To some enlightened people, the glass is always half full and I must say, having had a good look at Capgemini’s newly released Global BPM Report, there is always a good reason to consider Business Process Management. Even – or especially – if you don’t like processes.
Let me explain.
As is noted in the foreword of the report, BPM has firm roots in management practices such as Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering and Model Based Development. It should be no surprise that many of the executives that were interviewed for the report still emphasize the role of BPM in this area: as a critical weapon in the battle for efficiency, effectiveness, compliance and transparency in processes. Clearly, this aspect of BPM attracts organizations that have a fairly mature process culture and deal with processes that are more or less stable, robust and predictable. TRAIN processes if you like, that benefit from being well defined, manageable, measured and monitored. This is a foundation for continuous, lean-style improvement and some executives will have their KPI’s directly linked to the results (just like the salaries of a few railroad CEO’s now depend on the punctuality of their trains).
On the other hand, in a challenging and changing business environment that is characterized by uncertainty, BPM allows organizations to adapt, be more agile and fleet of foot as well. Here we are looking at a breed of processes that should be just as easy to model and execute as to change (say supporting a new, composite consumer product or an unexpected partnership with another market player). Instead of burying process logic deep inside Java, ABAP or COBOL code, it is extracted and defined externally through a BPM suite. It puts processes right at the fingertips of the business side of organizations and turns them into more flexible BUS processes. They are able to quickly change route when internal or external circumstances dictate so, thus acting as an Agility Layer on top of the highly standardized, even commoditized parts of the business.
Still, there is yet another world which is difficult to grasp for people that like structure, control and pre-defined processes. It’s the world of this site, of CAR and SCOOTER ‘no processes’: unpredictable, continuously self-adapting and much more focused on reaching the destination, rather than planning the road towards it. People might be collaborating in many different ways – depending on the specific case at hand – and merely need to understand what information is needed from who to finalize the case, instead of being prescribed what activities to carry out in what order. Interesting enough, as the report points out, BPM is currently moving into exactly this unstructured, collaborative age with the newer tools providing No Process support through adaptive case management, business rules engines and real-time decision support.
So here is the good news: whatever mode of transport you fancy, there is something valuable to pick up from BPM. I am sure the Global Business Process Management Report will give you fresh ideas on where to start or restart. Have fun processing it.
One Saturday night the other week I was typing away on a book that I’m working on (probably called The new instability. How cloud computing, globalisation and social media enable to you to create an unfair advantage) and I let out what was probably a quite involved tweet without any context to explain it.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the shift we’re seeing in the business environment. The world seems pretty unstable at the moment. Most business folk assume that this is simply a transition between two stable states, similar to what we’ve seen in the past. This time, however, business seems to be unable to settle into a new groove. The idea behind the book is that the instability we’re seeing is now the normal state of play
Since Frederick Taylor’s time we’ve considered business – our businesses – vast machines to be improved. Define the perfect set of tasks and then fit the men to the task. Taylor timed workers, measuring their efforts to determine the optimal (in his opinion) amount of work he could expect from a worker in a single day. The idea is that by driving our workers to follow optimal business processes we can ensure that we minimise costs while improving quality. LEAN and Six Sigma are the most visible of Taylor’s grandchildren, representing generations of effort to incrementally chip away at the inefficiencies and problems we kept finding in our organisations.
This is the same mentality – incremental and internally focused, intent on optimising each and every task in our organisations – that we’ve used to apply technology to business. Departmental applications were first deployed to automate small repudiative tasks, such as tracking stock levels or calculating payrolls. Then we looked at the interactions between these tasks, giving birth to enterprise software in the process. Business Process Management (BPM) is the pinnacle of our efforts, pulling in everything from our customers through to suppliers to create the optimal straight through processes for our organisation to rely on.
Some vendors have taken this approach to its logical extreme, imagining (and trying to get us to buy) a single technology platform which will allow us to programme our entire business: business operating platforms. They’re aligning elements in the BPM technology stack with the major components found in most computers under the (mistaken) assumption that this will enable them to create a platform for the entire business. Business as programmable machine writ large.
The problem, as I’ve pointed out before, is that:
Programming is the automation of the known. Business processes, however, are the management and anticipation of the unknown.
Business is not a computer, with memory, CPUs and disks, and the hope of creating an Excel with which we can play what if with the entire business is simply tilting at windmills.
The focus of business is, and always has been, problems and the people who solve them. Technology is simply a tool we’ve used to amplify these people, starting with the invention of writing through to modern SaaS applications and BPM suites. While technology has had a previously unimaginable impact on business, it can’t (yet) replace the people who solve the problems which create all the value. People collaborate, negotiate, and smash together ideas to find new solutions to old problems. Computers simply replicate what they are told to do.
We’ve reached Taylorism’s use-by date. Define the perfect task and fit the man to the task no longer works. The pace of business has accelerated to the point that the environment we operate in has become perpetually unstable, and this is pushing us to become externally focused, rather than internally focused. We’re stopped worrying about collecting resources to focus on our reactions to problems and opportunities as they present themselves. Computing (calculating payrolls, invoices, or gunnary tables) is less important as it can be obtained on demand, and we’re more concerned with the connections between ourselves and our clients, partners, suppliers and even our competitors. And we’re shifted our focus from collecting ever more data as it becomes increasingly important to ask the questions which enable us to make the right decisions and drive our business forward.
Success today in today’s unstable environment means matching the tactic – process – to the goal we’re trying to achieve and our current environment, with different tactics being using in different circumstances. Rather than support one true way, we need to support multiple ways.
There has been some half steps in the right direction, with the emergence of Adaptive Case Management (ACM) being the most obvious one. A typical case study for ACM might be something like resolving SWIFT payment exceptions. When the ACM process is triggered a knowledge worker creates a case and starts building a context by pulling data in and triggering small workflows or business processes to seek out data and resolve problems. At some stage the context will be complete, the exception resolved, and the final action is triggered. Contrast this with the standard BPM case study, which is typically a compliance story. (It’s no surprise that regulations such as SOX drove a lot of business processes work.) BPM is a task dependency tool, making it very good at specifying the steps in the required process, but unable to cope with exceptions.
So what do we replace the Talyorism’s catch cry with? The following seems to suit, rooted as it is in the challenge of winning in a rapidly changing environment.
Identify the goal and then assemble the perfect team to achieve the goal.
To question what is real and what is not, Plato tells a story about a cave. In the middle of a cave, a number of prisoners sit against a small wall, chained since childhood. Behind them there is a huge campfire, which they cannot see. In between the campfire and the prisoners, people walk in and out. All the prisoners can see is the shadows of these people on the cave’s wall in front of them. And because of the echo, even the sounds the people make seem to come from the direction of the shadows. The prisoners would know no better than these shadows to be the real world.
Now let’s assume, Plato continues, that one prisoner is released from his chains, gets up and walks around. First he will not recognize anything in this new reality, but after time he would adapt. He would understand more about the new world, and perhaps even understand how people walking alongside a campfire cast shadows on the wall. What would happen if he would return to the other prisoners and tell them about what he has learned. They would ignore him, ridicule him, and if it weren’t for their chains, they would probably kill him.
A story from the ancient past? Certainly, but it still holds true. In fact, this is something to remember every time we sit behind the computer and look at a graph in our business intelligence tools, and study a Visio-style diagram that defines a process. They are not real, they are nothing but reflections. While we stare at the computer, reality is what is happening behind us.
Don’t be like the prisoner, mistaking graphs and diagrams for reality. Reality, or the most approximate thing to it, is in conversations between you and your customers. The more you try to model them, style them, and simplify them, the more abstract they become, the more of a shadow of reality they are. Instead, business managers and business analysts should focus on following the conversation with the customers and other stakeholders, and conduct business based on this reality. A business process then becomes not a predefined set of steps, but nothing more than a set of activities that allows you to talk, share and interact. Freely. Really.
Who could disagree with your plea for more perspective? And indeed, ‘classical’ BPM tools don’t seem to drive or motivate people. Then again, you might be reasoning just a bit too much from your own perspective, as an obviously free, independent and exploring individual. I know quite some people that actually benefit from having more rigid process support, as it releases them from having to plot the boundaries themselves and provides them with the foundation to create results, be successful and – ultimately – be happier.
I do not intend to be patronizing here, it’s just that not everybody has the mindset of a former Gartner analyst or Chief Technology Officer (random examples here, of course).
Having said that, let’s get back to the enabling applications. Old school BPM tools apparently don’t provide autonomy, mastery or purpose. Got that. You work for a technology company that approaches process management in a different way, with different tools. But do these tools actually create more perspective for its users, do they motivate and drive them? Or is that just too much asked of an application?
“Wax on, wax off”. That is a good one. And I don’t disagree. It is good to start with the basics. You can’t let go of the idea of the process, without mastering it first.
But let’s apply your parallel a bit further. Why did Daniel-san in the end go through the wax-on-wax-off thing for ages? Because he had perspective. His master did show him that if he would go through the basics, one day he would indeed be able to do the crane stance. He knew why he was doing it.
This perspective I am missing in the world of business process management. Sure, there are nice maturity models, but they are all written from within the paradigm. Daniel’s master knew that the purpose of learning is to learn how to unlearn as well. To know when to follow the rules and when to break them. To stand above your own discipline and reflect objectively on it. (I am using the word objectively very deliberately here. If you stand above your discipline, you are detached from it and can view it as an object. If you live within your discipline, you are part of the subject).
You are correct, one of my favorite observations is never to trust a theory that doesn’t predict its own end. Exactly the hallmark of mastering your discipline.
So, back to the point. Why am I arguing for letting the idea of the process go? Not because I want people to skip steps. On the contrary. The reason is that I would like to sketch perspective on why they are going through these steps. To liberate themselves.
Here we touch another point. People being free. It surprises me that the discipline of BPM is so conceptual and analytical. Where is the human approach? In his book “Drive”, Daniel Pink discusses the three things that motivate professionals: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Classical BPM doesn’t offer any of them. The process is in control, administrative professionals don’t have autonomy in transactional decision-making. And if you allow me a bit of sarcasm, the only mastery that current systems offer is mastery of the 154 screen in the system, instead of administrative professionals mastering their trade. And purpose? None of that all. Most processes don’t come much further than promising “just follow me, and everything will be alright.” For what will be alright? And for whom?
That we need to change! And then you’ll see people will master business processes faster and better.
Would you agree?
Let me come back to your previous post about the unnecessary focus of process people on – well – process. I guess in many ways you are right: people would be more flexible and effective if they could chart their own route towards creating results, not inhibited by fixed process definitions. Then again, there might be some areas where it is necessary to get a firm grip on processes first, before you can let them go. Let’s discuss a few of these instances in the forthcoming days.
You see, I truly believe that the end state of many products, topics and management theories is that they render themselves redundant. This is the essence of systematic innovation approaches such as TRIZ. Think you said it yourself as well, last week during the Gartner BPM Summit: never trust a management theory that does not have decommissioning itself as the final state.
But you don’t reach an end state before going to absolutely necessary first and intermediate steps. You’ve got to master the basic before you can elevate yourself.
Let’s call this Wax On, Wax Off: you can strive to be a karate master that defeats his opponents with an unthinkable crane stance (fighting which no longer looks like fighting), but before you get there, there are many years of hard work and practice on the basics.
Wax On, Wax Off.
We must master process basics first, before we can leave processes behind. We must at least be able to understand processes, define them, execute them, monitor them, improve them. Over and over again. It will take considerable time to reach the maturity levels that are needed to take next steps.
How do you see this? Could it be that your perspective is a bit too advanced, already seeing the end phase but not prepared to follow the entire road? Could you be like Daniel-san, just a bit too eager to achieve the master level?
Interested in your builds!
Great article on eBizQ that illustrates the NoProcess thinking – be careful applying process improvement frameworks such as Lean and Six Sigma in the more innovation & creative area’s in your company. You might cut a lot of cost, but you might cut the heart of the area as well, leaving you crippled in the longer run.
Around 2005 I first got involved in a project with some new innovative technology: Business Process Management (as we called it back then).
As business analyst, I was part of a team that also consisted of a number of developers. And till today, I remember the look in their eyes when they started to understand the possibilities and implications of this technology. And the same look I saw in the business manager’s eyes. And I did not like it.
The developers look: “Wow, before I could only drive the behavior of computers, but with this, this…. I can program people!” (I won’t go into the finer aspects of the developer psychology, including the way nerds are treated – hum ignored – by the cool business people – BPM as the perfect revenge!).
The manager’s look: “Wow, so I get a process-driven application, which pushes my people’s behavior, and gives me near real-time insight”. (As most managers have had unsecure childhoods, BPM was the perfect way to regain control).
And the uneasy feeling I got, was also because at that stage I was reading lot’s of management material, studying the history of management. The look in the eyes of these people felt “industrial revolution” or “Taylorian”.
Interesting – a new innovative technology, that takes us back to the thinking of 60 years ago – ignoring all the developments in management thinking – empowerment, self-steering teams, work as social dimension, etc. And it let back to the notion of “first process, than people”.
Oh, by the way – the project failed. Insufficient user acceptance.
My lesson: Don’t confuse the ends with the means. Process is not the goal – the goal is to support people collaborating and adding value to company and stakeholders. And process can be an element in helping these people structure and support their work. Process is (Capital) A means (and unfortunately often a barrier in many organizations…)
(This post also posted on http://process-transformation.blogspot.com)
Just to make sure: there is absolutely nothing wrong with White Elephants. Actually, in Asia they were often regarded as signs of prosperity and success and emperors would hold them as status symbols. On the other hand, these huge animals would deliver little value and yet cost a fortune to be maintained.
A White Elephant thus shows a fair balance of blessings and curses. Much like in the world of Business Process Management, which has its own collection of trunk bearing white animals. They are called Proof of Concepts. Sometimes, it’s too hard to explain to the organization what BPM can do (especially if we ask the Mother of All Truth, Wikipedia about BPM: “a holistic management approach focused on aligning all aspects of an organization with the wants and needs of clients”, sounds – well – very holistic indeed).
A local proof of concept, pragmatically addressing a real issue in the business, is then often a splendid way to break through the inertia. As we will show through three cases at the upcoming Gartner BPM Summit, it demonstrates the value of BPM and paves the path towards wider enterprise use. But every now and then, the owners of such a prototype become so attached to it, they cannot dispose from it anymore. It becomes their own, precious status symbol. Keeping it alive, scaling, performing and integrated with other systems requires disproportionate attention and budget. It can even inhibit a wider roll-out. It looked so fresh, promising and simple in the brochure of the technology provider. But now this big white beast has outgrown its stable and is blocking the entrance.
How to prevent it? Manage expectations upfront, explicitly. Design for scalability, performance and integration. Create and maintain an architectural perspective. Essentially: think cradle-to-cradle, even when it is ‘just’ a proof of concept.
There is great potential in a new breed of solutions that have BPM inside. Just make sure they don’t grow into White Elephants. Unless you are an emperor, of course
I am preparing for a panel debate and a brief case presentation at the upcoming BPM Gartner Summit in London. The theme of the summit is “Making it happen: Driving high performance results beyond the hype”. And although it makes you think of airport billboards, it has a promising, pragmatic tone. Let’s hope it works out, because you see: every now and then when the like-minded of our industry meet, they seem to be tempted to indulge in their own, well-fenced topic. They forget about the world outside and why they were into the topic in the first place.
It happened to SOA. SOA gurus discussed with other SOA gurus the importance of SOA, the journey to SOA, how to set up a SOA governance, SOA centres of excellence, SOA reference models, how to insure SOA compliance and – unavoidably – the ins and outs of SOA maturity models. Turned out that nobody else cared about SOA (only in what it could deliver) and it took some time for the profession to realise and pronounce the topic ‘dead’. Conferences full of Hammers discussing Nails in all sizes, categories and colours, I am sure you can easily point to similar areas (Cloud, EA, Web 2.0, anybody?) now and in the recent past.
Is it happening to Business Process Management too?
Maybe. It could be tempting indeed to dive into the mechanics of BPM, understanding how to create a culture of continuous process improvement, what methodologies to use, how to promote process stewardship across the organisation, essentially how to live and breath process. But here is the catch: process is not the Holy Grail and managing processes is not the Meaning of Life. Seriously.
We’re in the business of results: value that can be defined and measured. And yes, there is a growing number of organisational pains and aspirations that can be addressed with great solutions that are Powered by BPM. And for sure, if we want sustainable impact, we need a proper BPM governance and mindset (BPM Power, if you like). But in the end, the business case counts. Not an organisation’s score on a BPM maturity index.
This is why I particularly look forward to presenting three real-life cases that created clear results, including a compelling ‘drink your own champagne’ one within our own organisation. I would have loved to present a fourth case story in which we decisively voted not to apply BPM and created tremendous success. But admitted: for this audience, that would not exactly hit the nail on the head.Also published on Capgemini’s CTO blog.