How to Select the Right Tools for your BPM Initiative

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So you finally sold the value of your BPM initiative to your company's executives. Now it is time to deliver. Selecting the right tools is a critical step to help you succeed. This may not sound that difficult but if the proper amount of effort is not directed toward this decision point, you could find yourself spending more time with your vendor than with your business partners.

The first step for evaluating software is not to simply pick one of the vendors in the upper right hand corner of Gartner's Magic Quadrant or Forrester's Wave. Instead, the focus should

So you finally sold the value of your BPM initiative to your company's executives. Now it is time to deliver. Selecting the right tools is a critical step to help you succeed. This may not sound that difficult but if the proper amount of effort is not directed toward this decision point, you could find yourself spending more time with your vendor than with your business partners.

The first step for evaluating software is not to simply pick one of the vendors in the upper right hand corner of Gartner's Magic Quadrant or Forrester's Wave. Instead, the focus should be on clearly defining both business and technical requirements to guide you through the vendor selection process. Too often companies start with the technical requirements and lose sight of the business needs in the process. This often leads to the business feeling like IT jammed a solution down their throat. That is why I recommend having a business sponsor on the vendor evaluation team. The business sponsor should evaluate the tool from the perspective of the end user to balance IT's perspective which is usually focused on support and integration. Some questions to ask are: Will the business be monitoring real time operational information about their business processes? If so, include Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) in your requirements.  Will they be running what-if scenarios and simulations? Will they be empowered to change business rules on the fly or will IT be the ones in control of all business rules? The answers to these questions can greatly influence vendor evaluation process.

The next step is to identify the technical requirements. Like most IT projects, the technical requirements should target areas like security, scalability, performance, reliability, supportability, etc. If an Enterprise Architecture exists, there should be some technical requirements defined for selecting third party software?  If your company does not have a well defined process for vendor evaluations, fear not!  For about $250 you can buy a BPM RFP template online that has an extensive list of technical requirements already documented for you. These templates save huge amounts of time and money and provide a nice starting point for putting together a weighted matrix for evaluating the vendors. Simply tweak the template to your needs and then focus on weighting the requirements. Not all requirements are equal.  Some are nice to haves while others are show stoppers if they are not met. Keep in mind that the business requirements should be the key drivers. If the tool is a great match for the business but fails to meet certain technical requirements, there should at least be a discussion about the technical requirements that were not met to see if they are a candidate for an exception. For example, a company may be a Microsoft shop and a BPMS tool uses a jBoss application server under the covers. Is that a good reason to throw out the tool? Depends on whether the application server is a separate product to administer or is embedded within the BPMS tool. 

Next up is choosing which vendors to evaluate. There are many reasons to include a vendor in your list including vendor stability, market share, features, price, etc. If your BPM initiative is part of a larger strategy, such as an SOA initiative, and one of the BPM vendors is also a major player in your SOA software evaluations, it might be a good idea to include the vendor in your BPM evaluation as well. There might be some synergies between the products and an opportunity to get a major discount since the vendor would love to win both evaluations. If your budget is already defined for you, price can be a major factor for selecting a short list of vendors. If you are using this process to help derive the budget, you might want to have a mix of high and low cost solutions. Don't overlook open source vendors.  Commercial vendors tend to suffer from feature overkill since they are trying to satisfy everybody. If you have a well defined short list of features you may find that open source BPM and BAM tools will do just fine.

So where does one get a list of vendors to choose from? We all know about Gartner and Forrester's lists, but those two lists should not be the only sources used. If you follow the BPMS space you will remember the backlash against Forrester recently for their omission of ActiveVos from the latest Forrester Wave.  I am not saying that you should discount the information of Gartner and Forrester either. They both produce excellent in depth analysis of a number of vendors but you also need a practitioner's viewpoint.  I highly recommend following forums, blogs, and social networks where practitioners discuss the pros and cons of implementing real world BPMS tools. Ask the vendors for references. When calling these references, don't only ask about the successes but also ask about their failures and lesson learned.

After all of this analysis, your vendor list will hopefully get down to two or three players. Now comes the most critical point of the vendor evaluation: the proof of concept! I recommend a one day on-site POC for each finalist. Give each vendor a week to prepare but not much more. Create a scenario that would be a stretch to complete in a day. Give them a set of use cases to be modeled and require them to  integrate with a few of your test services to display some of your data in the POC. Make them start from scratch while you watch. This is the point where the Power Point magic ends and the truth is told. I was on a project where we brought three vendors in for our POC. One vendor was a clear favorite of the business. They fell flat on their face in the POC because they couldn't live up to their marketing hype.  Their technician stumbled through the process and never was able to connect to our test services. The vendor that eventually won our business finished early and was able to demonstrate their product's functionality using our data. Without the POC we most likely would have selected the wrong vendor even with all of our due diligence prior to the POC.

To summarize, the vendor evaluation process for BPM initiatives should be treated as a major milestone.  Don't rely solely on the information from the industry analysts and don't be fooled by the vendors' Power Point decks. Everything looks great in Power Point! Insist on an on-site proof of concept. If they  resist then they have something to hide. If you follow a good vendor evaluation process, you will likely chose the best tools for your business and can shift your focus to solving real business problems.

Mike Kavis has over 23 years of experience in applications development in the health, retail, manufacturing, and loyalty marketing industries. Mike is a Chief Architect working on Enterprise Architecture, BPM, and SOA initiatives. Mike has a BS in Computer Science from RIT and Masters in Information Technology and Executive MBA from Colorado Tech.

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