“Contrary to conventional wisdom on the subject, parallel lines sometimes do meet”
(Originally intended as a three-part article, here’s the shortened version)
One of the recurring topics and discussions at BPM conferences over the past couple of years has been the inability of middle management to get the executive level interested in process management. Not - I hasten to add – in a particular software solution, but more on the strategic aspects and potential. The usual questions and complaints go something like this: “They won’t listen to me”, “To them it’s a detail they can’t and shouldn’t be bothered with”, … . And there are obvious signs that the concept of process management has neither been put across or indeed been taken up by management as a task to ensure to strategy is fulfilled through processes.
Without going into too much detail here, some of the basic reasons for the failure to appreciate BPM as a management discipline lie in:
the history of how BPM has developed from the ashes of workflow management, which was predominately seen as an IT discipline – certainly not a good basis for arguing pro BPM at a time when levels of dissatisfaction (rightly or wrongly) with IT were on the rise,
the very liberal use of the term BPM when the main tasks were actually centered around process automation,
and plainly the lack of demonstrable results vis a vis management of processes.
At the very least, BPM service and tool providers got their marketing message wrong, though the one thing they did right was to play to given organisational circumstances.
Maybe unwisely I alluded to this situation during a recent discussion with Dick Lee on BPM Nexus where I said “But there is of course another side to this: keeping management out of the process information loop is a discipline which has reached olympic proportions in many companies, so I shouldn’t probably blame management too much…”. Rather than letting that statement stand, I should explain what I meant by that.
Rather than regarding processes as THE way to create value, the internal focus in the past has predominantly been to use processes as a demarcation line for power and influence. And in all fairness this has worked and isn’t actually as bad as it sounds as it has led to people taking responsibility and creating and improving process awareness.
The downside to this is of course isolation of individual processes. Think of a particular process as an island. Its individual, even unique shape determines where and how you can build a bridge to the next island. Connect all islands via bridges where required and what do you get? Not a continent, not even a land mass…just connected islands. And every time the master of an island decides to change the islands shape using all the arguments we know so well (efficiency, flexibility etc.) he may actually make things a little better on his island while at the same time causing reengineering works on the bridges and maybe even making the walk across all the connected islands far more inefficient. But of course, he wields his power and does something because he was given the responsibility over his island.
Given this situation, the ‘standard’ BPM message correctly addressed the needs of the island masters. Unfortunately few have looked beyond the islands needs and questioned the value of the automated processes. And optimizing one process at the cost of another process – while not a new phenomenon – rarely entered into the equation due to the existing process demarcation lines.
The demarcation we see at many clients sites does not only separate processes (and leads to splitting the value creation chain that then has to be artificially put together again) it also works between hierarchies. While ‘management attention’ has always featured big on BPM slides and presentations, in most cases it just meant getting funding for a project. Rarely have I come across clients where there were actual demands made of management with regards to involvement beyond the initial project. And never have I seen a role and task model for senior management detailing how a particular process could or should be managed and which options to do that would be made available.
Keeping the lid on processes in this fashion has over time effectively locked management out of understanding the problems, challenges and potential benefits of process management.
At the same time we have seen the development of a process ‘sub culture’ in many enterprises. Many who are actively involved with processes on a daily basis have developed a new and different understanding of requirements exceeding process automation and administration. In short, they they have acquired knowledge and experience. Maybe they’ve become customer-centric-process minded, or outside-in followers or … but in many cases they have come to understand that the problem lies in compartmentalizing processes (the islands) and lack of control over how combinations of processes can efficiently serve the customer – which is part of the Process Experience concept.
Compared to the BPM messages sent to senior management for the past 10 years, this comes close to a revolution. So who can blame management for failing to understand something on the spot that has taken the operative process workers 5 to 10 years to understand – with the added advantage of their daily involvement with processes.
So, spare a thought for the ‘victims’ we’ve kept in the dark about BPM all years and think of a way to lessen the glare once we lead them back to the light.