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BPM: Start with becoming Eddie the Eagle and develop from there

Eddie

“You do things so much better in Europe” Huh?

This posting has its origins in a LinkedIn discussion I had with Dick Lee a couple of years ago. As far as I can remember, Dick was at pains to point out that European companies were much more advanced in BPM than companies in the US. At the time I disagreed, pointing out the notable lack of uptake of BPM (in an organizational and/or technical sense) in Europe, the reluctance in particular of middle management to get involved with something that hasn’t produced a thousand success stories at the very least and could therefore be only regarded as a nice but untested concept and last but certainly not least the tendency to cling to process modelling as a way of saying ‘look, I’m already doing something with my processes, what more could you possibly want?’.

At the time I developed this picture in my mind of two ski jumpers standing at the top of the jump where the US jumper would at least make an attempt at jumping (proudly following the Eddie the Eagle example – British, I might add) whereas the European jumper would take off his skies to explore and take measurements of the hill to determine if jumping could actually be done without any danger to body and soul – and then taking the results home for closer study.

Fast forward to the present day (with lots of project and client related visits to different countries in-between) and I’ve come to the conclusion that Dick and I were both right – although for different reasons.

I’m just going to take a look at three areas for now: Uptake and scope, skill development and process awareness.

Uptake and scope
My impression is that companies in the US are quick to pick up on new topics, turning them into marketable ideas and then failing to follow through on them. One of the main reasons as far as I can make out is that BPM in US companies has two extreme positions and practically no middle ground: Processes are (and have been for a long time) a top management topic but as an abstract concept only. The other extreme is the business analyst and operational level: Lots of work in the trenches of daily business but so buried beneath methods and tools that it fails to get noticed. Accountability for processes? Nada. Process organisation? Nada. Middle management as the link between business strategy and processes? Doesn’t exist.

By contrast continental Europe prides itself on its wait and see approach (nastier minds than mine would call it complacency or even ignorance) with the consequence that once they do pick up on an idea someone’s bound to come in to tell them that it’s old hat and they should be looking at what’s new instead.

The other noticeable difference is with the scope of processes. End-to-end processes have always dominated European thinking. So the disappointment with many vendor strategies of ‘start small and grow later’ is understandable: Successfully implementing a highly automated employee self-service process to request a new desk or to put in your application for a business trip is really nothing more than a proof of concept when viewed against initial management expectations – in particular when they’ve spent nine to twelve months on a process to decide what BPM tool to use.

From the many conversations I’ve had, it looks as if this end-to-end thinking is regarded as nothing more than an abstract vision by many US companies. Quick wins, low hanging fruit, automation of a few small steps is the leading approach. Only…there are very few examples where a process fragment can actually deliver a ‘win’ that would lead management to think in bigger chunks.

Skill development
It has never ceased to surprise me how well US business analysts are trained. Formal certification is much more important in the US than it is in continental Europe. And while the content value of some of these certification courses is questionable, they do provide a basis for development. By contrast, many European business analysts I know are more or less self-trained, depending purely on project experience to increase their skills. This forces many of them to become deep-dive experts and losing contact with the world around them. Process model administrators, librarians of process maps is what we have plenty of, but this is clearly a case of administration beating content.

The second area where I feel more should be done concerns the actual management of processes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that managing a process requires other (or at least additional) skill than managing a department. And those who are tasked with managing process have other information, IT and action requirements that need to be addressed for them to get the job done. In the words of a former Chief Process Officer of a large telecom provider “Don’t ask process managers to manage processes, they are simply not qualified for the job”.

Process awareness
This is where I believe both ‘cultures’ are equally weak. Ask people to describe the process they are working in and they will either tell you about their tasks and speculate on what might lie upstream and downstream from them or they will point to their desktop pc and explain how the system they’re using works. But being aware of the content and context of processes, of how processes interact, how processes behave and indeed how processes make up the business is not something we get to see often.

The most obvious sign to me that process awareness is underdeveloped is that processes are often confused with projects. While a project has a limited lifespan, business processes really only begin to exist once projects are finished. Hard to understand why we pay so much attention to creation and then forget about existence.

So, start with being Eddie the eagle, which is where I’m right, but keep the next level in sight and make sure you are able to get there – which is where Dick is right. 

Btw, the differences I’ve pointed out in this post not only reflect how successful (or not) companies are at managing processes, they may also go some way to explaining why vendors find it so hard to develop the right messages. You may like to check this recent blog post by Adam Deane and the resulting comments to understand the difficulties vendors can face when they try to sell a solution to a problem nobody really wants to be aware of – though everyone knows it exists.

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  1. [...] BPM in Europe and the US – Thomas J. Olbrich My impression is that companies in the US are quick to pick up on new [...]

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