Harmon on BPM: What’s next for Business Process?

As we begin a new year, it’s worth asking where business process improvement is, today, and where it’s likely to go next. I’ve argued for some time that business process work tends to be organized around technologies or movement that capture the interest of management, for a period, then dissipate.

In the Eighties everyone was excited by Six Sigma and dozens of companies and conferences were launched to explain this new, exciting things to organizations that rushed to explore it. In the early Nineties everyone was excited by Business Process Reengineering, and Hammer, Champy and Davenport were speaking at conferences to explain how BPR was going to reengineer the corporation. In the late Nineties, it was off-the-shelf process applications, like those from SAP, and companies rushed to install packaged software applications to assure that their business processes were up-to-date (remember Y2K?) and linked together. After packaged process applications began to be less exciting, along came Business Process Management (BPM). BPM could refer to an urge to integrate and manage all corporate process assets, but more narrowly, it referred to Internet-based software tools that allows manager to quickly change rules and links between various packaged software applications. In effect, the early packaged process applications had been too constraining, and BPM provided ways to loosen constraints and integrate various different packages from different vendors.

In each case, one or two well-written books kicked off an interest that was quickly amplified by magazines and by the Gartner’s and Foresters’ of the world that are always looking for new technologies to promote. Major software vendors rushed to introduce products and conferences were launched to explain the new technologies. A typical cycle ran for 5 to 10 years. First learning about the new technology, then exploring it to find its real uses and limits, and then a settling down as it turned out that it didn’t do quite as much or perform quite as well as its original advocates had claimed.

Today, many analysts, publically or privately, would say that we are between “new technologies.” BPM has lost its luster. It’s been quite successful in its own way – almost everyone has used some BPM to make its packaged process software more flexible, for example. But the BPM software tools haven’t made it possible for ordinary business managers to redesign their processes in real time. In any case, other things, like the economic slowdown in 2008-9, and then the Covid-19 pandemic have given companies other things to think about.

So we are waiting for the next big thing. Some have argued that Process Mining can provide excitement, but it can’t. Don’t get me wrong, Process Mining is a very interesting technology, but its value is in analyzing the performance of existing business processes. You have to collect data on the performance of existing processes before you can begin to decide where their bottlenecks are and how they might be improved. In other words, if you already have business processes and are saving data as they function, you can use Process Mining tools to improve them. But you can’t use Process Mining tools to imagine or design new processes, and that’s a big part of BPM.

Others have suggested that Business Process Architecture is the next big driver of business process change. Geary Rummer and Michael Porter were promoting process architecture in the early Eighties – so its hardly new. In the early 00s there was a lot of talk about how companies developed (CMM) their process maturity. They started with single process improvement projects. They went on to develop process architectures that allowed them to coordinate how different specific processes handed off to other processes, or supported other processes. Managers needed to understand process architectures to coordinate the management of performance measurements and to identify the real bottlenecks and stress points when complex processes became suboptimal. Finally, many companies in the OOs embraced process architectures to help integrated worldwide business models and supply chains. If company X had operations in six countries, it wanted to standardized practices at all of its various plants or offices to assure easy supply planning and moving managers from one place to another.

Today, much of the former emphasis on architecture seems irrelevant. Change is taking place at a very rapid rate. Many leading companies find it hard to keep their key processes up-to-date, let along worry about modeling and coordinating more routine processes. Many companies have launched process architecture efforts only to find that their processes, indeed, their basic business models, have changed before their process architecture was well underway. Increasingly companies use off the shelf processes to deal with everything save the most crucial processes. Few companies feel like they have time for the kind of detailed planning and design work that a good process architecture requires.

Still others have suggested that Artificial Intelligence (AI, or Neural Networks or Machine Learning) will provide the technological-base for the next big advance in business process work. In a sense, I suspect that AI is the right answer, but it’s so vague as to be useless. AI refers to language applications, to robotic devices, and to reasoning and decision-making applications of all kinds. Consider an automated car that uses vision systems to monitor the environment, voice systems to talk to the humans in the car, robotics to steer the car and decision support systems to read maps and make decisions about how to respond to changing lights and pedestrians and other car’s movements. All those elements contain some AI, and they all work together in a single application, an automated car.

AI will be used in all business processes, in most activities. Systems will see and speak to customers, perform tasks of all kinds, consult with managers and make decisions. Some will plan and others will argue with customers about complaints. You might as well attend an AI conference as try to talk about how AI will impact a specific business process.

I suspect that the next hot thing in business process improvement, a technology we can organize conferences on, and managers about, has yet to appear.

The key problem with process has remained the same throughout the last few decades. Process is not a first class business concept. Management and Finance and Marketing are all first class concepts. Every business executive knows he or she needs people to stay on top of the organization chart or the accounts, but few executives really think that business processes are things that will make or break a company. There aren’t processors of Business Process. (And the fact that some think that a specialist in Operations is automatically a Process person shows just how little most business schools really understand processes. The fact that others think Process is a part of Information Technology just underlines the problem process people face.)

So, we do what we can. We help improve when asked. And we wait for something that will get management excited again about process improvement.

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Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of BPTrends Associates, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in Las Vegas. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.info
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