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How agile is agile?

Agility seems to be on everyone’s mind and it follows that agility has become the main promise of process management, or rather of vendors of process management systems (BPMS). The positive aspect is that the industry has finally found an argument for an IT approach that can be put to either IT or non-IT people. Agility has a much greater and broader appeal than ‘automation’ or ‘BPEL-ability’, the latter being the most senseless sales argument the industry – long searching for THE clincher – has come up with in recent years. (Why should I invest in your product? Because we can do BPEL. And how’s that going to improve my processes? Eh, what??)

So, agility it is. Who wouldn’t want to be agile? Who would want to state that their company does not need to be agile? Being an agile company is a good thing and using agile processes to create value sounds like the right thing to do.

And can I state for the record that I love the concept of agility. There are too many examples of businesses with untapped potential, businesses which could do much better if only those barriers to change like time and effort to change processes and/or change IT didn’t exist or were significantly lower. In that sense, the promise of agility through better integrated BPMS which allow you to design a process (or a change to a process) and get it to run at the push of a button is a promise worth taking note of. Anyone involved with workflow management system implementations in the 90s or BPMS implementations in the following years will remember the projects that took longer to complete (and delivered less than promised) than … say the building of a new multi-story office tower. Four months of project work to design and implement an employee self-service process to speed up handling of applications for leave? This could be a thing of the past, at least from a technical perspective. BPMS have certainly improved in that respect and even if they don’t deliver push button implementation, they have come a long way from where they used to be.

Thankfully, this goes for the industry as a whole. Their promise of agility is something they can deliver on, regardless of whether you take vendor x, y or z. (Which by itself is remarkable for an industry that has lived on making promises and prayed to be able to fullfil them 5 years later)

Unfortunately, this does not benefit most businesses in any way – and this is unlikely to change any time soon. The very simple reason for my negative view is that businesses are basically unprepared for agility. They may want it, they may even need it but they can’t handle it. We have mentioned this before on our blog and I spoke at length on the topic of business readiness some weeks ago at an international conference. The shoe is now on the other foot. Instead of IT failure we are now seeing employees who are starved of process awareness, process managers who are unable to manage processes (though they administer them beautifully and use dashboards to watch them just like train spotters standing on the platform and ticking the arrivals off in their notebooks) and senior management which fails to provide process strategies and prefers to remain blissfully ignorant of all process things.

Preparing the enterprise for what comes out of process projects and for using the potential of what BPMS could deliver is the dominant challenge to business process success. Agility begins in the mind, though it very quickly moves on to aspects like governance, strategy, centres of excellence and many other very concrete issues which need to be addressed in order to turn a successful project into a successful process operation.

My guess is that this may also turn out to be the greatest challenge to new concepts like Outside-In. O/I, which is based on the approach of customer-driven rather than capability-driven processes, makes enormous demands on business agility. Think ‘push button process change’ and then extend the image to have the customer pushing the button. From a customers perspective this would be paradise and anyone who can provide that paradise can be sure of my life-long friendship. But even moving in that direction takes more than an agile IT. In requires an understanding of the customers, of their individualism, the dynamics of changes to their processes and the consequences and implications to the business in order to accommondate the customers requirements. Outside-In, probably more than any other process strategy, needs agility AND process management to make it work.

So, while agility sounds good, it needs a [mentally] agile business to make it work. Only then will agile-in lead to agile-out. Otherwise it’ll be the usual ten seconds of project fame stuff that basically means ‘seen to be doing something’. We should all have realized by now that while it may be easy and quick to buy the software, it won’t compensate for lack of knowledge and experience – something that takes far longer to build.

This posting wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that taraneon provides guidance and support on developing business readiness capability….but I think you’ve guessed that already.

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4 Comments

  1. [...] BPM Agility – Thomas J. Olbrich Unfortunately, this does not benefit most businesses in any way – and this [...]

  2. Thomas – you’re spot on in some aspects, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a case of adapt or die…those that are agile will survive and flourish, the others that are unable to embrace agility will die. Outside-in will help companies with the ability and agility to flourish – if the others don’t “get it” they will cease to exist.

  3. [...] How agile is agile? [...]

  4. [...] er sich bereits vor dem Vortrag für den Inhalt entschuldigte. Gleiches gilt für die Beiträge “How agile is agile?” und “A world without BPM“. Es hat uns besonders gefreut, dass unsere Beiträge [...]

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