The value of Visio for BPM with Microsoft

Microsoft has a broad portfolio of server- and office software and cloud services that work together very well and can be combined to make Business Process Management (BPM) possible for every organization, big or small. Of course there are BPM products from what Gartner calls “pure-play vendors” that are better, but these products are usually not capable of integrating that well with the others products in the (office) application landscape and are often much more expensive.

In a “Microsoft-unless” environment you can create a perfectly coherent platform with Visio, SharePoint, BizTalk Server and SQL Server that can be used to host composite business processes that span multiple applications, including human workflow and system workflow components. SharePoint takes care of the human workflow process and provides for (social) collaboration features. BizTalk Server takes care of the system workflow process, by means of orchestrations and business rules. Apart from that, BizTalk also takes care of the SOA-infrastructure and the management and monitoring of the service oriented architecture. SQL Server in its turn takes care of persistence of all transactions and keeping process milestones and other metering information.

Most of the times BPM starts with investigating current processes or developing new to be automated processes by visually drawing these processes. When organizing workshops with  (departments of) an organization you can put a number of the right people together in a room and get results quickly. All too often it is the case that processes are not or hardly documented. The information is locked in people’s heads. During the workshops the processes can be drawn using the Visio stencil for BPMN (Business Process Model and Notation). This way a quick consensus can be reached. The drawing of these process diagrams with Visio is most of the times done by a business analyst. By standardizing on BPMN these diagrams are unambiguous and can be understood by everyone.

The next step is to find out which part(s) of the process can be automated by using human workflow. This can then land in SharePoint. Next step is to analyze which part(s) of the process can be fully automated through the use of system workflow. This can then land in BizTalk. The BPMN Visio process diagrams can in both cases be used as a starting point to integrate the process in the physical landscape by means of abstract interfaces. Think about users (groups), mailboxes, sites, webservices, etc. The “plumbing”.

It is important to separate the physical implementation of a human or system workflow from the  business rules that decide to go left or right in a flow. Business rules in fact decide how to move through the flow. In 90% of the cases the variation of processes is actually in business rules. And business rules are determined by business analysts.

Together with implementing workflows based on Visio diagrams the Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) observation model can also be developed. This can be done by the same business analyst. Which milestones in the process are candidates for monitoring is determined here. This can be (visually) linked to the process diagram. BizTalk will then automatically gather these metrics during the execution of processes and will store them in SQL Server. SQL Server in its turn will create cubes and make the information ready for consumption by Analysis- en Reporting Services and… there it is: Visio Services. This completes the circle: By using Visio Services within SharePoint the same BPMN diagram that started off this process can be used to get real-time insight in the execution of processes.

Of course it does not end there. Apart from being able to gain insight in process execution, it also has to be possible to adjust and finetune processes. Because the processes have been designed as such that the business rules actually determine the right paths in the process, the business analyst can easily finetune the rules and immediately see the results in Visio Services. For example: in the real-time process view the analyst can see that a certain branche in the flow that involves human intervention is executed way too many times which makes straight-through processing (STP) impossible in too many cases. By adjusting the parameters the process can be optimized and the results can be seen in real-time.

In the whole scenario, the business analyst is capable of drawing the process in none-too-technical terms, determining the milestones, designing the business rules and adjusting them where necessary. He can do that with tools he understands, such as Visio and Excel. The real plumbing will be executed by the integration- and workflow specialists because they are used to working with the kind of tools needed for that and also understand the physical interfaces and environment. The BPMN Visio process diagrams are at the center of these kind of solutions. By the way, because Microsoft does not bundle their products in a “BPM suite” it is not part of the Gartner Magic Quadrant for (intelligent) BPM Suites. But in my opinion that is also the only reason…

(this article was originally published by me in Dutch on www.motion10.com/cto-blog)

Cheers, Gijs

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