Overwhelmed by Data? This Tool Could Help

By Jeff Vance

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South & Associates was buried under data. The law firm focuses on foreclosures in Missouri and Kansas. With the sub-prime mortgage mess triggering a rash of foreclosures, they were in a good position to capitalize on new business opportunities – if they could find a way to keep up.

Foreclosures are complex and highly regulated transactions. Each case must adhere to a slew of regulations, and if any of those regulations aren’t met, businesses like South & Associates can face steep fines and penalties.

Regulatory control wasn’t even the biggest headache. South & Associates handles loans for large note-holding financial organizations, each of which has its own set of requirements, along with penalties if they aren’t followed precisely.

“Each foreclosure may have different requirements based on the type of loan that was issued, the state it is in, the county, the municipality, and even the specific judge who will handle the case,” said Michael Zevitz, a shareholder at South & Associates.

Several people within the firm work on each case, and the flow from person to person was a problem. “What we used to do was stack case files onto a cart that rolled from desk to desk,” Zevitz said.

Each person worked on a small piece of each case in isolation, so inconsistencies and inefficiencies were inevitable. Documentation wasn’t always accurate or up to date, and when changes were required, they were tough to track and verify. Time was wasted tracking down specific files, and one person could bring the whole system to a halt.

“Our people couldn’t work efficiently if we didn’t find a way to automate the way cases moved through the office,” Zevitz said. After a prolonged search, the company determined that business process management (BPM) was the answer to this problem, and they chose the software suite from Workpoint.

South & Associates is part of the growing adoption trend for BPM solutions. While the technology is relatively new, BPM already has a foothold in many IT shops and analysts see it growing. Forrester Research, for instance, believes BPM will expand from a $1.2 billion market in 2005 to greater than $2.7 billion by 2009.

The goal of BPM is to make key business processes more efficient – to monitor, standardize, integrate, better manage and, where appropriate, automate them. For today’s information-age companies, the common denominator among those processes is one thing: data.

“BPM can certainly be used to automate and improve processes, but only those ones you put into it,” said Colin Teubner, an information management analyst for Forrester Research. “The trouble is that it is still fairly manual, and it’s mostly slanted towards efficiency.”

In other words, if you have a fairly well-defined process, such as the flow of case files through a law firm, and all you need to do is optimize it, then BPM is a boon. If, on the other hand, you have more complex and messy processes, such as product creation or managing intellectual property or optimizing customer interactions, BPM might not be enough.

Similarly, BPM can make mid-sized organizations much more efficient, since the various processes will be finite and manageable. For large enterprises, though, the value of BPM is less obvious, and when it is deployed, it’s often done so within specific information silos, minimizing the gains.

This is why analysts like Teubner have begun speculating about convergence. Of course, convergence is an overused buzzword for pretty much any technology trend, but with process and data management, convergence looks to be inevitable. BPM touches on a number of similar technology solutions, including business intelligence (BI), master data management (MDM), data governance, and total quality management (TQM).

As Forrester sees it, the most logical point of convergence is between BPM and MDM. Master data management (MDM) strives to make an enterprise’s disparate data sources “trustworthy.” For instance, most organizations have business-critical information scattered all over the place, in CRM, SFA, ERP, and collaborative applications. Data is often replicated from application to application with little coordination or consistency.

The value of BPM/MDM consolidation is obvious. The processes that govern data creation within any given application would be more predictable through BPM, while MDM would ensure the consistency of data across applications.

“The goal of MDM is bigger than just having a single source of true data in some repository,” said Rob Karel, a Forrester analyst who focuses on MDM. “What’s important is having true information delivered – and delivered in context.” In other words, it could be described as a service-oriented view of data. Why the data is being delivered and to whom will often change the “truth” of that data.

“However, we’re probably still five years away from real convergence,” Karel said. “MDM and BPM are both siloed initiatives today. Companies are focusing on just customer data, say, or on product or financial data.”

According to Teubner, there has already been a convergence of sorts within BPM. Originally, BPM grew out of two separate movements, one from IT that attempted to integrate separate applications (integration-centric BPM) and another from management that came from the workflow market (human-centric BPM).

“The tools of each are very similar,” Teubner said, “but the buyers are different.” And the reality is that the “buyers” greatly influence what tools fall under various technology umbrellas.

According to Karel, both management and IT are rethinking how organizations create and manage data. “Slowly the business side of the enterprise is noticing that they need to take a more active role in owning data. At the same time, IT is realizing that without the backing of business, their initiatives tend to under-deliver or fail outright.” The end result is that the real convergence needs to happen above the technology level. When IT and business management are more closely aligned, technologies like BPM and MDM will have a fighting chance to expand beyond data silos. “IT initiatives that engage the business, such as SOA, could unlock doors,” Karel predicted.