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Blogs > Office Jotter

Social networking and process management - Part 2 of 4
Roger Whitehead By: Roger Whitehead, Director, Office Futures
Published: 28th July 2011
Copyright Office Futures © 2011

This is the second part of my musings on enterprise social networking and process management. Today I look at what process management does. As ever, I try to keep the industry jargon to a minimum.

Processes everywhere

The first vows sworn by two creatures of flesh and blood were made at the foot of a rock that was crumbling to dust; they called as witness to their constancy a heaven which never stays the same for one moment; everything within them and around them was changing…
Oeuvres Romanesques
, Denis Diderot (1713–84)

Much management thinking and writing is about entities—things—that are supposedly unmoving, unchanging and separate. This is a convenient fiction.

The reality is that most of what you see around you, whether you can touch it or not, is part of some process or other. It is on its way to being something else.

Some entities might perhaps look permanent but this is only because the changes they are undergoing are invisible to normal view or are imperceptibly slow. Take London’s Marble Arch as an example. Looks permanent enough, doesn’t it?

Appearances deceive. Not even the arch’s position is permanent. It originally formed the main entrance to Buckingham Palace, nearly a mile away, but had to move when the palace was extended. There is a planning process involved.

Other processes include:

  • geological — the marble of which the arch is made was formed through processes lasting hundreds of millions of years. Even now it is being eroded by wind, rain and acid molecules, eventually to become part of other rocks in future aeons.
  • industrial — quarrying Carrara marble is an industrial tradition over 2,000 years old.
  • historical — the Arch’s design copies that of Constantine’s Arch in Rome, erected 1,700 years ago.
  • individual — the career of John Nash, the Arch’s architect.
  • artistic – the development of the Georgian school of architecture, of which this is a representative, and the rise of public art in the early 19th century.
  • economic – London had at that time become the wealthiest city in the western world. Artists, especially architects, need patrons.
  • fashion – building large country ‘seats’ was the vogue for the very wealthy as a form of conspicuous consumption, much like today’s flaunting of ostentatiously large yachts.
  • developmental – London was also expanding, and ‘The Great Wen’ soon swallowed up many of these country houses, turning them into town houses.

That’s nine processes easily identified, for something static and slow moving. I expect there are more. Is any one of them more important than the rest? Could you nominate one of them to be representative or definitive, excluding all the others?

Now think how many processes there must be within an organization, with people, materials, machines, actions, information, finances, pressures, influence and plans in constant and rapid flux. Yet practitioners of Business Process Management (BPM) seem happy to give significance to just one process, that of the flow of work.

It’s as though it they have selected this flow to represent or define the entire organisation, to the exclusion of all other possible processes. Curious, isn’t it?

So, what is a business process?

First, what is a business? It’s any organization that makes or does things that people or other organizations regard as being of value. That value is not always or even often monetary.

An organization is two or more people or organizations working together in a mutually accepted relationship, whether permanent or temporary.

A process is a sequence of actions and events aimed at achieving a purpose, normally completing a task. It turns inputs into at least one output.

Business processes are any kind of process that takes place within or with an organization.

Teleology and tendentiousness

Most definitions of business processes fail on one or some of three counts. The first is the belief that the process needs to have been purposely designed. Second, that it is recurrent. Third, that it produces something of value. None of these is necessary.

When, in the 1990s, Business Process Re-engineering (or Redesign) was in rampaging fashion, victims would often query the “re-engineering / redesign” part of the programme’s title. In a sort of gallows humour, they would point out that many of their organization’s processes hadn’t been designed in the first place—they just happened.

That is still the case. There are many corporate processes that have yet to be modelled from end to end, streamlined and computerised. Even the most haphazard of them is a process, nonetheless.

The same applies to processes that are invoked or created just once. A typical example would be when making a firm’s first merger or takeover, or fighting it. There might be some experienced individuals on hand to suggest who does what and how, but the process that emerged would be unique to that organization and that situation. It would still be a process, however.

Finally, there is the question of value. Even if a process were a drain on corporate resources, producing nothing but scrap, say, it also would still be a process. Value is of course normally to be wished for, unless your name is Max Bialystock, but is not essential for a set of actions to constitute a process.

What, then, is Business Process Management?

BPM is the use of a specific form of workflow management software. This software does five main jobs; it:

  • enables the automation of processes across the entire organization and beyond it
  • makes it easier to improve existing business processes and create new ones
  • gives managers (almost) real-time information on the performance of processes
  • puts existing and new application software under the direct control of business managers
  • allows organizations to take full advantage of new computing services.

At least, that’s what it said on the tin a few years ago. Things may have moved on slightly since then but the essentials are the same. So, too, are the attitudes of many BPM practitioners. Some of them still see everything in terms of process and all other software as adjuncts of BPM software.

That viewpoint is a good servant but a bad master. An eye for process is important when looking to improve business performance (and is one of the better inheritances of the BPR crusade). An eye that sees nothing else is diseased.

Removing the grit from the oyster

Coincidentally, I was reading today this article about what makes a good CEO. It occurred to me while doing so that none of the desiderata described has any connection with the aims of process management. They are to do with human qualities, with team working and with experience. “Do you start twitching when things are operating smoothly and want to shake things up?”, it asks.

Put another way, what these CEOs are looking for is about exceptionalism, the very thing that BPM seems to want to drive out (but, you could argue, that social software can encourage). Does this mean that BPM is irrelevant or, more kindly, that it is relevant only to managing the everyday and the routine?

I shall talk about that later. Part 3 in this short series looks at what we design systems for.

(BTW, much of the early material in this post derives from a book on BPM that I wrote five years ago with Jon Pyke and John O’Connell, then CTO and Chairman respectively of Staffware plc.)

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