Progress Software and Joe Isuzu: Process Intelligence, Not Business Agility

by Wayne Kernochan

Progress Software promises to improve business processes, but can the company also improve business agility?

Those readers with long memories may still cherish the old Isuzu car commercials with Joe Isuzu, the smarmy salesman. "This car can fly!" he might announce, and a little message at the bottom of the TV screen would say, "Well, no. But we do get 32 miles per gallon." Oozing sincerity, he might promise "cashmere seats, shipped directly from Mongolia," and the little message would say, "Actually, we don't. We do provide leather seats with ergonomic adjustment." Recently, reading a Progress Software-sponsored white paper on Process Intelligence, I was reminded of old Joe.

It appears that Process Intelligence is an outgrowth of Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) — that is, an approach that embeds analytics in an innovative three-tier (strategy, process, operations) "process for monitoring and improving business processes." This fits very nicely with today's trend of embedding analytics in various IT and business processes, to allow the actionable insights that presently are provided only by examination of data warehouses and Big Data to extend to an organization's business-critical processes, such as book-to-bill or supply chain management. Moreover, it allows users to automate parts of the task of gathering insights and acting on them: you can embed in some of your Process Intelligence models — the parts that drive the monitoring tasks — a directive to automatically monitor a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) like time taken per customer, and automatically arrange for "load balancing" of customer service when time taken reaches a certain threshold, well before a crisis arrives.

What, in Progress' view, are the main benefits of Process Intelligence for the typical organization? As it says in the title of the white paper, the key benefits are visibility into the organization's entire linking of business strategy to execution, which lets the organization align with corporate performance objectives better; and business agility, by letting the organization more quickly adjust business processes for greater efficiency or in response to changes in the outside world. Thus, one claimed part of Process Intelligence's benefits is that, in effect, it yields additional agile business intelligence (BI).

Now here's where old Joe comes in. According to my research, the long-term benefits of improved business agility are far greater than those of visibility, including the positive effects on the organization's bottom line. And yet I find that Process Intelligence, both as a concept and in Progress Software's present Process Intelligence-related solutions, in and of itself has no obvious major positive effect on business agility. In fact, if applied carelessly, it even potentially could have a small negative effect on business agility.

Progress and Pitfall

To understand why, let's take a closer look at Progress' Process Intelligence solution, as a well-designed and well-implemented example of the genre. The Progress Responsive Management Suite is a BPM (business process management) solution designed to complement process intelligence in today's fast-changing business environments and processes. It includes Progress' event processing and transaction management capabilities, and adds monitoring via dashboards, visual results display, automation of key process parts or alerts, and a design/development environment specializing in rapid business process software creation, deployment and extension. These are straightforward extensions of Progress' traditional strengths in data management and development, and especially its powerful event-processing engine.

Such a solution cannot help but improve the visibility of key information to those who should be taking action on it. Combined with a strategy of implementing Process Intelligence, it makes alerting to arrival of important data faster and more pervasive, makes the meaning of that data clearer to the individual worker, and encourages faster upgrades of the whole system to improve visibility further or to handle changes in the organization's environment that make new kinds of information "key."

Business agility is a very different kettle of fish, however. Very briefly, business agility is the ability of the business as a whole to handle both reactive and proactive change. Studies suggest that improving business agility can have a profound long-term positive effect on revenues, costs and customer satisfaction. Other studies suggest that increasing the agility of new product development has the most powerful positive effect on business agility, and improving the agility of IT in general or making business processes other than new product development agile has much less of a positive effect. The studies indicate that improving business agility is a matter of embedding a focus on handling change into culture, processes, and tools, and not of speeding up or making more flexible an un-agile process. In fact, "improvements" in such processes that leave them still unable to adapt to major changes in the environment or anticipate those changes can decrease business agility in the long run, because the improvements create additional "legacy" code and processes that can actually slow your reaction to a radically changed environment — and, of course, the improvements will need to be undone when you really attempt to improve business agility.

Page 2: Process Intelligence and Business Agility

Wayne Kernochan of Infostructure Associates has been an IT industry analyst focused on infrastructure software for more than 20 years.

Process Intelligence and Business Agility

Now suppose you implement a strategy of infusing key business processes with Process Intelligence, and use the Progress Responsive Management Suite as part of the effort. This should, as the white paper indicates, "ensure that [the] entire company is aligned towards its stated performance objectives by linking business strategy to day-to-day business execution [i.e., business processes] more efficiently" and, hopefully, more effectively. More specifically, this should improve the quality of information given to the front line, make sure people are doing the processes right, handle cross-department inefficiencies, improve response times, balance looking at the past with projecting the future, fine-tune KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and allow better business-process design.

However, reading between the lines, it is perfectly possible to do all of the above without improving business agility at all. If you make the information useful for selling to a particular market and the organization's market changes radically, you're back to square one. You can make sure people are doing the wrong processes the right way, but there's no realistic mechanism to "bridge the gap" and constantly recognize and implement readjustments to make business processes right as the environment and opportunities change. Likewise, handling inefficiencies in existing wrong business processes gets you no closer to implementing the right ones, or keeping them right as circumstances change. And it's clear from the context of the paper that new KPIs don't include good agility metrics, while "better" business processes doesn't include "better at handling change." As the saying goes, speeding up will get you to the wrong destination faster; it won't tell you what the right destination is — and especially when that right destination is changing as you drive.

Overall, then, Process Intelligence using Progress Responsive Management Suite can be altered (e.g., by substituting KAIs, or Key Agility Indicators, for KPIs) in order to be of modest usefulness to an organization that is effectively improving its business agility by other methods. In all other cases, it will have little if any impact on business agility, positive or negative. Sorry, Joe.

The User Bottom Line

The net-net for organizations considering Process Intelligence and Progress Responsive Management Suite as part of their strategies in such areas as embedded analytics is that, when implemented effectively, it should indeed give a boost to information visibility, with valuable follow-on effects on business process speedup, business process redesign, and synchronization of business strategy and front-line execution of that strategy. The one thing it won't do, in the vast majority of cases, is improve business agility in a major way.

However — and pardon me for being cynical here — in the real world today, the fact that Process Intelligence probably won't have an impact on business agility doesn't matter. Improving business agility, in the end, means changing corporate culture, processes and tools in significant ways, so that they are continually adjusting to and anticipating changes in the environment, and most organizations today are at the beginning of that task, if they are even tackling it comprehensively at all. While you're waiting, tools that can be repurposed to help a little, like Process Intelligence, are better than tools with no clear way to be repurposed. And the benefits from increased visibility should not be sneezed at. So it makes sense for most organizations to begin to implement Process Intelligence with its embedded analytics and kick the tires of the Progress solution — especially since Progress Software has a track record of supporting an exceptionally wide range of enterprises, from SMBs to the Fortune 1000.

So my recommendation to users is to ignore Joe Isuzu and pay attention to the little message at the bottom about the benefits of increased information visibility via Process Intelligence. And my recommendation to Progress Software is to let Joe go back to his well-deserved rest in marketing's Valhalla. Otherwise, he'll start claiming that your solutions will end all need for humans — oh, wait, that's IBM's Watson.


  This article was originally published on Monday May 30th 2011
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