From Business Analyst to Business Hero: Selecting a BPM Solution

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The path to choosing a third party business process management (BPM) system is riddled with potential pitfalls. The decision can make or break a business, so it’s worth the time and effort to get it right.

Most BPM solution providers will assure you that their product can be customized to do whatever you need it to do. But how can you be completely sure that the product you select can really meet your particular business needs and stay within your budget?

From Business Analyst to Business Hero: Selecting a BPM SolutionChoose poorly, and you could end up with a product that fails to meet the requirements, runs over budget, and is possibly abandoned entirely. But choose wisely, and you’ll be a hero for implementing a successful solution that reduces costs, increases customer satisfaction, provides insight into process performance, and ultimately improves the bottom line.

By following the thorough selection process outlined below, you can be confident in choosing the right BPM software solution for your company, for the right price.

Building Business Objectives into the Selection Process

Any way you slice it, implementing a BPM system is going to be time-consuming and relatively expensive. Do not start until you have defined the business objectives and processes that you want to improve and,ideally,established an ROI projection.

Write up the objectives and discuss them with senior stake-holders, including VPs and even the CEO where possible. Be sure to get their input on the value of objectives that are not directly quantifiable. For example, if the VP of Sales says that halving the turn-around time for contract approvals will reduce sales costs by five percent, you can include that metric in your ROI analysis.

The key is to base your ROI calculations on the estimates of senior executives or hard numbers, rather than your own beliefs. For example, the system may help to:

  • Integrate business processes that span multiple departments into a single workflow

  • Ensure that these processes are completed on time and that nothing drops through the cracks

  • Reduce the costs and time required to execute a process through automation of follow up processes and emails

  • Reduce the time needed to find information and eliminate data duplication

  • Keep users up to date with automated notifications of changes and reports

  • Improve regulatory or internal compliance with a full audit trail

  • Gain insight into staff productivity and eliminate bottlenecks

Once you have defined your most critical processes, how they should work, and the value that will be derived from automation, you are ready to put together your ROI projection and RFP.

The goal is to find a BPM solution that can fully map your business processes, while staying within your budget. Most BPM vendors will claim that their solution can meet your needs, but by analyzing your business processes in depth,you can rapidly find their limitations. The key is to include detailed, quantitative requirements.

For example, if you specify that "the system must assign tasks automatically",nearly every BPM vendor will be able to check that box.

Compare this with the following:

When a particular action is required it must be auto-assigned to the individuals in the team responsible for that type of task on round-robin basis. The assignee must receive an email notification which includes a link to view/edit the task. This email and link must work on any mobile device. If the assignee does not update the record within 12 working hours, it must be automatically re-assigned to their manager with an email notification.

The responses to this requirement will be much more useful towards your goal of finding a vendor who can map your exact processes.

RFPs: The Devil is in the Details

You can quickly narrow down the field of potential vendors with a short, but specific, preliminary RFP. Your preliminary RFP should only take about 15 minutes to complete. The exact questions will depend on your requirements, but might include:

  • A list of a few processes in the level of detail described above, with the simple question: Can the system automate these processes?

  • Approximately how much will the solution cost, including any implementation services, training,and consulting fees, over the next five years?

  • How long will it take to fully implement the system?

  • Can we try out the system before purchasing?

  • What kind of IT expertise is necessary to maintain or change the system?

The responses from this preliminary RFP should allow you to narrow down your potential vendor list substantially. Let the remaining vendors know that they have made the short list and send them your follow-up RFP. You’ll get more complete answers since they know they have a good chance of winning the deal.

Like the preliminary RFP, the questions in your follow-up RFP should be quantitative and as detailed as possible. For example, instead of asking, "Does the system allow the creation of custom tables?", ask questions such as:

  • What kind of technical expertise is required to create a custom table and how long does it take?

    One system might allow even a non-technical user to create a fully functional custom table in less than an hour; another might require several months and cost tens of thousands of dollars in vendor consulting fees. You won’t know unless you ask the right questions.

  • Do custom tables behave exactly like out-of-the-box tables?

    You might follow up with questions such as: Can we create links between and native tables and custom tables? Can we run business rules and reports in custom tables?

The exact answers will allow you to be confident that the vendor you select will be able to meet your needs, and give you a much better idea of the actual implementation time and overall cost.

Demand a Custom Demo – Within Reason

Standard demos are just not that useful.Every vendor’s standard demo will highlight the parts of their system that work best, and hide their weaknesses by simply omitting them from the demo.

In a perfect world, you’d be given a demo of the complete system, customized to your exact processes. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to ask vendors to invest the weeks or months that it would take to customize the system when they’re not sure they’ll even get the deal.

Even if a solution can implement your full set of requirements, maintaining and adapting it to meet inevitable process changes may well exceed the initial cost of the system. So it’s critical to find out how easily the system can be configured and how much assistance the vendor can provide with process and automation design. How do you learn these things in a demo?

The solution is in two parts:

Step One:Select a business process that is one of the most unique to your organization or critical to the business, and give the vendor a limited amount of time to prepare a demo that illustrates it. If they can map your most complex process, they will surely be able to manage the more standard ones. And by restricting the time provided to prepare the demo, you can see how quickly the system can be customized to your needs.

If the vendor fails to demonstrate the requested process in Step One, you can save everyone’s time by skipping Step Two. Do not accept excuses – you’re banking your reputation on choosing the right solution.

Step Two: During the demo, ask the vendor to modify the system in a specific way. You should warn the vendor in advance that you’ll be asking them to configure the system in real time during the demo so they have the necessary technical resources available. Do not tell them the exact configuration you’ll be asking for or they might just set it up in advance. The idea here is to observe how difficult and time-consuming it is to configure the system, so you’ll know whether or not you’ll be able to handle future modifications in-house, and how long it will take.

A nice side benefit of this tactic is that you will be able to tell what it will be like to work with the vendor, from the questions they ask about your process and requirements and how quickly they grasp what you are trying to accomplish. Does the vendor ask questions that lead you to describe your process more precisely and make it more efficient? In other words, does the vendor truly understand your process and requirements? Or are they just looking to make a quick sale and let you figure it out on your own?

Due Diligence: References and Case Studies

Ask for references from the vendor's current customers. The calls should be private and confidential. If the vendor insists on having a member of their sales or marketing team on the call, consider it a red flag.

Even if a vendor is way ahead in your evaluation, tell both the vendor and the customers providing references that you’re still looking at few other solutions. This way, you retain some leverage for final price negotiations. You’re also more likely to get honest feedback from their other customers if the vendor has no way of knowing why they are not chosen.

Even with these precautions, remember that references cannot always be trusted, just as a job candidate’s references do not guarantee their future performance. References are just one part of the process.

You should also review case studies, which should be available on the vendor’s website, but again, you should be a bit skeptical. The claims made in case studies are only as trustworthy as the amount of direct quantitative data that they contain. "The system went live seamlessly in three months" is a quantifiable assertion. "The implementation was easy" is much less reliable.

Negotiating Price: Think Long Term

So, you’ve reviewed the responses to your RFPs, observed a handful of demos, and chatted with vendor references. By this point it’s probably clear which vendor has the solution that is right for you. But before you sign on the dotted line, you need to make sure the price is within your budget – not just for the first year, but over the life of the system.

Vendors may offer what appears to be a bargain, until you realize post-sale that you’ll be paying a premium for unforeseen maintenance, support, or upgrade costs in the coming years. You can avoid such unpleasant surprises by ensuring that the system can easily be configured by your own staff, and asking vendors to provide a list of all possible extras (such as additional modules or storage space) –along with pricing – in writing.

Provide the vendor with a full specification of your required system pre-sale, and require the vendor to provide a range for the possible prices. The more specific your requirements are, the more narrow the price range the vendor should be able to provide, optimally down to a fixed price quote.


Author: Colin Earl, CEO, Agiloft, Inc.
Colin Earl has over twenty five years of experience in the software industry, starting as a developer and progressing to product manager and CIO. He worked at IBM, General Electric and three start-ups before founding Agiloft in 1991. At Agiloft, his focus is on growing a world class team and aligning the interests of staff, partners, and customers. He has an engineering degree from Imperial College, “Britain’s MIT,” and moved to Silicon Valley in 1986. For more information, visit www.agiloft.com.


Article artwork © zagandesign - Fotolia.com

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