Business Process Management (BPM) software is one of those great ideas that never really seems to gain the traction it warrants. BPM looks great on paper: Capture and map all your existing processes, both physical and technological, in an integrated application, and you’ll be able to track performance, automate workflow, and gradually optimize those processes for greater efficiency. Not only do you gain visibility to every aspect of your enterprise, but opportunities for improvement become readily apparent. So why do most BPM initiatives fail or fizzle out?

Process management isn’t sexy

Perhaps the biggest reason BPM fails is that it holds little appeal to key decision makers and top management. While few among these ranks would argue with the importance of effective and efficient processes, from a leadership perspective managing the details of executing a process should come part and parcel with middle management. Just as Captain Picard on Star Trek would issue an order, then quip “make it so,” senior leadership assumes their dictates will be carried out efficiently and effectively and has little interest in the details. There’s some measure of guilt by association when attempting to get funding for BPM software, with management wondering why software is required to perform a task that’s considered a baseline activity for their underlings.

Results trump process

The bane of anyone who’s ever compiled a simple process map is the exception. Every junior business analyst has crafted what they believe is the perfect flowchart representation of a process, only to review it further and identify a raft of exceptions that litter their Visio masterpiece with convoluted decision trees in Rube Goldberg-like fashion. While these exceptions are generally inelegant, they’re often the result of a demand to complete a function in a rapid manner, usually with end-customer revenue at stake. That one-off spreadsheet and strange invoicing procedure might not leverage the corporate ERP system, but they were able to quickly capture customer revenue at some point.

Inelegant exemption processes often were the quickest way to fulfill a customer demand. Doing the detailed and diligent work required to diagram these in BPM software might be more of a problem than it’s worth; these exceptions are often the result of customer requirements that are no longer valid, or machinations that customers should be charged for rather than eating revenue through back-office gyrations.

Processes are organic

Combined with customer- or leadership-driven exceptions, another major challenge to BPM software is that most processes grow and evolve organically. Everything from a new intern to a tweak to a product or marketing campaign might trigger a change in a process that instantly renders your BPM software out of date. When BPM is driven by a party external to the process, like IT or a cross-company process team, there’s little chance of that team being notified as the process evolves.

So, can BPM be effective?

Most process-focused efforts, from BPM software to the various process improvement methodologies, can be effective if the following three factors are in place:

  1. There’s a strong top to bottom motivation to improve processes, either to save costs, comply with government regulation, or avoid litigation.
  2. Process improvement efforts are combined with IT projects, and are strongly desired by the affected business unit.
  3. The processes in question are straightforward, with minimal exemptions and minimal likelihood of ad hoc changes (building an automobile versus selling an automobile, for example).

While this list may seem overly restrictive, BPM efforts that think they’ll have captured every process and exception, and will be well on their way to large-scale optimizations in a matter of months, are unlikely to succeed, as are “process improvement teams” that have no leadership backing or interest among the business units they’re meant to serve.