Friday, 5 January 2007

Putting The Business First

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Columnists often focus on the relative merits of X technology and how it compares with technology Y. Or, they compare standard A with standard B. In future columns I will no doubt do this myself. I suggest, however, that columns on business process ought to take a broader view. A recent report from Gartner Group suggested that only about 20% of the processes in any organization can be automated. Yet 90% of the words we read about business process are focused on the technology used to implement process automation. What of the other 80% - all those processes performed by people?

At least some of the tool vendors are getting smarter and recognizing that if they are to grow to their full potential then they need to focus on how they can help people deal with the other 80%. This is great, but still, a tool is only as good as the person using it.

Where can we find the information we need to deal with the nontechnology aspects of process change? What techniques are needed? And why are they important?

Historically, it would seem that technology vendors assume that either this is not their problem, or that their users will have managed to ferret out the needed information from the vast array of available business and management books. The consulting firms will do non-automation projects for you, but most management consultancies would rather give you advice about people problems and then leave you to handle them.

It is fair to say that in any project, IT or not, it is the people issues that make the difference between success and failure. The ability of your company to successfully adopt new practices in business process will owe more to your ability to effect the cultural change required in your organization than it will to the IT tools you use.

Of course, this problem is highly visible when you look at the speaker line-ups and topics covered at "industry" conferences. They seem to either focus on the IT aspects for IT people, or the business issues for business people. Traditionally conferences have not taken a holistic view – especially when it comes to business process. In Europe, at least, it appears this is about to change.

I was recently invited to join a pre-conference speaker lunch, hosted by the Business Process Management Group (BPMG) to discuss their upcoming conference, the Global Business Process Forum 2003. Listening to the topics of conversation, I was amazed. Here was a group of people not discussing versions of software or comparing BPM solutions, but discussing how they could help the attendees deal with the people, cultural and organizational issues required to produce a successful business process project.

Round the table we had people like business process guru, Roger Burlton, respected IT industry analyst and known skeptic, and Katy Ring. Both were readily agreeing that whilst technology was important, all too little time was spent helping people deal with and manage the non-IT issues.

In fact, as they introduced me to the program, it seemed that 2 of the 3 tracks were dedicated to people and culture issues, whilst the third dealt with technology. And, best of all, the keynote sessions were focused on issues of interest to the whole audience and were designed to present both sides of the story. (You can find details of the GBPF 2003 conference in the Calendar section of the BPTrends portal or at

After attending the planning session, I decided to do a little further research, trying to find out whether this really was so unusual. The results I found were quite interesting.

I could find no other conferences that tried to bridge the gap. There were, of course, many technology-focused conferences that included presentations from users on their experiences, but largely these stories were about how someone managed to make technology work for them. Conversely, there were a number of seminars aimed at CEO's discussing the importance of change, how to drive up profits, reduce costs, etc..

From personal experience, I understand how difficult it is to cross the divide. I have spoken at a number of conferences in Europe, where I think I am presented as the "novelty" speaker – the one who dares try and talk about business issues to IT people, or the one who dares suggest to business people that they might like to consider how IT can help. Having said this, I have noticed several signs suggesting this might change. At a recent Software Architecture conference in the UK, more end users were asking about how to deal with business managers than I have heard before, and many reported that they were now working on mixed IT/business project teams.

The other interesting thing that I found was that, increasingly, vendors and consulting firms alike are starting to "tread on each other's toes." Apparently they have decided that end users are more and more likely to turn to a provider that can help them implement the people and cultural issues, as well as the technology issues. This raises some interesting issues How many technology vendors or consulting firms are prepared to provide a consultant to help you utilize or understand techniques like Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), or any other technique designed to help understand people and their motivations? Conversely, how many management consultancies would suggest using modeling tools to document and analyze a process implemented entirely by employees?

As I said in the beginning, if only 20% of our business processes can be automated, then we need to be doing a lot more to measure, manage and improve the 80% that can't.

Note: This article first appeared in April 2003 on Mark McGregor's "Postcard from Europe" Series of articles on BPTrends

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