An Audience With….Steve Kruba, CTO at Northrop Grumman

Steve Kruba is chief technologist for Northrop Grumman’s e.POWER® product development team and a Northrop Grumman Technical Fellow. Steve is a software evangelist for the e.POWER product, working with project implementation teams and customers to shape their solutions. One of Steve’s key responsibilities is working with other Northrop Grumman teams adding e.POWER to their customer solutions. Northrop Grumman’s combination of an industry-leading BPM product along with its extensive customer knowledge base through managing major government programs is somewhat unique in the industry.

Steve has 40 years of experience developing software and solutions for customers. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a Certificate for Continuing Engineering Studies, and a master’s degree in management sciences, all from the Johns Hopkins University.

 

2009 was seen as fairly turbulent for most but toward the end of the year many kicked off major change programs focused on process transformation. How do you expect 2010 will unfold for the BPM industry generally and for BPM vendors?

Much of our e.POWER business at Northrop Grumman is driven by the United States federal government. Although we were affected by both the the global economic downturn and the change in administration, we did relatively well last year.

2010 seems to mark the beginning of the economic recovery, which to the BPM market means that we can return to the upward trend in adoption rates that had become evident during the previous year.

It has been apparent for a couple of years that the BPM market was beginning to move from a niche market into the mainstream. The functionality of products like e.POWER and some of our competitors has reached the point where the difficult job of automating critical business processes has become dramatically easier. The rapid applications development (RAD) capabilities have evolved to the point where they fundamentally change the way we approach solutions. Rather than model solutions on paper as we did in the past, we can now build functioning prototypes to use for requirements gathering and analysis as well as implementation–and not just the business process, but the process-enabled application as well. We do that in days for proofs-of-concept and weeks for robust prototypes, rather than weeks and months. These RAD tools form the basis for agile solutions since they make it easier to introduce the changes needed for agile cycles.This is a powerful new way to approach solving these problems.

Do you expect clients to alter their buying criteria as a result of the downturn and concentrate on initial cost first rather than ROI or indeed the need for BPM itself to support strategy?

Cost and ROI are always a factor in the decision to automate. RAD and agile – which greatly reduce the initial cost – help to tilt the decision in favor of moving forward.

Our target market of mission critical problems is not as sensitive to cost as it is to risk. Our increasing ability to produce more and more of a solution out-of-the-box, rather than through custom coding, makes our customers more comfortable than with alternate approaches.

We have always felt that BPM was strategic to our customer base and that has shaped our approach to the market. Although RAD and “easy” are critical aspects of our approach, they cannot come at the expense of short-cutting key functionality in these mission-critical solutions.

What’s your definition and philosophy toward BPM?

I gravitate toward the Gartner definition of BPM that it is fundamentally a management discipline facilitated through technology. Northrop Grumman is a solutions company and that is reflected in our approach to evolving our e.POWER product. We have tended to be more successful selling to business customers than information technology (IT) organizations because our focus has always been on effectively solving their business problems.

There are two key aspects of BPM solutions. The first is helping to make the business users more effective since they always define the critical path in the process. Flexibility in creating rich user-interfaces is key here and we have invested a lot in our custom forms capability (configuration rather than coding) so that resistance to creating yet-another-user-interface doesn’t stand in the way of a successful project. Since any significant BPM solution rarely exists in a vacuum, the second key is integrating the BPM part of the solution into the overall IT environment. Any relevant existing information asset – whether it be a foreign database or another application – must be readily accessible from our solution.

There’s a lot of focus right now on Case Management, with a move toward more dynamic and adaptive definitions being talked about at recent conferences. Do you envisage a shift from the more structured approaches to BPM toward Case?

Case management and knowledge work have always been one of e.POWER’s strong use-cases. Although we support clerical operations as well, it is largely serviced by a subset of the functionality needed to support case management.

Our view of what is needed for a case worker is access to all electronic aspects of the case: electronic documents, case history, related cases, collaboration, a very rich search capability as well as interaction with complementary “foreign” applications (i.e., other third-party or custom applications). We’re developing an equal employment opportunity solution that automatically provides the case worker with access to any previous complaints made by the complainant and any previous complaints against the supervisor. It provides a feature to create class action lawsuits which reference each of the constituent cases in detail.

We released a product more than 10 years ago called “Staff Action” used by government entities to respond to outside inquiries at the executive level. One of the key aspects of the product was the ability to dynamically “staff” a response to the inquiry using what we call our “ad hoc” workflow capability – very similar to an interoffice mail buck-slip. Several years ago, we subsumed that capability into our structured workflow tool. Now any participant in a process can create their own ad hoc, mini-workflow to collect collaborative input from their colleagues (and each of them in turn can do the same) in order to more effectively complete their piece of the work.

We have a number of key features within e.POWER that are collaborative – the above-mentioned ad hoc capability, threaded-discussion notes, documents, related cases, etc. – but in my view, BPM is still fundamentally about workflow – movement of work between workers and automated agents within the enterprise, rather than pure collaboration. So while it may not be the key to the new-knowledge creation aspects of pharmaceutical research, it would fit well into the review of the resulting new drug (including scientific review), its testing, as well as the approval processes.

Case management has a creative component that can be facilitated by BPM, but not always completely satisfied on its own. BPM products have to be able to effectively work with foreign applications that provide specialized functionality in support of a BPM solution without necessarily including that functionality within th

e product. I like to relate this to my first p
urchase of a hi-fi stereo system in the 1970s. I had to choose between a nice console system that was a beautiful piece of furniture with an integrated turntable, AM/FM radio, and amplifier, or a set of integrated but separate components that did the same things.

Most of you probably have no idea what I mean by a console stereo system because they are no longer manufactured today. I think BPM vendors are at risk of a similar fate if they are not aware of what kind of product capabilities they can effectively support — and do that extremely well — versus trying to do too much and produce a mediocre product that doesn’t meet customer needs. I have serious reservations about the trend toward increasing product consolidation (e.g., BPM with rules management system, simulation and modeling, etc.): our approach has always been best-of-breed.

An article in Forrester talked about turning to the process professionals more in 2010 and Gartner’s Magic Quadrant underwent a makeover in how they approached their analysis last year. Do you still see a need for the kind of high brow research which is perceived to be vendor led/driven given the rise of independent professional blogs and insight columns?

Northrop Grumman works with industry analyst organizations, including the Gartner Group, and I think they serve a useful function. By the same token, I think that academia, product organizations like ours, and new Internet-based formats like BPMRedux’ each provide exciting new ideas on how to solve the most fundamental problem faced by any organization: how to improve its business processes. What we have to understand is that business process is the life-blood of any organization, and almost by definition, its most difficult problem. The assumption that Gartner or Forrester or Northrop Grumman is the last word in what might work for you is a misunderstanding of the state of the art.

There’s a shift towards Cloud/SaaS offerings, Social BPM fever is starting to take hold after a few years in the wilderness and some are venturing into the Mobile space, are these viable roadmaps for vendors to look into or just hype for now?

Cloud is such an overused term that it’s hard to have a discussion without first defining what is meant. In my view, the power of cloud is in the underlying technologies – primarily virtualization – leading to significant reductions in capital expenditures, energy consumption and infrastructure management costs. Much of the promise is based on where cloud and virtualization is headed (as opposed to where it is today), but it makes sense to me to move to virtualization today in anticipation of the maturing of the other components of cloud. If you approach cloud from that perspective, public vs. private doesn’t matter much – they are just delivery models like software as a service.

I’m not really sure what “Social BPM” means. If I had to define it, I would say it’s about finding appropriate ways to leverage social media for solving problems in the business process space. I think that’s going to happen largely independently of what we as BPM vendors do because the technologies are so generic that their presence is felt in all electronic endeavors. It’s probably too soon to determine which of these technologies will need to be embedded into BPM tools, but my initial thinking has been that they are largely orthogonal.

Mobile is becoming an important aspect of business automation. BPM solutions have to factor in the differing needs of participants that run the gamut from heads-down users to workers-on-the-run that contribute only on an occasional basis. Mobile is complicated by the limited real-estate available on mobile devices which makes scenarios like in-depth case management problematic, but there are plenty of less complex interactions like executive approvals and field service that lend themselves to mobile devices.

If there was one thing you could tell someone who is just starting out on the BPM journey what would it be?

For more than a decade, our philosophy at Northrop Grumman has been for customers to recognize that “the proof is in the pudding,” and we have designed e.POWER with that simple tenet in mind. When I listen to marketeers extolling the virtues of their product over the competition, even my eyes glaze over and I get confused — I really feel for customers trying to make sense of it all. With our RAD capabilities, we typically create a working prototype of a solution for a customer before the first meeting because we can and because it doesn’t really cost us more than a day or so of effort. At the very least, I would urge customers to go down an acquisition path that requires a significant prototype from their vendor before making a final commitment. This could be as painless as paying for an initial strawman solution as part of the requirements process that would double as a test of the vendor’s ability to perform.

What’s the next big thing you would like to see happening in BPM?

BPM has changed so much in recent years that I’m looking forward to less change rather than more. Actually, the next big change I’m anticipating is wide-spread adoption. In my opinion, there’s rarely a reason today to create a business solution that isn’t driven by two key software technologies: BPM and service oriented architecture (SOA). I created the graphic shown here about a year ago to illustrate that the two technologies are not tightly interconnected as some claim, but complementary. Virtually any business automation effort today involves a business process while SOA is the key to integrating the set of rich, typically commercial-off-the-shelf products, needed to provide the complete solution.

Finally, what next for Steve Kruba?

I don’t see any major changes on my horizon. After more than 15 years watching the BPM market mature, I’m ready to ride the wave. I’m planning to spend more time writing about our approach to BPM. I’ve split my time over the years between working on the product itself, traveling the speaker circuit trying to articulate our approach to the BPM market, and working with project teams on implementations: learning what works and what doesn’t. I think the industry and our approach is now refined enough to focus on documenting our approach — based more on our extensive experience with customer solutions than theory.

We have some really exciting options coming out with the final component of our Web services-based release in a few months. This is the culmination of a complete rewrite of e.POWER from scratch started several years ago and for which we began releasing components in 2005. This new codebase, based on the latest software development tools and techniques, has allowed us to move the product to the next level. One feature that we’re really excited about is our generalized approach to subscriptions which will allow designers and users alike to subscribe in very significant ways to any of our standard 200 event-classes or to extend those classes to include custom events that we manage for them.

So I’m mostly looking forward to how the industry gathers momentum and which ideas will stick and which will fade away. And I hope that Northrop Grumman can help to shape that direction.

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