Business Processes Management, BPM, BPO; just what does it entail?

by Frank 15. July 2012 06:00

Like me I am sure that you have been inundated with ads, articles, white papers and proposals for something called BPM or BPO, Business Process Management, Business Process Outsourcing and Business Process Optimisation.

Do you really understand what it all means?

BPM and BPO certainly aren’t new, there have been many companies offering innovative and often cutting-edge technology solutions for many years. The pioneering days were probably the early 1980’s. One early innovator I can recall (and admired) was Tower Technology because their office was just across from our old offices in Lane Cove.

In the early days BPM was all about imaging and workflow and forms. Vendors like Tower Technology used early version of workflow products like Staffware and a whole assortment of different imaging and forms products to solve customer processing problems. It involved a lot of inventing and a lot of creative genius to make all those disparate products work and actually do what the sales person promised. More often than not the final solution didn’t quite work as promised and it always seemed to cost a lot more than quoted.

Like all new technologies everyone had to go through a learning process and like most new technologies, for many years the promises were far ahead of what was actually delivered.

So, is it any different today? Is BPM a proven, reliable and feature-rich and mature technology?

The answer dear friends is yes and no; just as it was twenty-five or more years ago.

There is a wonderful Latin phrase ‘Caveat Emptor’ which means “Let the buyer beware”. Caveat Emptor applies just as much today as it did in the early days because despite the enormous technological progress we have all witnessed and experienced we are still pushing the envelope. We are still being asked to do things the current software and hardware can’t quite yet handle. The behind the scenes technicians are still trying to make the product do what the sales person promised in good faith (we hope) because he didn’t really understand his product set.

Caveat Emptor means it is up to the buyer to evaluate the offering and decide if it can do the job. Of course, if the vendor lies or makes blatant false claims then Caveat Emptor no longer applies and you can hit them with a lawsuit.  However, in reality it is rarely as black and white as that. The technology is complex and the proposals and explanations are full of proprietary terminology, ambiguities, acronyms and weaselly words.

Like most agreements in life you shouldn’t enter into a BPM contract unless you know exactly what you are getting into. This is especially true with BPM or BPO because you are talking about handing over part of your core business processes to someone else to ‘improve’. If you don’t understand what is being proposed then please hire someone who does; I guarantee it will be worth the investment. This is especially true if you are outsourcing customer or supplier facing processes like accounts payable and accounts receivable. Better to spend a little more up front than suffer cost overruns, failed processes and an inbox full of complaints.

My advice is to always begin with some form of a consultancy to ‘examine’ your processes and produce a report containing conclusions and recommendations. The vendor may (should) offer this as part of its sales process and it may be free or it may be chargeable.  Personally, I believe in the old adage that you get what you pay for so I would prefer to pay to have a qualified and experienced professional consultant do the study. The advantage of paying for the study is that you then ‘own’ the report and can then legally provide it to other vendors to obtain competitive quotes.

You should also have a pretty good idea of what the current processing is costing you in both direct and indirect costs (e.g., lost sales, dissatisfied customers, unhappy staff, etc.) before beginning the evaluation exercise. Otherwise, how are you going to be able to judge the added value of the vendor’s proposal?

In my experience the most common set of processes to be ‘outsourced’ are those to do with accounts payable processing. This is the automation of all processes beginning with your purchase order (and its line items), the delivery docket (proof of receipt), invoices (and line items) and statements. The automation should reconcile invoices to delivery dockets and purchase orders and should throw up any discrepancies such as items invoiced but not delivered, variations in price, etc. Vendors will usually propose what is commonly called an automatic matching engine; the software that reads all the documents and does its best to make sure you only pay for delivered goods that are exactly as ordered.

If the vendor’s proposal is to be attractive it must replace your manual processing with an automated model that is faster and more accurate. Ideally, it would also be more cost-effective but even if it is more costly than your manual direct cost estimate it should still solve most of your indirect cost problems like unhappy suppliers and late payment fees.

In essence, there is nothing magical about BPM and BPO; it is all about replacing inefficient manual processes with much more efficient automated ones using clever computer software. The magic, if that is the word to use, is about getting it right. You need to know what the current manual processing is costing you. You need to be absolutely sure that you fully understand the vendor’s proposal and you need to build in metrics so you can accurately evaluate the finished product and clearly determine if it is meeting its stated objectives.

Please don’t enter into negotiations thinking that if it doesn’t work you can just blame the vendor. That would be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. Remember Caveat Emptor; success or failure really depends upon how well you do your job as the customer.

Physical Records Management Systems – Why?

by Frank 18. March 2012 06:00

Twenty-eight years ago we released our first records management product, DocFind I.

Twenty-six years ago we released the first version of our iconic records management product RecFind 1.0.

Twenty-five years ago we released our first imaging enabled records management product, ImageFind 1.0.

Thirteen-years ago we shipped our first fully featured Electronic Document and Records Management Solution (EDRMS) with a full complement of records, document, imaging and workflow functionality, RecFind 3.2.

Twenty-five years ago I used to do a lot of trade show and seminar presentations about the coming paperless office yet here we are today with more paper records in existence than I would have ever imagined all those years ago. The fabled paperless office as far away now as it has ever been.

It isn’t because of a lack of functionality to deal with the problem. Most of the other vendors did what we did and produced products merging records, document and imaging functionality many years ago so the functionality to facilitate the paperless office has been around for a very long time. Yet, governments and private companies are still using paper as records and are still using and storing billions of sheets of paper each year. Organizations like Iron Mountain and Crown are rushing to build new warehouses all over the world to store boxes of paper records and there seems to be no end in sight. We are drowning in paper.

In order to understand why we are still storing millions of boxes of paper every year we have to ask ourselves two very important questions:

  1. What are we (still) doing we shouldn’t be doing?; and
  2. What is it we should be doing that we are (obviously) not doing?

Answering number one is easy; we are still using paper and are using it at a rate many, many times that of twenty-five years ago.

Answering number two is also easy; we are not taking advantage of available technology.

The next and most important question to ask is why? Why are we still using paper and why aren’t we taking advantage of available technology?

I have pondered the above questions for a long time and have discussed them at length with my customers and staff and associates in the industry for many years. Whereas you are likely to get any number of responses from industry experts, I am going to narrow it down to four simple issues.

  1. Paper is actually still a great medium for many applications and its convenience, cost and flexibility is hard to beat;
  2. Most electronic document management systems on the market today are expensive to buy, difficult and expensive to roll out, difficult to use and difficult to maintain;
  3. Most EDRMS implementations fail (albeit over time) because very few organizations budget for or are prepared to pay the huge ongoing cost to retrain workers as software changes or train new workers as staff turns over; and
  4. Records management is not a core business activity in most organizations and it is seen as a cost centre, not a profit centre so it gets little senior management attention and little funding.

Basically, in most large organizations senior management is aware of the paper problem but it is not high on their agenda and it is easier to just maintain the status quo; keep packing files into boxes and sending them off to Iron Mountain. It is a lot like the Greek Debt problem, that is, keep ignoring the problem and leave it to someone in the future to solve.

To summarize, management says, “It works and isn’t my major priority so I will leave it for someone else to solve.” Or, applying that time-honoured old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The reality is that we have to find ways to manage paper. The additional reality is that very few of the ECM/EDRMS software packages on the market today do the job well or even at all. SharePoint 2010 for example is hopeless at managing physical records so don’t even think about paying a consultant hundreds of thousands of dollars to configure it for you to solve the problem.

Luckily for us, and largely because we started developing applications for physical records management back in 1984, we have incorporated a rich subset of physical records management functionality (our legacy if you may) into our latest product suite, RecFind 6.  This means we are one of the few vendors with a product that can easily handle any physical records management requirement.

Also, and this still surprises me, we are receiving more and more inquiries for a product that just does physical records management. To be honest, if anyone had told me twenty-five years ago that I would still be receiving requests for a physical records management product in 2012 I would have laughed at them. Yet, here we are today in a world swimming in paper with organizations all around the world desperately needing to solve a paper records management problem.

Now I am really glad that I insisted that my design teams maintain upwards compatibility through all of our product releases and that they should continue to refine and improve our physical records management capabilities.

I hope I am happily retired in another twenty-five years but just in case I am not, I will set myself a reminder to re-read this post and once again review how far we have progressed in replacing paper records with digital records. With luck, I will be living in a luxury apartment converted from an old Iron Mountain warehouse and there won’t be a sheet or paper or archive box in sight.

What will they do with all those warehouses?

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