those processes rapidly, and get visibility into their business processes to achieve the most value for their enterprise,” he says.