The Virtues of Incrementalism

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This article originally appeared in the members only BPM Strategies Magazine.  Join today to receive your own copy. 

Because business process management provides a strong capability for business change, organizational and people issues are huge challenges. Adopting new technology places extensive demands on employees and their managers. Both are expected to change the way they think and work as automation is extended to new and unfamiliar domains. Thus, people must be given time to learn and time to form cross-functional teams, not just with others in their immediate organization, but also with others in supplier and customer organizations. As a company transitions to become a process-managed enterprise, addressing these human realities as constraints is wise. The way out of this dilemma is incremental process change and people-centered process modeling that's in step with the organization and the way it currently works.

One of the major failings of business process re-engineering (BPR) during the 1990s was that it forgot about people. People make processes work, so one of the essential aspects of executing a new business strategy is a shared understanding of management goals among all workers. But a shared understanding is not enough. BPM methods must reflect the messy reality of how people actually do their work, not the neat and tidy world of computer transaction processing. In his groundbreaking book, Business Process Management: A Rigorous Approach, Martyn Ould noted, "A lot of process modeling has come from the software engineering world, where, historically, data and information have ruled. That sort of modeling has therefore concentrated on things and data about things. But processes are about dynamics, activity, collaboration and cooperation."

With people issues firmly planted center-stage in the journey to becoming a process-managed enterprise, the "rip and replace" notions of BPR are particularly problematic. Incrementalism is the key to successful change. Innovation is the holy grail in the current world of global competition and the companies that will lead their industries are those that set the pace of innovation. Thus a company shouldn't adopt BPM simply because it's a management fad or simply because it's a good idea, it should adopt BPM because it enables the ability to execute on innovation, incrementally, one innovation at a time.

Senior management must recognize that innovative business processes are needed to execute on innovative strategies. If the leadership of a company has no innovative business strategies it urgently wants to implement, BPM only offers a way of improving what a company already does, which, though good, could mean clinging to the past. On the other hand, creative business strategies that were once thought to be impractical, due to inflexible information systems that thwarted change, can now be embraced, thanks to BPM technologies. Business process management allows companies to evolve their processes without hindrance from their existing, rigid computer applications, significantly reducing the costs of business and technological change. Changes in business strategies and business processes are akin to portfolio management, not big-bang, disruptive IT investments. Business process management systems provide the flexibility needed for change to be a simple, natural and straightforward proposition.

Because business process management systems provide the capabilities for delivering results, one enterprise business process at a time, CEOs can embrace change without cringing at the cost. Investments in new or improved business processes can now be incremental propositions, allowing for the effective blending of people, process and technology. Without a doubt, incrementalism is a virtue in today's world of 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 30 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; The Death of 'e' and the Birth of the Real New Economy; and Business Process Management: The Third Wave(


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