Harmon on BPM: Business Process Management Today

I’m just getting ready to go to this year’s Building Business Capability BPM Conference in Las Vegas. There will be about 1,000 people there and, collectively, we will consider a variety of BPM issues. For all that, it will be a rather more sedate conference than the BPM conferences that took place in the early years of this century – say in 2004 or 2005. The survey that we ran in October on BPTrends provides the best explanation. The two options that got the most responses were:

  • BPM is evolving slow and steady. We are doing it and learning, and
  • BPM as a process improvement practice is alive and well. Management may not be excited, but process and IT people are actively working to evolve better business processes.

I started working in field that, today, would be called Business Process in the late Sixties, when I went to work for Geary Rummler. I’ve done other things in between but was active again in the Nineties, when Business Process Reengineering (BPR) was hot and became very engaged in 2003, when I published my book, Business Process Change and when BPM started to take off. From this perspective, I’d point out two things.

First, business process has been around for a long time. It a topic of continuing interest to managers. If you work in a large organization, it’s only a matter of time before you run into some situation that leads you to exclaim something like this: Why are we trying to solve this problem by focusing on just what happens in our group or department? This problem extends way beyond our group. If we are really going to solve this we are going to have to look at the whole problem – we are going to have to study materials that are acquired, how they are processed, and how the end up on our shelves. And while we are at it, we’d better look at exactly what customer’s say they want – we’re not going to solve this if we don’t understand how everything fits together to generate the situation we face. Some end up calling this the systems approach – most call it the process approach – but it all comes down to looking at how all the work being done fits together to produce the products or services being produced. The pressures on individual managers may force them to drop this demand for a holistic perspective, and focus on specifics, but when they don’t get the results they want, they are likely to return again to the broader perspective.

Second, in spite of the need for a holistic perspective, managers are very much focused on results and the immediate future, and they are very likely to get caught up in the fad-of-the-day, hoping that this or that new approach will solve their problems. From Management by Objectives to Focus Groups to Excellence and Change Management, the jargon and the “new ideas” keep coming and managers, under lots of pressure, keep jumping on the next “hot idea” that they hope will solve some of their problems.

Management gurus may talk about the importance of corporate strategies and well-thought out goals, but way too many companies are really organized around groups of sort term initiatives. The company-wide installation of ERP or the requirement that every manager set up a Lean group, or encourage innovation have all had their day. In his comic strip, Dilbert gets a lot of mileage out of having the”boss”introduce new initiatives.

Business process work is as subject to the “excitement of the latest hot idea” as any other field. In the Eighties it was Six Sigma. It worked for Motorola and GE, so it might work for you. Then there was BPR in the Nineties and everyone started looking for ways to obliterate their old processes and make them new with IT. BPR was followed by ERP, by Lean (it worked for Toyota) and, in 2003, by BPMS – software tools that managers could use to avoid having to deal with IT; software that managers could use to control their own processes on a day-by-day basis; the latest reinvention of CASE and workflow.

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone one of the “hot new ideas” I have mentioned, and many besides, have contributed to the tool box of those of us who seek to improve the way organizations do their work. Each seemed to ignore much that was valuable and instead emphasized other perspectives, but all offered important insights. And, perhaps most important, each got managers excited. And getting managers excited is important; because that makes it easier for those interested in improving processes to get the money they need to do their work.

Conferences in 2003 and 2004 were more exciting than next week’s conference in Las Vegas will be, because there were full of new people who were trying to figure out how to take advantage of the exciting new BPM Software Tools that were going to revolutionize the way people managed change. The conference in Las Vegas will be full of business analysts and experienced process practitioners who will be concerned with the pragmatics of implementing process improvement.

We are in a lull, at the moment. BPMS has turned out to be a tool that requires a lot of work to use effectively, and its proved less revolutionary than predicted. (Is anyone really surprised!) Given time BPMS will make a valuable contribution, but the newness and excitement has gone out of it. People meeting in Las Vegas will focus on sharing practical ideas about how to mix and match technologies to solve some of the specific problems organizations face. There will be more business analysts and fewer managers there to shop for the latest hot new idea. Promises and results reported will be more modest.

At the same time, however, there will be talk, among a few, about the next big thing. It seems likely to be called Case Management or perhaps Cognitive Computing. It will focus on using IT and decision management techniques to build more flexible process applications. This will allow some companies to build process applications that can do exciting things, and, in a couple of years, managers will start to become excited again, and begin thinking about how they can revolutionize their service processes.

The irony, for those of us who have been around awhile, is that most of the technology being packaged in the Case Management tools will be techniques developed in the Eighties, used originally in expert systems development, marinated in “business rules” for two decades, and then reintroduced in a new, and perhaps more practical format. But forget the irony – the point is that it takes a long time for organizations to figure out how to use new technologies. Lean was introduced at Toyota just after World War II, and only became a hot technology at most companies in the past decade. Case Management techniques have been around since the Eighties and seem about to get a second change in the next decade. The key thing is that it will get managers excited again, and that, in turn, might lead to another round of funding for process work.

When all is said and done, however, the new techniques won’t be as important as good, clear thinking about how work gets done. Work is done via business processes. Processes cross departmental lines and integrate human and IT activities to produce the products and services that customers value. To get good results, processes, and more specifically the activities that comprise them, need to be measured and managed. Anything that encourages smart people to focus on defining, improving, measuring and managing business process is good for an organization. At this year’s conference we will focus on the basics and on consolidating what we have learned in order to assure than when money begins to flow more freely, driven by some new technology that gets managers excited, process professionals will be ready with the basic skills and knowledge to deliver real performance improvements.

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


  1. Claude Patou says

    Hello, ok for all, but without company/business envision and strategy modelling from BSC approach and system, no good EA/BPM and lean at end. BSC is value and spirit to guide that’s following.

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