BPM's "Missing Link"

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There’s something wrong with BPM, something terribly wrong. Although the past five years have witnessed great progress in the theory and practice of business process management, if we go back to business-process basics, a fundamental problem with BPM becomes clear.

There’s something wrong with BPM, something terribly wrong. Although the past five years have witnessed great progress in the theory and practice of business process management, if we go back to business-process basics, a fundamental problem with BPM becomes clear. Let’s begin with the very definition of a business process from the book, Business Process Management: The Third Wave, “A business process is the complete, end-to-end, dynamically coordinated sets of collaborative and transactional activities that deliver value to customers.” Taking that definition apart, let’s first look at transactional activities. Most of today’s BPM solutions can take care of 80% of the mechanistic, predetermined system-to-system scenarios with predefined workflow and inter-application transaction management. Such capabilities are needed to help a company put its “house in order” with application integration.

However, when you consider collaborative activities and the fact that, as Xerox’s former Chief Scientist, John Seely Brown, explains, “processes don't do work, people do,” BPM’s missing link is made visible. There’s no doubt that what’s now needed isn’t more and more software for animating computers, it’s software for animating human interactions across end-to-end business processes, where work teams may be scattered across the globe. While interwoven with mechanistic processes, human-driven processes span your suppliers, your suppliers’ suppliers, your employees, your customers and your customers’ customers, forming the DNA of a complete value delivery system. It’s now time to shift the BPM spotlight onto those human-driven processes.

In an email leading up to Microsoft’s annual CEO Conference this year, Bill Gates wrote, “To tackle these challenges [of information overload], information-worker software needs to evolve. It's time to build on the capabilities we have today and create software that helps information workers adapt and thrive in an ever-changing work environment.”

It’s not enough, however, to organize human activities around information; it must be organized around the work itself. In the Industrial Age human activities were organized around the assembly line; and in the Information Age human activities are organized around information (the raison d'etre for functional management). In the emerging Process Age, where a company’s business processes are key to effectiveness, it’s now time to organize human activities around the work itself. That means fusing traditional collaboration and information tools (groupware, knowledge management, workflow and system-to-system BPM) and extending them with a complete theory of human work if we are to build systems that can support the way people actually work, versus treating them as cogs in an information machine.

In a groundbreaking work, Human Interactions: The Heart and Soul of Business Process Management, Keith Harrison-Broninski instructs us in how people really work and how they can be helped to work better. According to Harrison-Broninski, "We need to understand how to formally describe the human interactions that accomplish work. This should lead us naturally to a better understanding of how to manage those interactions. Then—ideally—we can capture this understanding in a computer system." An emerging class of BPM software known as the Human Interaction Management System (HIMS) is used to support and monitor these processes as well as to permit their ongoing redefinition at runtime. The HIMS is not concerned with the individual, detailed tasks of an information worker—writing a document, say, doing a calculation, or entering data in to a computer system. Instead, it concerns the higher-level processes that give our work shape and structure. Harrison-Broninski elaborates, "We must find a way of thinking about human-driven processes that allows controlled management of change—something that is innate in all interaction work, as human-driven work processes evolve continuously throughout their lifetime."

Remembering that business processes are how work gets done, and that people do the work, don’t be surprised if you find that your BPM software vendors are doing some R&D or skunk works on human interactions as I type this article. Just ask them. If they are not, or if they say, "yes, it’s our workflow system," keep looking, keep asking other vendors, for it’s now time to fill in BPM’s missing link… not because it’s a neat thing to do, but because your company demands human interaction management if it is to take on the new world of work and extreme competition.

Peter Fingar, Executive Partner in the digital strategy firm, the Greystone Group, is one of the industry’s noted experts on business process management, and a practitioner with over thirty years of hands-on experience at the intersection of business and technology. He is coauthor of the landmark books: The Real-Time Enterprise: Competing on Time; and Business Process Management: The Third Wave (www.mkpress.com).

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