Sometimes it’s not what you do, but how you do it that ensures success—a motto echoed by the Business Process Management & Service Innovation program at Stevens Institute of Technology.
According to Dr. Michael zur Muehlen, director of the Center for Business Process Innovation, the program looks at an organization through the process lens in order to help it more efficiently deliver goods and services.
“We look at how organizations get work done,” he says. “From an organizational aspect, we help them ask questions like, ‘Which activity should I perform, which do I outsource, and what is core to our business and support?’”
The BPM & SI program consists of three core courses and one elective. The core courses cover the entire spectrum of the process management lifecycle and its application in practice. The elective provides an opportunity for students to focus their studies on technical, organizational, or applied aspects of Business Process Management. The program is available in three forms: a Master of Science in Information Systems, a Graduate Certificate, or as custom executive education courses.
“From a technical perspective, we look at an organization’s infrastructure in terms of how it carries out its mission,” zur Muehlen says. “First we help them understand what their current processes are, using BPMN diagrams, then we focus on the sequence of activities, and analyze which activities add value to their offerings, and which are necessary to preserve that value. There are some things you have to do from a compliance perspective, but they are not necessarily what the customer cares about.”
Zur Muehlen uses an airline as an example. Issuing a report to the Federal Aviation Administration is a necessary requirement, but it doesn’t add value to the customer’s experience. The BPM program would teach the airline how to make compliance activities faster and more efficient.
“We teach techniques for this,” he says. “People come to us to learn process analysis, how to go out and figure out how processes work, and how technology can support these processes.”
Using the airline example again, zur Muehlen says an organization is governed by business rules and performs through its processes. A business rule might detail how customers flying more than 100,000 miles per year are treated, but a business process would be a customer checking in at an airport. “We help the airline describe both aspects in order to operate their business,” he says. “We help them make the processes and rules simpler in order to create value.”
The program not only teaches these skills, but will actually take on a client and perform the analysis in the form of a research project. One current client is the Department of Defense, which must deal with thousands of rules that govern its processes. “They have a limited number of key business processes, such as hiring staff, buying supplies, and managing property,” zur Muehlen says. “We’re helping them describe these processes in a standard way so they can get better organized. We can do it for them, but we’re also developing techniques and methods to teach them to do it themselves.”
Zur Muehlen notes that while the first core course in the program covers process innovation and management, the second focuses on workflow implementation, which is more technical. It takes the knowledge gained in the first course and maps it into BPM software, where it gets analyzed in a variety of ways.
“We ultimately build simple workflow implementations, which are controlled by software systems,” he says. “This software can notify process participants in the right order and asks them to perform the activity they are scheduled to work on. The processes are deployed to a cloud infrastructure, so they are accessible from anywhere.”
Using an example of an insurance company, when a customer sends in a claim, the software would dictate who needs to do what and in which order.
“We’re using both commercial and open source software systems, which are very sophisticated,” says zur Muehlen, noting that more than $100,000 in software was donated by several vendors. “I grew up in Germany where we try to do everything the right way,” he mused. “It’s a cultural trait, and personally, I’ve been dealing with BPM for a long time. For as long as it’s been around, I’ve thought about ways to improve processes. You can talk to any business, no matter what industry they are in. I’ve yet to see a business benefit from not looking at their processes.”
Zur Muehlen’s experience in the field is vast. He has over 18 years of experience in process automation and workflow management, and has led numerous process improvement projects across a range of industries in Europe and the United States. He has presented his research in more than 20 countries, and is the author/editor of several books on process innovation, and dozens of peer-reviewed research studies and published articles.
Right now, Stevens is working with Queensland University of Technology in Australia, which has a working group of 40 BPM experts with whom Stevens students have regular exchanges. “Our colleagues at QUT have their own specific expertise, and by working together, we each get exposure to the other’s teaching techniques and research,” he says. “We have collaborated on a project called modeling in the large. If you have a global enterprise which has hundreds of processes, we can help them classify, understand, and innovate on these processes while overcoming challenges result from the global nature of the enterprise. It’s applied research.”
Currently, he is expanding his vision even further by taking the BPM program global in the interest of creating a standardized vocabulary, so that various computer systems can easily talk to each other.
Zur Muehlen uses an example of electrical engineering. “Take a circuit diagram. With standardized symbols, anyone in Beijing or Bangalore will understand what it says. When we look at business processes, there are a lot of different techniques of how to define a process, and chances are you’ll have systems that can’t talk to each other. We’re looking to develop a vocabulary based on standards in order to solve that issue.”
He notes that when employees are not on the same page, problems will occur every time work is handed off between different departments. Enterprise-wide operations, where workflows range from order management via shipping to accounts receivable, are prone for such issues. “This is at the heart of the problem we’re trying to solve,” he says. “We’re helping organizations create seamless operations, both for their customers and their employees.”
By Mary Ann Farley