Business process management is science and art

We live in a world where, as Phil Gilbert described at IBM IMPACT 2011, ‘our businesses are becoming ridiculously complex’. Even worse, ‘the level of complexity is increasing at an increasing rate’.

The phenomenal complexity of the financial system lies at the heart of its recent failure. Analysis of the Three Mile Island accident pointed to its near inevitability, given the complexity of both nuclear operations and the methods of dealing with reactor incidents.

In an increasingly technological society, we are in danger of building more and more complex and tightly-coupled systems, naturally vulnerable to what Charles Perrow has memorably termed catastrophic Normal Accidents.

Simplicity, visibility and shared understanding matter like never before.

Complexity is not of course a new challenge. An exhibition in London recently showed how the creators of the picture language Isotype, back in the 1930’s, were trying to foster shared understanding in a world whose politics was increasingly filled with data and numbers. That creative impulse lives on in today’s attempts to use visualization to convey complex ideas. Indeed I’ve been trying to do more of it myself.

The difference today perhaps is our vulnerability. Our lives are so complex – so technologically interconnected and interdependent – that the impact of ‘normal accidents’ can be far-reaching.

All of which reinforces the case, it seems to me, for end-to-end business process as the language of understanding in today’s world – as the universal business language.

Properly conceived, the language of business process has the potential to convey shared understanding in any business context, in any industry, and across any organizational or functional silos. It can serve as the organizational lingua franca, enabling effective collaboration in a highly complex world.

A huge proportion of us are knowledge workers. We don’t do physical stuff. As McKinsey has pointed out, most executives find it extremely hard to understand what information workers do. There’s no production line, nothing tangible to manage; so they often adopt ‘scatter-gun approaches‘ to improving knowledge worker productivity.

My own favorite story on this theme is still Eddie McDermott from New Balance. Eddie tells how NB implemented Lean very successfully in manufacturing. Then struggled to apply the same Lean principles to the rest of the business – until they were able to visualise NB’s non-manufacturing processes.

Process is the language in which we can visualize what people do, and especially knowledge workers. A ‘good’ process allows us to see how it all fits together – people, systems, controls, what’s automated and what’s not – and what will happen if we make a change. A ‘good’ process management platform pulls it all together within a governance framework, and enables the collaboration that will underpin continuous improvement.

So business process management is science and art. It’s about rigor and discipline and analytics and governance. But it’s equally about graphics and communication to overcome complexity and enable shared understanding and effective collaboration.

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Mike Gammage is VP and Principal Consultant at Nimbus Partners. Mike has worked in performance improvement consulting, and more recently the BPM space, for more than two decades. He is particularly interested in the overlap between two very dynamic worlds: BPM and perfomance improvement (the drive across all industries to standardise, improve and automate) and sourcing and the virtualisation of the enterprise (the drive to create more flexible and lower-cost service solutions through outsourcing, offshoring and shared services). In either case, Mike believes the enterprise needs a single source of truth about its end-to-end business processes, as well as a framework for the design and implementation of change. It also needs to connect the end-user and all other stakeholders to ensure the adoption of change. These are the keys to sustainable transformation and continuous improvement.