Business Improvement: Is Broader Better (or Even Possible)?


IT gets knocked for seeing technology as an end rather than as a means. It faces frequent criticism for focusing too narrowly on keeping tech gear in perfect working order rather than helping companies use technology to accomplish their business goals.


How to keep IT's eyes on the larger prize? A number of folks IT Business Edge has written about and/or interviewed over the past few years have suggested companies should bring process improvement more directly under IT's purview to keep the focus on broader business strategy, where it belongs.


In a 2006 interview (that still sounds fresh today) with ITBE's Loraine Lawson, Kiran Garimella, author of "The Power of Process: Unleashing the Source of Competitive Advantage," advocates adopting business process management. BPM "offers a way for companies to bring together various types of information - customer data, business rules, policies, services, competitive intelligence, business transactions, Six Sigma-related measures - into one common meta-model," Garimella told Loraine, adding:

This ensures there is no loss in the translation between business-speak and IT-speak. All this ultimately translates into a fast, superior execution capability, without sacrificing control and governance.

Yet a common mistake with BPM is viewing automation as the answer to everything and focusing on easing interaction between processes rather than people and processes. It's seeing process as an end rather than a means, a variant of the problem I mentioned way back in my first paragraph.


In today's workplace, it's more about capturing human knowledge and figuring out how to leverage it, in many (but not all) cases by applying it to improve business processses. A new school of thought, which Babson College's Tom Davenport writes about on Harvard Business Publishing, involves merging knowledge management and process improvement to create a broader business improvement category.


This emerging category seems to address the issue of tacit interactions, processes that aren't easily automated. As I wrote in December, McKinsey & Co. coined the term and estimated that some 70 percent of newly created jobs in an organization are tacit interactions. It's all about figuring out how to help folks collaborate better. (It's a capability everyone seems to agree is important, though it's difficult to assign a dollar value to it, as I wrote yesterday.)


Johnson & Johnson has transformed its former Process Excellence organization into a Business Improvement Services organization, which works with J&J business units on process, knowledge, information and decision-making topics, notes Davenport. And President Obama is on board with the idea, last month nominating business consultant Jeffrey Zients to serve as the nation's first chief performance officer.


The chief risk with such a broad category of business management, writes Davenport, is "that it would lose focus, or that no individual business improver could master the broad array of tools offered." Can a single approach effectively encompass people, process and technology?