If you don’t make a quick connection between business process outsourcing (BPO) and business process management (BPM), you’re not alone. Vendors tend to focus on one area or the other with their solutions — be it software or services. Yet, when a company enters into a BPO initiative with the intent of transforming their operations, it only makes sense that the service provider should apply good ol’ process management to the effort. As research firm TowerGroup has written, “Continuous improvement and automation of enterprise processes that are repeatable and scalable require BPO providers to put robust BPM models and technologies at the core of their offerings.”
One company, Ajira, focuses on this intersection of BPO and process improvement with a suite of offerings that help manage the performance of service-oriented business processes. It puts a major emphasis on the measurement aspects of the process. At its heart is a “process warehouse,” akin to a data warehouse except instead of providing tools for deep analysis of data, it provides tools for deep analysis of an operation’s processes. The software gives the user the ability to catalog, model, monitor, report, analyze and improve service processes in real-time.
A Process Warehouse
And, just like a data warehouse, the program pulls data from disparate sources — each software system involved in automating or maintaining some phase of the process (a SQL database, Excel spreadsheets, ERP systems, etc.). With that information, it gives users an end-to-end view of performance of the entire process.
Let’s take an example shared by Ajira co-founder Nari Kannan (who writes for Sourcingmag.com) involving a proof of concept the company did for a sizable India-based insurance BPO service provider. Here’s how the process runs at that insurer:
- The insurance company (the BPO client) runs an ad.
- The ad includes a number that a potential customer can send a text message to.
- The BPO service provider has five minutes to return the call to the text message sender to do a sales pitch providing quotes on life insurance, auto insurance, or whatever.
- By the end of the day, when the prospect is still highly motivated to buy, the service provider sends a courier to present the official paperwork for the new customer to sign and to pick up a check.
In this case, the service provider needs to measure a number of aspects of the process: phone efficiency, such as how many phone calls the agent takes and average hold time; effectiveness, such as how many calls ended up in a sale and what the volume of the sale was; and even workforce factors, such as how many people left this group and how many new people were trained on the process during a period.
A seemingly simple transaction requires access to multiple systems and silos of data maintained in multiple organizations. The timestamps for each phase of the process may be hidden in multiple systems. In measuring performance, time may not be the only criteria; it may also entail accuracy, productivity, cost, error rate and so on. To accommodate existing systems and procedures, workers may be tracking information through spreadsheets. Any company that wants to model, monitor and report on these processes has a major BPM or even Six Sigma initiative ahead of it.
Ajira attempts to lay out the process not from a workflow point of view (which it calls a “desk-to-desk view”), but from end to end. The latter encompasses the entire set of activities and participants that contribute to the effort from the time that initial customer contact is made through the time the money from that customer is deposited into the bank.
How Ajira Works
The magic requires two basic components: a process catalog and a process manager.
The Ajira Process Catalog collects process-related information and maintains process documentation. It’s queried through a browser.
The Ajira Service Process Management suite consists of three modules:
- The Ajira Process Modeler enables users to build process models, defining each step in the process as an “eventlet.” This is also where users define SQL queries for reading database tables.
- The Ajira Process Monitor maintains execution information, doing real-time or batch collection of data from data sources.
- The Ajira Analytics Manager handles reporting and analysis.
The software works like a network monitoring system. It identifies activities and generates alerts when particular events happen, such as thresholds being hit.
Also like a network monitoring system, Ajira shows where bottlenecks occur. Therein lays its tie to process improvement. By providing a view into the details of a process, continual tweaking can take place. For the insurance company work, for instance, it might show the BPO service provider that it needs to shuffle work to other agents for the week or provide additional training on some aspect of the products being sold.
The first step in modeling an event is to define “eventlets” — each end of a process step, such as “DocArrival” or “Indexing_Start.” Creating eventlets also involves setting timestamps for the event as well as data source. Next, the user specifies an SLA for time-based activities, such as what the deadline for a given eventlet will be, or other KPIs that apply, such as accuracy, sales amount, etc. Then the user specifies how the data will be sliced and diced and who will gain access to each level of detail. The user creates templates for email alerts and Web-based reports and specifies recipients for email or other alerts. Finally, the user defines business rules to connect conditions with actions to trigger notifications. Each step is done through wizards.
The company said it takes about two days to configure the system for a given process. Ajira tackles the first couple of processes while the user watches. By the third or fourth process, the user is doing the work.
A separate solution, the Ajira Knowledge Processing Manager, combines workflow with document management, specifically for KPO environments. The KPO service provider can allow a client to log in through a browser interface to submit requests, view the current status of work, get billing information and submit feedback on each assignment.
The Weaknesses of Ajira
Ajira’s product line is still a new offering, which means if you need to point to a reference site in your vertical to get buy-in from the executive team, the company may not be able to provide one. That said, Ajira has five customers currently (two of them high-profile) and has worked with a number of other companies in proof-of-concept projects; it declines to name any for publication.
Also, interface elements such as the dashboards, while functional and following basic browser and Windows standards, have rough appearances all the same.
To work with the wizards effectively in setting up process models or analytics, users will require training; what’s essential to enter and what can be ignored isn’t always apparent.
Finally, if you’re a code hound, you might be frustrated by the lack of access to the code behind the program. This is definitely a toolset for business users, not IT people.
The Final Word
Managers who understand the need to maintain constant touch with processes in order to look for ways to improve them don’t have a lot of help. Typically, if you’re part of the client side in an outsourcing initiative, you need to rely on reports from the service provider to gain visibility into operations. Often, these are dated and provide no way to drill down on details. If you’re in a service provider, where’s the advantage in granting real-time visibility into the processes you’ve been hired to perform? For sound reasons, service providers focus on meeting SLAs; little else matters.
Yet, as clients mature in their use of outsourcing services and the competition for contracts heats up with the ever-expanding number of service providers, both sides will begin to realize the value of business transformation. And that requires tools to monitor and report on the service processes that make up a business. That’s Ajira’s strong suit.
Ajira’s tools provide a strong and straightforward solution for companies that need to monitor, measure and analyze their service processes.
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