RWTH Professor van der Aalst is the Key Founder of Process Mining




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The Dutch computer scientist took on an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship at RWTH in 2018.


When RWTH professor Wil van der Aalst orders a shirt or pair of socks online, he not only sees the order forms on the display – he also knows the digital processes required to make the purchase. For the process management expert, every step of the order is an important event and is therefore one of the subjects of his field of research, process mining, which means collecting and recording data in order to transfer them into process models. Process mining is considered the "key technology for the work of the future" and was awarded the 2019 German Zukunftspreis by German federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The world's leading research group in this field is working on this topic at RWTH. The group is headed by van der Aalst, who came to the University on an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship at the beginning of 2018. The Dutch computer scientist developed the pioneering research field of process mining at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands as early as 1999. Up to that point, processes were modeled in companies and then tested to apply these process models.

"At the time, I felt that was not the right way. The models rarely had much to do with reality,” remembers van der Aalst. For years, there was little support for this opinion. Systems were introduced, did not work, and had to be constantly amended. Modeled process models do not take sick leave or coffee breaks into account, and have always been inadequate.

Weaknesses in the process apparent

Process mining, however, takes a different approach. First, the data is collected, for example the behavior of employees or customers are recorded. This data is then evaluated and linked to the processes – for example, a product order. Whether it is an order, a payment, or a cancellation, all these events are assigned to a case – often several thousands of times. Thus, data collection forms 80 percent of process mining and data analysis 20 percent. In the end, it is easy to determine weak points in the processes, where time is being lost, or procedures are unclear.

"Process mining is spectacular because it uses real data with results that are often surprising. At first, it seems very abstract, but ultimately, it can be used in many areas generically and logically,” explains van der Aalst, a recognized leader in computer science. His research stands out by the fact that he examines concrete business processes, workflows, or organizational structures and is not limited to issues concerning pure data processing using software or algorithms.

Standard software in the future

Nowadays, baggage handling at airports, care procedures in hospitals, and online trading are increasingly based on process mining. Large companies, such as Siemens and BMW, have also discovered the benefits it has for their production facilities. A total of 200 different events are possible in wind turbines, and these are evaluated using process mining. “That was still hard to imagine when I initially started my research on this topic," says van der Aalst.

Many of the former students he taught in the Netherlands have since become entrepreneurs, with over 30 start-ups worldwide based on this process mining technology. The first company, founded in 2007, has since been sold to industry giant Lexmark. Others, such as Fluxicon and ProcessGold, have grown steadily in this expanding market. Celonis – a Munich-based start-up, for which van der Aalst acts as scientific advisor, won the 2019 Deutscher Zukunftspreis. "Wil van der Aalst is known as the founding father of process mining,” declares the award-winning company on its website.

The process mining expert published his first book in 2011. He then offered an open online course, a so-called MOOC, on the topic, which was followed by 120,000 people around the world. In the summer of 2019, the world's first international conference on process mining took place in Aachen and the topic continues to grow steadily. "It changes the way we work and there is still a need for development – process mining software will become the standard software in the economy," says van der Aalst.

Source: Press and Communications