At first there was a mistake, a huge mistake. In the 1990s, Wil van der Aalst, a mathematician at the Technical University of Eindhoven, strongly believed in being able to model work processes in companies into some kind of ideal. And if you were to behave this way, there would be great efficiency gains. The economy was very interested, software was developed and also purchased for this. “But it was never really used”, finally discovered van der Aalst, “many projects have failed”.
He eventually developed a new method, which is now used successfully in many companies around the world. The Munich-based Celonis, now valued at more than ten billion dollars, is the market leader in what is called process mining. Van der Aalst, 55, decided to work there in the future as chief scientist, in addition to his teaching work in Aachen.
The idea of process mining arose from a very simple scientific question: if reality does not stick to the processes that people imagine, can we learn something from the processes themselves? What if soon became evident. Business processes leave traces in IT systems, for example that of SAP. “They are always tables with columns full of dates and timestamps,” explains van der Aalst. This data would be used to derive the actual flow of the processes.
“People always think the processes are complicated”
How does the process go, what happens frequently, what takes time – with questions like these very simple data can be derived, and it ultimately leads to a model that shows how processes in companies actually work and where there are problems. “People are often amazed that you can show new things to the people who work with these processes on a daily basis. “
Most of the processes in businesses are actually straightforward. “People always think the processes are complicated,” explains the mathematician, “but 80% are actually simple.” The complexity lies in the remaining 20 percent, “which causes 80 percent of the problems.” With his method, bottlenecks can be identified. “The reasons are clear,” says van der Aalst, “this allows for predictions.” The Celonis company, which stumbled upon the process mining developed by him by chance, played an important role in this regard. You convert the knowledge thus discovered into action.
Wil van der Aalst, who started his scientific career in Eindhoven, now teaches at RWTH Aachen University. “I’ve always done research, but I’m also excited to found people for it,” he told himself. He always wanted to remain independent, even though he supported many companies. “But something has changed,” he says. For a long time, research has been one step ahead of companies that use its technology. Today, however, companies like Celonis have also developed automated actions to remove bottlenecks in processes from the start.
Because there are a lot of questions that can only be answered if you use technology on a daily basis, he decided to join a company. The choice fell on Celonis because the Munich-based company controls 60 to 70 percent of the market. “I hope that I will have more influence on the fact that the developments resulting from the research are integrated into the software.” Celonis is a very interesting company, “Germany can be proud of it”, says van der Aalst, Germany and the Netherlands are the leaders in process mining.
With van der Aalst, Celonis not only wins the dean of the discipline, but a Celonis research center is also to be set up at the University of Aachen – a good measure against the shortage of skilled workers in the ‘industry.