Will Your Company Be Well-Positioned When the Economy Rebounds?

Focus on Adaptive Business Processes, Workflow, Collaboration, Information-in-Context, and End-to-Edge Visibility

February 28, 2002

This report outlines steps your company will need to take to be prepared when the economy rebounds.


Companies that have done a good job of integrating applications, streamlining business processes, and making the benefits of that integration visible to their customers and employees will be well-poised to reap rewards quickly as the economy recovers.

Here's an example. On a recent business trip, I flew Delta Airlines specifically because I knew that Delta's entire IT infrastructure (referred to as the Delta Nervous System) had been re-designed (see footnote 1) to handle the situation I was likely to be in: a multi-stop itinerary with a chance of weather delays and a tight deadline. Sure enough, when I arrived at Boston's Logan Airport, my departing flight had been delayed because of weather. The gate agents were pouring over the passenger manifest that told them which passengers were most likely to be inconvenienced. Since my name was toward the top of their list due to a tight connection, they were able to quickly reroute me, put me on a different set of connecting flights through a different city, and I was happily on my way before my originally-scheduled flight even left the ground. All the way through this two-day trip, I noticed how well-informed we, the passengers, were via Delta's easy-to-read and very informative information displays, telling us everything from flight delays and gate changes to who was first in the queues for upgrades and stand-by seats. The gate agents didn't have to answer endless questions, nor break their concentration by making lots of announcements. We knew when the plane was boarding, when our row on the plane would be boarding, and whether we had time to run down to the nearest Starbucks.

The moral of the story--I'll fly Delta again, whenever I know I am likely to need proactive help with a challenging itinerary. No airline can prevent weather or mechanical delays, but Delta has rewired its internal applications to make them as proactive and informative as possible to deal with the unexpected. If other passengers begin to feel the same way, Delta should be able to increase its share of wallet of the most profitable traveler segment--frequent business travelers.

The airline industry is a notoriously unprofitable one. The cost structure--planes, fuel, and expensive employees--make it very difficult to make money. But Delta has taken the right steps to streamline its internal operations in ways that enable it to serve customers as well as possible, yet keep its costs under control. And Delta gives its employees and its customers the information they need in context in order to make informed and effective decisions when coping with constantly changing and unpredictable situations.

Think about it--does your company have the adaptive systems, processes, and information flows in place to handle the unexpected gracefully? We believe that that capability will quickly separate the winners from the losers in the next decade.

Delta has rewired its internal systems and applications so that the business events that impact passengers the most (flight delays) can be spotted, and work-arounds can be quickly put in place. Notice that these work-arounds trigger workflows in which people are involved in a series of business-rules-based steps to reach a decision--"since this flight is delayed, and we have another set of flights that will get the passenger to her destination on time, let's re-route her." Work-arounds often involve collaboration among a series of people--they needed to ask me if I would be happy with their proposed solution, and my gate agent had to call the agent at the flight she wanted to get me on to make sure that they would board me at the last minute. This combination of streamlined business processes, application-to-application integration, workflow, and collaboration are the ingredients needed to deliver what we call "Adaptive Business Process Management."

In the coming weeks, you'll hear more from us about Adaptive Business Process Management, but first, we need to lay some groundwork. So, this week, please read David Marshak's perspective, entitled, "The Rebirth of Collaboration." In it, he offers a simple, useful set of distinctions that we apply when untangling collaboration services, workflow services, and business process services.

Application-to-application integration is another critical service for enabling streamlined business processes. Often, business process-led application-to-application integration is accompanied by human-assisted workflows. Each step in the workflow involves information that needs to arrive along with the task(s) that need to be accomplished. Geoffrey Bock's case study on Ford's enterprise Product Information Management (ePIM) initiative describes the process Ford Motor Company has gone through to make the complex processes involved in bringing a new car to market much more visible, streamlined, and adaptive.

It's interesting to note that both the Delta Airlines Delta Nervous System and Ford Motor Company's ePIM initiatives use very similar concepts. They both use business event-driven, publish and subscribe approaches. They both leverage the existing legacy applications. And they both use a "services" approach, if not a pure "Web Services" approach, to architecture. In other words, applications request services from other applications based on business events, business process flows, and human-assisted workflows.

Both Delta's and Ford's projects were major IT re-architecture initiatives that have been underway for several years. Those early investments are now paying off as both companies find themselves much better positioned to compete aggressively. These more flexible and adaptive IT infrastructures and information flows should enable Delta Airlines and Ford Motor Company to begin to rebound faster than their competition.


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