Business process management (BPM) has proven to be one broad-sweeping enterprise technology that, for the most part, has delivered on a lot of its promises.
Of course, before you can model out a business process you must first design it. The natural instinct, since BPM is all about standardization, is to jam as many details into your business process models as possible. But when you do that, how can you scale such incredibly fine models across the business?
Author Terry Schurter explores this conundrum in his book, "The Insiders' Guide to BPM," by examining real-world businesses that have grown with BPM as a central tenant of their enterprise. An excerpt from the work is available free to IT Business Edge members in our IT Downloads library.
Schurter tackles two main issues with business process design:
Schurter points to the cyclical nature of American business productivity, which you can see graphed out over seven decades in the figure below, and suggests a big part of the problem is that businesses focus on sharpening processes over three or so years, but then hit a wall when the world changes and widget A no longer fits into slot B.
Obviously, something is not scaling.
Schurter sums up his hypothesis as follows:
The lesson to be learned is that tightly aligning a process to the current context, including embedding everything we can up to and sometimes including the kitchen sink in it, is a recipe for productivity disaster. Any gains are short lived, forcing us to continually reengineer the entire process.
He also looks at a case study of Netflix, which in its personalized DVD rental business obviously relies on tightly managed business processes in order to keep the overwhelming majority of its inventory "floating" inside the U.S. postal service. You might assume that Netflix is passionate about hyper-detailed process modeling, but Schurter cites a presentation by the company's CEO, Reed Hastings, that speaks to the need to have a little chaos in a fast-growing business.
Hasting's presentation notes that while executives might be tempted to use BPM as a way to squeeze any and all errors out of their growth spurt, allowing a little personal freedom is essential in cultivating innovation from your high-performance employees. Holding on to such employees is essential to reacting to rapid market change, which is probably pretty high on your list of things that keep you up at night if you are an executive of a rapidly growing company.
Great-a conundrum. Schurter concludes that meaningful process design has to leave out a lot of the details and allow for people to add value that is not so easy to depict in a workflow. A challenge, but a worthwhile one.