The Lost Art of 'Stencilling' Business Processes


I keep an old copy of Macromedia FreeHand MX on my laptop, which can run it comfortably most of the time. I think our IT department bought it off eBay for about $80. I wrote a tips journal on FreeHand ages ago, so I guess that makes me a privileged exec who makes IT maintain legacy systems on my whim.


At any rate, I keep FreeHand solely to make mock-ups of concepts or products that we discuss in meetings. I find this extraordinarily useful -- I can't tell you how often we spend 30 minutes discussing something in what seems to me to be extreme detail, only to find later that five people had pretty different notions of what we talked about. Often, I'm drawing really ugly swags of what a site element might look like, but also find myself creating what I can only assume are low-rent descriptions of business processes and user flows -- ideas, you could call them.


IT managers are used to (read: rely on) detailed schematics to describe data structures, network topographies and other complex concepts. Business owners -- particularly ones in smaller shops (such as ours) that aren't in a position to invest in business-wide BPM systems -- tend not to do visual models all that often, in my experience. Spreadsheets, yes; process flows, no.


Back when I was on the launch team of a genuine pre-bust dot-com, all we process mangers were issued a copy of Visio, which I have to confess didn't work out all that well. Like a lot of dot-com ideas, I think there was a germ of usefulness there, but not a lot of business discipline to execute it. Microsoft still pushes Visio, of course; earlier this year, it announced SQL Server data-mining features for the drawing tool (I'd guess Excel is the big selling point there), so obviously folks are still using it. You don't hear much about it, though, in the era of richer business process tools.


Analyst Bruce Silver takes a passing shot at Visio stencils in a summer column at That's about the best recent content on Visio and BPM that I found in a quick survey this afternoon. (You still do hear about Visio-based LAN mapping products and the like, of course.)


I'm going to explore employing Visio (or perhaps SmartDraw, but we are, admittedly, a Microsoft shop here) for some of our own process development and documentation. I'm not overly optimistic about getting everybody on board internally for this, and I imagine most smaller shops might have the same issues.


But the very least, I think, that when a business manager asks you what you think about some new model, it's fair to ask, "draw me a picture."

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Sep 13, 2007 4:02 AM Asim Hanif Asim Hanif  says:
Hi Ken!Have u some examples of drawings u have made by the tool? Reply
Sep 17, 2007 1:03 AM Paul Wallis Paul Wallis  says:
Hi Ken,A few years ago I began thinking about the way that Architects and Engineers communicate with the business when managing complex things like constructing a skyscraper or building a bridge. They use blueprints and diagrams to make communication with business people as simple as possible.It is the Piping and Instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) used by engineers that formed the inspiration for the intelligent Business and IT diagrams (B&ITs) that I use to show the relationships between business processes and IT assets and the data that flows through and across the business. B&ITs are easy to understand because they use a simple methodology to communicate the business/IT relationship.Take a landscape sheet of paper, draw five horizontal lines spaced equally to create six rows. At the left edge of the top row write Ownership; write Business Process in the second row; then in succession Application, System, Hardware and Infrastructure. Now you have a simple framework for organising the individual elements that represent individual business or IT resources in your organisation.I would invite you to read more about B&ITs at Reply

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