IS BPM the Future for IBM i RPG Applications?

IS BPM the Future for IBM i RPG Applications?

While many RPG shops have invested in developing Java or .Net skills for new development or re-engineering, another alternative has evolved that few in the IBM i community have noticed. That alternative is BPM, and it has some remarkable advantages.

BPM technology is hardly a new or bleeding edge solution. IBM’s BPM platform alone is in use at nearly two thirds of the Fortune 500, and Gartner Group has been hosting BPM summits for nearly ten years now.
In this series of articles we will look at BPM from several perspectives:
• How BPM represents a generational shift in business applications
• The business case for BPM
• How BPM changes the business-IT relationship
• A technical perspective on BPM applications
• Transitioning from RPG applications to BPM

The Global Need for Better Applications
The 24×365 global marketplace has radically increased business competition. Consider this: more than half the Fortune 500 have dropped off the list in the last 12 years; or that CEOs today are fired at five times the rate of 1970.
Driving this change is what Gartner Group has termed the nexus of forces: social, mobile, cloud and big data. The rush of technology combined with global competition means no more business as usual for businesses, or their IT departments, or their applications. As someone put it well, we must stop building software meant to last, and start building software meant to change.

What characterizes the new expectations for software applications?
• Designed primarily for business process innovation
• Rapid time to market
• New model of IT and business collaboration
• Permanent transparency and visibility of the system for both IT and business
• Built in governability, change management, auditability
• Integrated tracking and metrics to drive continuous improvement
• Maximum scalability, reliability and transactional integrity
• Built-in deployability to any end-user platform with complete social integration
• Integration with all standard architectures

BPM Radically Raises the Bar for Applications
IBM’s BPM product suite has so many built-in features it’s impossible to summarize in a simple way. The capabilities in the above list are essential and they are not trivial. By “hand-coding” applications in Java or .Net it is simply not feasible to deliver all of these capabilities as the BPM product suite does.
BPM applications are developed as a top-down process modeling collaboration between the business and IT. Fundamentally, the application is developed from a business process perspective, with the business users seeing, understanding and driving the design of the application. This continues to hold true through the complete application life cycle.

(Screenshot of the IBM Process Designer shown above)

In addition to designing the processes and workflow, the business and IT interactively collaborate on screen design and business rules, again, in a graphically oriented manner that all participants can understand. The importance of the business understanding the processes, rules and screens cannot be overstated: the objective is to make them the true owners and managers of their applications. They should be able to change the processes or rules at a moment’s notice, live, in production, if they choose to do so.

For more specialized code, calls to external services may be created using server-side Javascript, RPG, Java, etc. This type of code is typically only needed for integration with other systems and is stubbed about and defined in more detail at a later time by IT.

What is truly amazing about all this it that the model being built is itself directly executable – as in immediately executable – at all times. What’s more, facilities in the BPM tool suite allow for simulations of execution to try out the processes being developed. And of course, full control over development, QA and production environments is always present with a complete, highly detailed audit trail of changes.

ERP Game-changer
As you may be sensing, the BPM tool suite allows for highly agile application development. Indeed, what you will hear from the IBM BPM team is that they recommend you deliver a substantial application into production within 90 days of project commencement.

Because development is highly interactive and collaborative, iterations are spun through very quickly, with significant portions of the work being shifted to the business. The business advantage is that they are now in much more control of their own applications and are no longer dependent on the IT “black box.”

Based on its own research, IBM has calculated the overall productivity gains for application development at being in excess of 30% on an aggregate basis.

If the BPM story were just about improving software application delivery it would be a good one, but it’s actually about much more than that.

The Learning Organization
Productivity, six sigma, continuous process improvement, the learning organization – these are all concepts along the same thread: how to get better, be more profitable and sustain a competitive advantage.
The IBM BPM platform directly facilitates these processes. At the root of the platform, and at the root of these management concepts are simple principles:
• Collect performance data
• Use the data to drive improvement and innovation
• Repeat

As described above, BPM facilitates highly iterative, collaborative, rapid change. Indeed, one of the key benefits of BPM is that this combination of capabilities, along with application transparency, results in accelerated application and business process evolution.

As you might expect, BPM provides a tremendous amount of data about process execution. In its most basic form the data is available through dashboards and reports which management can analyze to innovate and improve processes.
At a more advanced level, the metrics can actually alter executing processes in real-time to pursue defined performance goals. These goals can be stated in simple terms of execution performance, or they can be linked to business KPIs in combination with the execution metrics.

BPM particularly stands out as an opportunity to improve top line revenues. With so much technology afloat in the world, reaching and serving customers is a moving target. Increased agility in customer-facing applications is a real advantage for customer-centric organizations.

Is such a vision real? Gartner Group offers some real world metrics:
“By simply making the current state of handoffs, timing and responsibilities explicit (by modeling in BPM), business productivity improvements of more than 12 percent are normally realized.”
“78 percent of BPM projects saw an internal rate of return of greater than 15 percent. Moreover, these projects typically deploy quickly (67 percent in less than six months, 50 percent in less than four months.)”

Is This Really a Path Forward for Owners of RPG Applications?
In the accompanying article you can read a very interesting perspective on BPM for IBM i organizations. The article is an interview with Phil Coulthard, IBM Master Inventor and Chief Architect of BPM. What is particularly interesting about Phil is that he spent years as an AS/400 architect and designed many of the development tools in use today, including RPG ILE and RDi.

In future articles we will examine a BPM application structure in detail and examine how RPG applications can be re-engineered into the IBM BPM platform.

This article was originally published in IBM Systems Magazine.

/ AS/400, BPM, RPG

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