No More "Wait States" -- BPM Opportunity Puts Pressure On Business Executives

Waiting In Line GraphicOn his ebizQ blog, Peter Schooff, asks (September 2012) "what is the number one reason a BPM project fails?"

Asking this question is audacious. But important.

Here's the short answer: BPM projects fail at a rate higher than tolerable (thus the question) because BPM projects, being fundamentally different than all other IT projects, are not yet sufficiently supported culturally, organizationally and economically.  

In particular, a BPM projects puts pressure on business executives for detailed process leadership, a time-based pressure without precedent and for which many or even most executives are not ready.

The first response to ebizQ's question, from Emiel Kelly, alludes to these issues with the statement that BPM is seen as "a project, not as daily business". Subsequent comments by other contributors elaborate in worthwhile ways. But it's worth making Kelly's "not as daily business" explanation more explicit.

Specifically, from the original answer above, what does it mean that BPM projects are "fundamentally different", and why is this difference important? And what is "cultural, organizational and economic" support?

BPM technology is fundamentally different than most or all other business technology in that BPM technology is directly and explicitly "about business", which is not the case with most other technologies. In the case of BPM there is the opportunity, even hope, that business executives will be directly involved in short cycle artifact construction of business process tools.  (In plain language, that means business executives will have to be directly involved in building and managing processes.)

Whereas all business technology is about the translation of business requirements into machine artifacts, BPM uniquely presents business semantic artifacts directly for manipulation by business leaders. BPM is thus "directly about the work of business". And we see the possibility of an identity between "the process model and the process tool" and that business processes can even be adjusted in real time. (The fact that these practices are not regularly done yet is irrelevant. The technology is falling into place and model-deploy cycles are becoming ever more "agile", with transmission gaps between business and IT becoming ever smaller.)

BPM Technology Is Both Uniquely Business-Oriented And A Business Shock

The unique and revolutionary nature of BPM technology can be contrasted with other, mostly older, software technology. With other software, there are technology-enforced business-side "wait states" between conceptualization of business needs and instantiation of technology for use. While the waterfall software methodology is the most extreme example of software construction with wait states; even model-driven methodologies supported by the most powerful UML tools still insert a technology-specific deployment step.  (The term "wait state" is an analogy taken from software development and refers to wasted CPU cycles, required because the data required for the next step is not available.)

Now with BPMN 2.0 (the definitive new standard for business process specification) and support for so-called "token flow-based execution semantics", we will see the "model-deploy-remodel" cycle shrink even further, perhaps to the point that business leaders can adjust organizational behaviour in real time.

But we don't have to go to extremes to acknowledge the depth of the opportunity represented by BPM technology - or the business challenges posed by BPM. BPM technology ushers in wonderful business opportunities, but these opportunities are the source of enormous organizational stress.

Organizational stress arises ironically because of the success of BPM technology; specifically the removal of wait states between process request and process deployment is a cultural and organizational shock. And as organizations are also economic entities, this new high-pressure scenario is also economically fraught.

No Tolerance For Business Leadership "Wait States"

The removal of the development "wait state" means that an organization has the opportunity - and even an imperative - to accelerate organizational adaptation. (Given the pressures on today's business and governmental organizations, adaptation is even essential for organizational survival.)

For example, if we can handle field service call dispatches a little bit differently by tomorrow, then we must do so. But this means that business executives and field managers will be tied to organizational models "synchronously". And they will be responsible for organizational change which is likely to be on-going every month, week and even day. The organization that successfully enables such a model will succeed wildly, adapting to opportunities and away from threats much more rapidly than wait-state burdened competitors.  

The burden on organizational executives unused to having to "think on their feet about process" will also be substantial. Imagine having to deeply understand your organization as a dynamic system and to be able to lead that organization and communicate successfully with all the humans that comprise the organization.  For the successful, this challenge will be thriling.

Developing A Process-Positive "Discourse"

How can organizations develop the kind of process-positive culture that is the essential compliment to the arrival of powerful BPM technology?  

In the hi-velocity business adaptation scenario painted here, there are two key distinguishing aspects of successful process-positive organizations: process idea generation and process idea communications.  

Note that we have said "key distinguishing aspects".  Obviously a process-positive organization will have many other attributes; we have not mentioned for example "process idea deployment".  The two attributes highlighted here are highlighted because they relate to the pressure points of the model under discussion, specifically that an organization now has both the ability and requirement to adapt quickly.  And rapid adaptation by definition requires direction and coordination.  New organizational directions require that the organization generate the good ideas, and that these ideas are communicated and refined rapidly.  Process idea generation and communication are the distinguishing new features of organizations in a world of BPM technology enablement.

Developing business processes "top down", Soviet-style, is not the answer. Given the complexities of business and process, successful businesses will have to develop processes "organically". You could say that these organizations will require a "process discourse". "Discourse" is short-hand for questions of anthropology, sociology and theories of narrative and communication which have received so much attention in the last 20 years or so. So much BPM assumes that it is possible to define a process, that "canonical processes" exist, that we are all using the same vocabulary concerning the subjects of work. And truly, if we are to communicate using language, and to work in concert, some common understanding must exist. (See for example material on the "social construction of reality".)

But computers and IT are very unforgiving, especially where fuzzy reality is concerned. And we know that for most organizations, "processes" are not well-defined or governed.  One doesn't need to be a fan of post-structuralism to admit that business communications are often inadequate for the job, including the communications around many failed IT and BPM projects.  

Especially now with the no wait-state pressure for real time process adaptation, the development of a process-positive business discourse or process culture will be essential for any successful organization.  (Business analysts in particular are likely to have a bright future in this coming process-focused world.)  Exactlly how to do this can be the subject of another blog posting -- or more realistically an entire career!

Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) Shows Issue Of Economics

The world of business process outsourcing (BPO), entering what some have called a third, fourth or even fifth generation of the BPO business, is the bellwether phenomenon which shows that business executives are already going "hands on" with processes. 

In the case of BPO, executive involvement with processes might be better phrased as "hands-off" than "hands-on", but at least you have BPO buyers explicitly considering processes as subjects of management attention, even if the contents of those processes are left to BPO service providers. It's not accidental that BPO should figure prominently in a discussion of BPM, because the existence of BPO gets to the importance of economics for business processes. BPM is only justified in the context of a strong business case, and largest number of strong "business process" business cases have been associated with BPO.

(BPM technology is not identical to concept of business process management, although ironically there is a movement in the BPO community to rename BPO as "BPM", specifically "business process management", for marketing reasons.  It's also worth noting the excitement around BPaaS, or Business-Process-As-A-Service, as one of the most promising practical areas of intersection between BPM and BPO.)

In contrast to outsourced processes, by definition core business processes cannot be outsourced without creating a hollowed-out company with no long-term raison d'être. It is these core processes which will become the subject of future BPM success or failure stories in ebizQ.

Mastery of Process the New Executive Imperative

The vision presented here is likely several years out. But the trend is clear and already business executives are under the gun to understand and lead. The many comments provided by ebizQ correspondents show examples of "failures to generate" and "failures to communicate". It is worth putting these phenomena into the perspective of an overall trend. It's not enough to say "you should communicate better with IT" or vice versa. Because on a daily basis executives in both business and IT are overwhelmed with organizational change and terrible economics. Just trying to "communicate better" is a pale nostrum that enables executives to ignore their new responsibilities.

BPM technology is finally reaching a stage of maturity where it can "bear the burden" of business expectations. Some failures of BPM projects in past years can be attributed to inadequacies in BPM technology. And indeed the MDM/data chaos problem is still a huge hurdle.

But increasingly challenges in realizing the promise of BPM are related to the ability of the sponsoring organization to be process masters in their own house. Masters of process, masters of strategy, master of business models. In the world of process, which is fundamentally integral to the world of the business model, leadership and process-supporting culture are the orders of the day.

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