Magical Thinking A Stumbling Block For Business Process Champions

The promise of BPM technology is only realized within the context of traditional management skills and discipline.  Ironically, it is an erroneous common pattern of “magical thinking” that impedes success in both traditional- and new "BPM technology"-enabled management environments.

Intervention Warning Against Overselling BPM Technology

On a discussion hosted by the BP Group on LinkedIn, member Mr. Ajit Kapoor has made an excellent intervention in this discussion.  Our root discussion concerns an “experimental BPM technology sales pitch” which posited that “for the first time in history, we have a technology that is explicitly about taking your vision about how your business operates, and building tools that directly make it possible to run your business, according to that vision."

Specifically Mr. Kapoor has articulated a powerful position that new technologies such as BPM software should not be pitched as "nirvana".  And his riposte comes with powerful credibility based on his achievements and career.

I agree with Mr. Kapoor, which may be surprising to anyone following this dialogue.  However, it is possible to reconcile Mr. Kapoor's hard-won scepticism with an acknowledgement that a greater BPM technology opportunity is taking shape.

Here then is the question for today:  How can BPM technology scepticism be reconciled with BPM technology enthusiasm?

BPM Technology Fetishization Misguided

First, let's agree that exciting "new" technologies should not be presented as "epiphanies" or "nirvana", which would be to fetishize a new technology as a magical or supernatural phenomenon.  Management is, as Mr. Kapoor emphasizes, a game of inches where good practices day-in and day-out hopefully will result in measurable, incremental and sustainable gains.  These gains are usually hard-won, regardless of any supporting technology or especially consultant-promoted “technologies-du-jour”.  In fact, it is these bedrock management skills that are the secret to success with BPM technology.

10 Years of BPM Technology Development Add Up

Clearly new technologies can make dramatic impacts on ways of life.  You can think of innumerable examples, for instance the railroad, or the printing press.

During the development of a new technology, there is the possibility that "quantity will turn into quality" and then one may approach a point where generations of incremental improvements in technology add up to an effectiveness or adoption inflection point.  Based on evidence in the field and in the labs, BPM technology may be at such an inflection point; this perception is the justification for the “for the first time in history” claim in the experimental sales pitch.

Disappointing BPM Technology Adoption Rates

Note that inflection points need not result in immediate geometric market growth!  As George Cretu points out in this discussion, BPM technology has been voted “hottest technology every year for six years”, despite mediocre adoption rates.

How can increasingly powerful BPM technology be used successfully?  And what about those disappointing rates of BPM technology adoption?

The answer is “back to basics – for everyone”.  The only approach that can possibly succeed with new BPM technology starts with the approach that Mr. Kapoor has outlined, which is hard-headed, incrementalist, business-oriented thinking about technology and its application to business.  

BPM Technology A Force Multiplier For Management Skills

Until now, it has often been easy for business executives to regard business process as a "black box", which is a species of "magical thinking". The application of the Nike "Just Do It" slogan to business is a symptom of this dysfunctional and even irrational approach.   As a result, BPM initiatives have been mostly driven by IT departments, technically-adept cadres which nevertheless lack the business vision and business skills required for broad business process application.  Research reports from such organizations as Aberdeen Group clearly specify differences between organizations with process best practices and process laggard practices, and how business process best practices are often associated with best-in-class overall organizational performance.

But what if we see BPM not as an IT function problem, but an executive team opportunity?  Business executives by definition are the cadres with the business skills to make successful use of BPM. 

And insofar as BPM technology is about translating business vision into business reality, having BPM-literate business executives would be a force multiplier for management skills.

Imagine the result if senior line-of-business and executive suite cadres themselves start thinking deeply about and working directly on business process design and management, with powerful tools appropriate for the job and in partnership with IT and domain expert business analysts.

As BPM technology becomes more powerful and is widely adopted, the powerful will now have more to scope for management – and fewer excuses and roadblocks. Corporate leaders will now have to "get their hands dirty" so to speak, although given the bandwidth limitations of any executive team, well-implemented BPM technologies will likely be empowering for all team members. 

The “unexpectedly” slow adoption rates of BPM technologies over 10 years are an artifact both of magical thinking where processes are concerned, but as well, the challenge of getting senior executives to learn BPM technology itself.  The fact that BPM is still a little too technical, an artifact of the maturity of the technology, is not helpful.  Success will require not only continued progress in BPM technology, especially in the area of model validation, but also in resolutions to questions of training, data chaos and process governance. Obviously management will have to address governance questions such as “the definition of a given business process, process ownership, process management, process KPIs, process costs, and process evolution etc."   These are topics for another day, topics that are now being picked up by BPM technology market and technical commentators.

Major ROI From A Bright Light Inside A Black Box

Executive suite cadres will wake up in the next decade and realize there is no BPM or process nirvana, only hard work and responsibilities for results -- all courtesy of more powerful technologies which shine a bright light inside a black box.  

What will be the future of process management as a key executive-suite concern?

If there is a temptation to exercise executive fiat and shout "just do it", the result will likely be inferior to the competitor where the executive team was willing to get involved with the work of business and the articulation of a BPM-technology based "language of business".  This “proof-of-the-pudding-in-the-eating” will be the ultimate Darwinian driver of BPM technology adoption.

In summary, BPM technology may be reaching a usability inflection point, but the successful use of BPM technology will require all the hard-won management skills of every executive team.  What won't work is magical thinking, either which says "I don't care about how you do the work, just do it" or the kind that says "BPM will be our miracle".

Click here to visit the original LinkedIn BP Group discussion.

More Items On Decision Models Re: Magical Thinking

Either via the Content Explorer on the left, or via the link here, more comments on magical thinking:

Fabian Pascal Comments On Data Modeling And Magic

On LinkedIn's Data Architecture Professional's Forum, Fabian Pascal makes the following excellent comment on a discussion entitled "Data Modeling Is Dead, Long Live Data Modeling" (started by Karen Lopez) [emphasis added]: 

"There has always been a delusional dimension in the IT industry--the notion that it is possible to satisfy informational needs without thorough knowledge of the business, hard thinking and implementation effort upfront. That's how magic wand fads that purport to solve all the problems get propagated, only to discover years later that they only created new problems that require yet a new fad to solve."