Business Process Modeling Overview

Author: Neville Turbit


I have been asked many times to explain what Business Process Modeling is, and to explain how it fits with the design of IT systems. This article will set out to give an overview of what Business Process Modeling is all about, and where it fits in an organisation. BPM is not just about IT systems. It is about how a business carries out its processes in the most efficient manner, and how it supports staff to achieve this. It is about designing IT systems to support what people do rather than to have people do what the system tells them to do.

Any significant transaction based system development should seriously consider a BPM as the starting point. Many failures in IT projects can be traced back to a mismatch between the physical process and the IT process. These systems create red tape around what was a fairly straight forward process.

On the other extreme, if there is no consistent business process, how can you create an IT system to cater for all variations on the process? Is it better to agree one process before you start so IT is aiming at one target rather than many?

Why does a Business Process exist?

An organisation has a purpose. It may be to build and sell cars – e.g. Ford; it may be to manage health services – e.g. Department of Health; it may be to manage distribution of water or electricity. It may be to sell bread or tin jam.

In order to achieve this goal as efficiently as possible, the work is broken down into a number of discreet functions. A function may be Marketing, Billing, Delivery, Human Resources. All functions work together to contribute towards what the organisation exists for.

Each of these functions will have its own purpose and responsibilities which contributes to the overall goals. For example, Human Resources will be responsible for recruitment of staff, negotiation with Unions etc. In order to fulfil those responsibilities they create a number of processes, or “way of doing things in a repeatable manner”.

Repeatable Business Functions

There are a number of reasons for making business functions repeatable.

  • By doing it the same way each time it becomes more efficient
  • It is easier to train people if the process is consistent
  • There is less chance of mistakes if it is done the same way every time
  • Experience allows you to refine the process to take into account situations that may be slightly outside the normal

The Limitations of Business Process

The limitations of a business process are both internal and external.

  • Internally, the process will not fit every possible situation. There will still need to be activities undertaken to address unusual needs
  • Externally, the processes need to mesh with dozens of other business areas who have their own business processes. As one process changes, it can have a domino effect throughout the business. For example, a change to the format of an invoice which may suit the billing department can cause changes in the information collected from sales, processing payments, customer call centre and even the customer.

What is in a Business Process Model?

To create a business process model, you need to start by defining what the process is aiming to achieve, and how it fits with other processes. For example, a process to answer billing queries may have the following purpose.

“To resolve customer queries regarding payment so that the client will pay their bill.”

It contributes to the higher level goal of collecting money from clients, which in turn has another higher level objective of providing revenue for the organisation.

Focus of a Business Process Study

The modeling of a business process needs to look at all the activities that go into achieving the purpose. These include:

  • How the process contributes to higher level goals
  • The physical steps involved
  • The sequence in which those steps are undertaken
  • The skills required by the people who undertake the work
  • The authority the staff have to make decisions
  • The escalation process for decisions beyond their authority level
  • The organisational structure
  • The roles and responsibilities of individuals (for example, it may be more efficient to have one person concentrate on billing enquiries rather than be a generalist)
  • The physical location and how it might impact their ability to perform (for example, if they were located on a different floor, would they spend less time going to another department to find information)
  • How the customer makes contact with the staff member (for example, do they always contact the right area. In a call centre, you do not want to take calls for internal staff, or perhaps you do)
  • The interaction between customer and staff (e.g. what information is requested and provided)
  • The documentation produced (how it is produced, and if it is in a format that is easy to produce. Do you have to make photocopies which is time consuming)
  • Why the documentation is produced and where it goes
  • The documentation used (training manuals, reference lists, checklists etc.)
  • The information requirements of people to do their job (do they have access to the latest invoice as well as previous invoices? Do they have the date of the meter reading if it was for a provision of water to a property)
  • The timing of the various steps (how do you measure efficiency)
  • What are the key performance areas (calls per day, types of call, administration time, time photocopying?)
  • How does each process link internally and externally
  • The parts of the process that are supported by IT systems
  • How matched to the process are those IT systems

What does a Process Model look like

There are a number of ways in which it can be represented. The most basic is a flow chart produced with a tool like Visio or ABC Flowcharter. It may be useful for a snapshot of the process but does not allow you to link to things like documents, standards, reports and forms. Nor does it allow you to do things like automatically calculating the time for a complete process by adding up the time for each step or modeling changes to the process. More sophisticated analysis is not possible.

A number of tools have been developed to make the process more comprehensive. One such is the Holocentric Modeller ( with which the writer has had some experience. I will use this to illustrate some aspects of process modeling It records the process as a series of drill down diagrams. The following is a single page produced for another organisation by the writer using the Holocentric modeller. It relates to the approval of an idea for a new project.

Explanation of the Diagram

  • The two boxes at the top “Proposal Process” and “Start Up Phase” indicate the hierarchy of this particular process diagram. The “Idea Approval” is one part of the “Start Up Phase” which is in turn part of the “Proposal Process”
  • Beside “New Idea Generated” is an icon that if clicked, will display the template to be used.
  • The “New Idea Generated” is a manual process as opposed to a “System Process”
  • The box headed “PP01 is supplementary information regarding the sub-process
  • By clicking on the “New Idea Generated” the following screen of information is displayed.

One Process Bubble – New Idea Generated

To focus on one of the bubbles, it contains the following information. Only one of the tabbed screens is displayed.

As can be seen, there is facility to capture all sorts of information including the normal and alternate courses, contacts and relationships to other tasks. Time and resources can also be captured.

Use of Business Process Model

The BPM is used for the following purposes.

  • Understand and document what we do now
  • Understand and document what we want to do in the future
  • Identify where the IT systems can support the process and hence provide a starting point for the design of those systems
  • Become the basis for training staff
  • Become a repository for knowledge regarding the business processes
  • Identify where other departments and processes become an interface to this department

Using a modeling tool

Whilst it is not our intention to promote Holocentric in this white paper (although they do have a great tool) by showing their approach, it provides a better understanding of what process modeling is all about.

One key feature is that any tool should be simple enough for internal staff to use themselves. Whilst there is some skill in creating the initial model, it should be flexible enough for internal staff to use it to upgrade ever evolving processes.

The output should be available in an easy to use format. For example, the Holocentric tool outputs the process as HTML which can be loaded directly onto an intranet. It is all point and click to track through the model, and look at related documents.

Using a Business Process Model

The following example will indicate the value of a model. The example uses a Call Centre.

Suppose the first step in the model is to receive a call. How the call is answered will determine the next steps. Alternatively the next steps may determine how the call is answered. Let us take three answers:

  • How can I help you?
  • Can I have your name please?
  • Is this call in relation to your account?

Option 1

The first option would suit a generalist type of person on the phones. They know something about everything in the company. The screen they have in front of them has fast access to a number of different functions (accounts, deliveries, orders etc.). They would also need a broad responsibility to approve customer requests such as changing accounts, canceling deliveries and changing orders. They need to be surrounded by a library of information which may be on their PC but might also be on files or microfiche. The need access to experts in particular areas. They may need parts manuals and telephone lists.

Option 2

The second option means that they need to be able to enter the customer name and immediately see the customer details such as address, order history, billing history, contact history. This approach may suit a CRM system. The other issue to consider is when the caller will not give a name. It may be a general sales enquiry, or relate to another customer (for example reporting an electrical black out in a particular area). In the particular business, is the customer name always important? There is also the issue of getting a customer to give you their name when they have been on hold for a significant period of time. They just want to tell you their problem.

Option 3

The third option may suit a call centre where most calls are accounts related. You then need to look at the process if it is not accounts. Where to then? If it is accounts, what information do you need? Can you prepare people by having a recorded voice asking them to have their account number ready, or give them options (dial 1 if it is in relation to your last account…).

Designing your process has implications on the dialog for the phone, the system design, the skill and authority of staff, and the design of supporting systems.


The purpose of business process modeling is to understand what you do now, and what you might want to do in the future. It challenges the way things are done now, and looks at what you need to get the job done. That includes IT systems, information, training, authority and responsibility, interaction with other areas and documentation. In a perfect world, it should be the first step in designing any transaction based system.

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