Business processes get a shot of smarts

Epcor Utilities Inc. just couldn’t respond to customers quickly enough. The Edmonton-based utility company turned to business process management (BPM) to get needed information to both its operators and customers, in a timely manner.

Representatives from Epcor shared their BPM experiences last month at the ProcessWorld 2006 conference in Miami. Organized by IDS Scheer North America, the North American subsidiary of German BPM vendor IDS Scheer AG, ProcessWorld brought together players from across the BPM field to share best practices.

IDS Scheer works closely with another German company, business intelligence (BI) vendor SAP AG, and a large part of its business revolves around SAP sales and service. But IDS Scheer has also developed its own set of tools designed to help users get even more out of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems with its Aris suite of tools for auditing, risk management and compliance.

By helping companies map, define and understand business processes, those processes might be further optimized by reusing components and ensuring tasks are carried out in as few steps as possible.

Recently completing a three-year redesign and overhaul of its billing system, Epcor went live with Fujitsu’s Interstage Business Process Manager in January.

Michael Lundquist, Epcor’s workflow team lead, said a key goal was getting correct invoices out to customers in a timely manner and to give customer service teams the information needed to respond to customer requests more quickly. “[It has] allowed our operators to do their actual job, as opposed to…chasing after phantom errors,” Lundquist said.

Lundquist said Epcor has been able to improve customer service and response times and error tracking in the billing process.

“It has provided us with a lot of information, allowing our operators to see the flow of the process all the way through,” Lundquist said. “They’re not guessing where the flow is sitting.”

In his keynote address, IDS Scheer founder August-Wilhelm Scheer discussed the task of mapping business processes for employees. He stressed, however, the importance of striking a balance between the number of rules needed to complete a task effectively without getting too bogged-down in process.

“When you define [too] many rules it leads to bureaucracy, and everybody does only the things, which are pre-defined. But when you don’t define any rules it leads to chaos,” Scheer said. “We need some rules but the art is to find the right number of rules so you [have both structure] and the freedom to be creative.”

George Goodall, a research analyst with the Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont., said many companies are using process modeling tools before implementing an ERP system.

They’re primarily using desktop tools like Microsoft’s Visio before even contacting a vendor, he said.

“When a company is spending that much money — it’s probably the biggest investment a company could make outside of real estate — everything is on the table, including their processes,” said Goodall.

Since many companies use simpler modeling tools before contacting vendors, Goodall said it reduces the market for tools such as IDS Scheer’s Aris.

“What [IDS Scheer] has really acquired is best practices on the implementation side and (they) lever that best practice and experience as resellers,” Goodall said.

However, he added that BPM tools like Aris can do things that simpler modeling tools like Visio can’t. These include providing templates for initiatives like compliance and risk assessment modeling and simulation.

Still, he said Aris sales only account for 10 per cent of the company’s revenues. The company’s strength remains in best practices around SAP sales and implementations.

“When I think of IDS Scheer they have certain analytical tools but I think of them primarily as a reseller and implementer of SAP,” said Goodall.

Jason Mausberg, IDS Scheer Canada’s president said the Canadian operation actually began as an exclusive SAP reseller in Ontario before Plaut International bought it in 2000.

When that company was acquired by IDS Scheer in 2002, his group became IDS Scheer Canada and now focuses Canada-wide on reselling SAP, SAP services, and selling IDS Scheer’s Aris suite of tools.

Canadian customers for IDS Scheer have included Peoples Jewelers, the Canadian Standards Association, and Research in Motion.

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