Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Old approaches to business process management are failing companies

We all know that companies of all sizes are facing tough economic challenges at the moment. These challenges are coming from one of the toughest directions possible: customers are not spending money, making it more important than ever to convert the few available prospects into profitable customers. Improving business processes is a powerful way for companies to work better, but the old business process management (BPM) approaches companies often rely on just don't fit the current challenges.

Companies invest in business process management from two direction:
  • methodology - the way a company can fix its problems
  • technology - applications helping people work in a more structured way
The reasons for doing this were all reasonable in an economy with plenty customers with cash in their pockets:
  • reduce headcount
  • do more work with the same resources
  • improve the quality of a product or service
In the current economy, these types of improvement are not enough. Whether a company is a bank, a manufacturer or a law firm, the challenges facing the business is that the economy is making it harder to attract new customers and retain them.

This is where modern business process management solutions kick in. First, they offer a faster startup time with more focused analysis of problems, which means less money is spent on teams of expensive consultants trying to build strategies for things that don't matter. Second, the solutions offered already include a range of business templates, helping companies to build to a tried and trusted plan rather than always reinventing the wheel. Finally, and possibly most importantly, the methodology focuses on iterative improvement, rather than trying to get every little thing right first time. When the tools are designed to adapt to this types of constant change, the company can improve based on experience rather than luck.

With this lightweight approach to business process improvement, the flexibility to change processes based on experience and best-practices allows companies to do something that in the past was really difficult: 
  • treat each customer as an individual rather than force fitting them into a standard model of a customer
  • allow the processes that serve customers to extend and adapt based on circumstances
  • help the business owners introduce new improved processes rapidly and with minimal cost
Business process management can help companies meet the challenges of the current economy. Companies that adopt new methodologies and technologies can become known for great customer service at a good price. In these times when social media is the marketing machine, and word of mouth spreads corporate reputation like wildfire, companies can attract and retain more customers than ever before.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rescuing struggling business processes from the back office

I have a short article just published on ITBusinessEdge talking about how business processes in offices can be so much harder to rein in and control than manufacturing work with a production line:

So much has been written about efficiency in manufacturing that its is time for the masses of us office-bound companies to get a look in. A production line in a manufacturing company works so well to improve efficiency of building widgets because it constrains the way the half-completed widgets move, who gets them next and what they do with them. In the back offices of companies, things aren't so easy, so it can be hard to see why there is lots of activity with minimal productivity.
Take a read of the rest of the article to find out how I think that simpler online / SaaS solutions may often be better than complex and expensive enterprise software, even for the big enterprises that can afford it. This is just part of my white paper for rapid process improvement: Seven Steps to Escaping Process Chaos.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

When documents and processes come together

I'll admit that the coming-together of processes and documents (BPM+ECM) has been a common theme of this blog for the four years that I've been spouting-off here. My background was imaging and workflow, then I got trapped along the way in understanding records management and even more trapped when process improvement became BPM suites, and more about the process than the stuff in it. I can not avoid feeling that I've heard this all before, but still wasn't satisfied.

Yesterday, a forum on ebizQ brought together some of the opinions about the question "Is it inevitable that BPM and ECM will be integrated into one system in the future?". For companies running both of these technologies in house, the answer is probably a no-brainer. ECM and BPM are already integrated, because the customer did it themselves. For vendors, nobody has worked out really if they can make money from it.

I've included some quotes from the forum that I think sum up the range of opinions, though its worth reading through the whole thing if this topic interests you:

Ian Gotts of Nimus: "The two are inextricably linked already. If I want to perform some task such as sign off a PO then I probably need to access the Purchase Policy document which will be part of ECM."

Malcolm Ross of Appian: "There's a definite need to unite the features of these two worlds to create more powerful content and process systems."

Doug Mow of Virtusa: "From the customer, patient, subscriber or end user perspective I want a seamless UI that doesn't distinguish between any class of functions. "

Brian Reale of ProcessMaker: "It is one thing to route a document or a PO, add a signature, and then store it in a DMS. It is another thing to start a process in a rich contextual environment and have that environment intelligently populate with the pertinent information based on attributes like user, place, time, and company policies. "

Peter Evans-Greenwood: What's a document/record anyway? A page in a wiki? An email? SMS? A tweet? Defining the scope of BPM and ECM as processes and documents ignores the ongoing erosion of boundaries between organisations and communications channels, and existing solutions are too intrusive to push into these new channels. 

I'll quote my own response in full:

The short answer is this: in any business that uses BPM in critical applications, BPM is already integrated with ECM. I think it unlikely that we'll see anyone but IBM and maybe EMC really producing a credible E-BP-CM suite. 
Why do I believe this? Well, its important to ask why ECM is so important to businesses... Its not the collaborative-Sharepoint-less, "let's be happy and work together" stuff. Its the fact that in real business, at the end of everything we do in a business process there needs to a record of the transaction, the decisions or whatever that formed the outcome. Of course, that does not need ECM if the data we were work with at every step was fully structured (an online form producing structured database records). But for the real world, documents do exist, and ECM provides a way to handle them. 
As Doug says we must interact with documents, and as the vendors hinted, document management ain't that hard for BPM vendors. The problem is that throughout a process, documents will form part of the final business record. BPM vendors rarely manage to focus on understanding the complexities of electronic document and records management, therefore they rarely do much more than routing documents -- plain old-fashioned 'imaging and workflow'. 
What is really needed from BPM is a final step: registering the records and the decisions of the process in the corporate records management system, keeping the context of everything that was done. Working with documents and process context appears in some of the marketing around case management. Though more often than not people get more excited about how processes can change dynamically, than how they can be recorded permanently. So I expect adaptive case management (ACM) to be another missed opportunity. 
It really is a shame that records management has such a 'stodgy' appearance, since it is such an important part of business processes.

This is one of those tough areas where the integration of technology for vendor gain often eclipses the needs of the end customer. Careful consideration is required on what is needed for any particular business, and navigating the options depends largely on experience.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Cases crystallize out of chaos

Coming via the bp3 blog by Scott Francis, Frank Micheal Kraft talks about Patterns of Knowledge Work. His discussion hits the point that many activities performed that are not 'production line' processes are really based on the activities of a knowledge worker: a person who is knowledgeable about what they do, and builds up structures around their work to keep stuff organized.

This ties into my discussion a week or two back that in my own client work, I've started to see how I can examine the records of business activities, the documents and paper reports, and track back through them. In doing so I build up a view of where the major business processes in an organization live, who does them, and at a high level at least, what the activities performed are. Amazingly, the often overlooked org chart helps me in seeing order in the chaos. It is interesting to me to see that there is a natural order to processes and information in business.

For Kraft, he talks about the three ideas he has come across:

  1. Managing my own knowledge work. As I wrote my own Adaptive Case Management system for my own knowledge work, I was able to organize my own work. As the number of cases increase – 3000 now including sub-cases – I become aware of patterns.

  2. Feedback from my first pilot. This was very interesting, because the main focus for my pilot is usability. Usability is strongly interwoven with these patterns of knowledge work.

  3. The things I always wanted to model, but never was able to. I governed the modeling of thousands of models of structured processes from all areas of business processes. But because the modeling language was only able to model predictable processes, I never was able to model unpredictable processes.

In my view, he has done with these three points what many business people have had to do -- build a mechanism for structuring his own work in a way that allows him to be productive and get value out of work he has done before. For many people, this is a matter of building a filing system, putting together checklists and tasklists, maybe even putting together an Access database recording people or indexing their files. Oh that, and never going on vacation, as nobody else can quickly pick up the structure and work with it.

Kraft has written his own Adaptive Case Management system, probably because he felt he could put some structure around the work he was doing, and that structure was adaptable enough to help others in their own work. With my own consulting and software work I have done a similar thing. And as Kraft says: "As with all knowledge work the result of my effort is not completely predictable. But I am making good progress.". 

I couldn't agree more. And with every new client or process I hit, more structure and flexibility crystallizes into something that benefits the next client down the line.

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