Friday, 27 July 2007

Don’t Shoot The Messenger

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During the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be able to meet, discuss and debate BPM with thousands of people in many countries. The discussions and debates (as ever) lead to better informed thinking, yet there remains serious questioning of the messages and values presented. However, none of those debates has caused me to question my underlying beliefs, but they have caused me to question what is BPM and the way that people are trying to apply it. In this article I would like to share some of my thoughts and I hope that these thoughts may assist you in your endeavors as you move forward.

I should state at the outset that I am in no way looking to define "Process", "Business Process" or Enterprise Business Process" in this article, instead in this article I want to revisit the over arching question of what is BPM.

The first thing that becomes very apparent in classes and presentations is that the fundamental beliefs and perceived values from BPM differ tremendously from person to person and organization to organization. The second thing is that whilst those beliefs differ, all seem to be agreed that processes themselves are a valuable tool for managing and improving business. As we shall see the differences are more around the fundamental question of "What is BPM."

In the first case the more I talk with people the more I hear the words "it is too theoretical and you keep focusing on the people, what we want are concrete approaches to deal with the technology systems issues." This is despite the fact that through the use of the 8 Omega Framework we are delivering an end to end process for process projects and addressing all four of the key perspectives. In analyzing this feedback I am coming to the conclusion that is the increasing majority of people that say that, the question is why? It may not be what people want to hear but it seems that the word "theoretical" is actually being used to express "it's too difficult" or "it is not the part of the problem/issue I want to address" or "if you can't give me a detailed step by step to doing it that I like the sound of then it is not for real."

These responses do not make sense when we consider how successful organizations like Easyjet, Egg, Capital One and others are. But, if we look a little deeper then we can start to understand the issues. Organizations like those listed do not need to be told or sold on the idea of customer focus; they just know that it is vital to their success. Companies like these do not need to be sold on the idea that it is a management issue, they also do not need to be convinced about process or that people are what make the difference. They just get it! What they don't worry about is whether they are applying strict practice or methodology, they do not worry about what the systems or technology issues might be or whether they are following the latest management trend. They are leaders who have recognized that customers, people and processes are key and that systems can be built or bought that will support the way they want to work. These are the companies that are applying the concepts and principles of BPM through practice and not theory.

In the second case the number of people turning to BPM as a way of solving their process related issues is growing at a phenomenal rate. They are all agreed that a greater level of process awareness and process improvement can and will have a dramatic effect on their business. What they do not agree with are the concepts and principles of BPM – I am being a little harsh here but in the main they want to use the word "Process" out of BPM but without focusing their efforts around the customer, without reorganizing their structure around process lines and without changing the management and reward systems in their organizations – they want to use process for system specification, they want to use process to promote common understanding of work, they want to use process to drive cost out of their business. Do these things make them wrong? Yes! And No!

Yes, if they want to be able to tell the world that they fixed issues and problems using BPM and No, if they are clear that their objectives are to use process to deal with one or more of the issues detailed above. Process will certainly be able to deliver on these things and there are many hundreds of examples of successful projects, but they should not tell the world they are doing BPM, they should be honest and say they are working on a process awareness program or a process improvement program. This will mean that their success can be judged accordingly.

This distinction is important if we are to ensure that the benefits of BPM as a management paradigm are not tarnished. If we look back in history, many of the failures associated with BPR are attributed to the fact that people just picked the bit they liked the sound of, did it well and achieved some positive results. But they were not able to deliver the step change results that were expected. So we have to manage expectation. Using the process elements of BPM will deliver incremental (in some cases BIG increments) but it will not deal with the fundamental cultural issues that prevent organizations from thinking freely, innovating and increasing their agility.

Increasingly we will see BPM split into two camps, those that buy the principle and address the two key points – Customer Focused and Cultural Change – and the other camp that uses process to continue to drive the traditional better cheaper faster model. Be under no illusion the second camp will be larger, certainly by a magnitude of more than 10 and probably more like 100. But this does not make them right and the first camp wrong.

Based on our experiences with, and studies of, clients and their organizations the wins for the first camp will in the end be bigger and more sustainable. It may even be, that just like the Harvard study of the 1960's into people with goals and those without, that the 3% who fall into the first category will eventually be worth more than the other 97% put together! A figure that might be hard to justify, but of course to deny it would be to assume that the better cheaper faster model will be enough to keep the other 97% trading at levels that ensure they are still viable. If that seems like scaremongering or far fetched then look at manufacturing. In the western world we are still losing jobs by the thousands every week and organization after organization is closing down. Can we really assume that this applies to them but won't affect us?

From a BPM Group perspective it does not really matter which camp you are in, our training and education program is suited to both camps. The skills we teach around Process Analysis and Design and Problem Analysis are transferable and applicable to both sides. However it is interesting to note that as we talk to students around the soft issues such as communication, stakeholders, people and root cause analysis many feel that they are not being given the tools they need. It is interesting that in a recent one day class a student gave this feedback but when questioned further agreed that he had in fact be given (with full explanation) 12 different tools – his parting comment, "Yes, but they are all soft tools aimed at understanding the problem, analyzing the problem and communicating the problem in business terms to management. They are not real tools, what I expected was to be told what software would do that for me!"

BPM tools or techniques will never (at least not in my lifetime) replace the human brain and its capacity to understand people and psychology, so until that time we had better learn the techniques and skills that enable us to use ours to tell the systems what we need.

It is our firm belief that Process Analysts who can bring that range of soft and hard skills to bear will be of the greatest value to organizations – whichever of the former two camps they are in.

Before being written off as anti-technology or not appreciating the value of new and modern BPMS systems, I would just like to state that these systems are extremely valuable, but in the main address a different issue. These systems are designed to support the business we have in a more flexible and adaptable way. They are engineered to enable them to change with us and so address the historical problem of inflexible and inappropriate systems causing the business to change to fit the software. They are also far better suited to supporting process centric organizations than the traditional ERP, CRM type packages.

In conclusion BPM is a management philosophy for doing business differently in pursuit of extraordinary results. It embeds process thinking in an organization such that they can continually change and adapt to suit market and economic conditions. Process Improvement, by contrast, is an approach that at best will produce ordinary results. There is no right or wrong, just a need to understand what you want to achieve and the risks you are willing to take to get there.

Finally, it may well be that the story as told is not one you want to hear, but it is one that deals with the fundamental issues and questions, all I ask is that you – Don't shoot the messenger!

Note: This article first appeared on Mark McGregor's series of articles on

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