Social Processes - BPM + Enterprise 2.0 The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature, but plunges him ever more deeply into them. - Saint-Exup éry, Wind, Sand, and Stars , 1939 (Wikiquote)
Businesses are challenged by ever increasing degrees of complexity and volumes of data.
Simply tidying up is an inadequate response. No matter how many filing cabinets you have, it’s never enough, and making use of information gets no easier.
Business processes, to the rescue! We’ll a) identify participants, b) flows of information and transactions and c) codify those. This is great! We can ensure that the right information is at the right place, at the right time.
Wait! It gets better! We can automate those processes! We can use IT to route information, coordinate work, execute transactions, and make those (now visible) processes way more efficient! Cool!
Business transactions will flow smoothly from customers and suppliers, to systems and workers in our organisation, and back. Our coordination costs will drop, causing our transaction costs to drop, and we’ll pocket more money. This is great stuff.
Well, OK. Except it doesn’t work. The real world is so much more complex than we thought, when we started trying to model it. We can’t seem to keep up.
We’ve got all this stuff in place, and now all it seems we do all day is manage exceptions to our processes. And that’s now become a new cost of doing business -- one that’s not cheap! We are more efficient than before, but we’re disappointed nevertheless. Yes, our coordination costs are lower than they were with ad hoc and / or manual processes. But now we want more! This stuff hasn’t lived up to its hype. What now?
OK. Back to the drawing board, then! We’ll just add each of those exceptions to the process, as we discover them. Over time, the process will grow to handle everything. Right?
Well, no. This approach seems to lead to process models that are too complex. We can't reason about them anymore, we can't test them anymore, and therefore, we’re starting to get nervous about making any changes to them at all -- we don’t know what side effects might emerge. What’s going on? Well, as our software developers snicker in the corner, part of the problem is actually quite simple: modelling processes is a cognitive task equivalent to writing software.
And not just any software... What most people thought BPM automation could achieve just isn’t possible. Why? Because real business processes involve tasks that can only be solved with one tool -- sentience. Even more frustrating, the most valuable bits in any given process are always the ones that need this pesky sentience stuff. But there is no HAL 9000 yet -- artificial intelligence continues to elude us. Machines aren’t sentient. So what’s the alternative?
People. Human beings. Kind of obvious, isn’t it? Within any given value chain, at any given step in any given process, there is one particular human being best suited to handle whatever that context is.
That doesn’t mean that business processes are useless! It also doesn’t mean that automating them was a bad idea -- think of the efficiencies we’ve gained as a result of doing so! No need to toss out that bathwater, let alone any babies.
Consider what happens when a case in our call centre is too weird for the process to handle. What then? Well, the call centre operator will typically toss the case to the back office, in the hope that somebody there can handle it. Thus, that exception handling cost we mentioned earlier is characterised by trying to find the right person for a given task ...
Hey , that’s routing! That’s great! It is just a modelling problem. We just have to refine the models until we can express that routing problem. Hmm, OK, so we need better ways of categorising our workers (more categories), and those categories need to be constantly updated to reflect new and changing circumstances, and, umm, and...
Well, no. Don’t underestimate routing problems. People cope with those kinds of problems more efficiently than machines can. Moreover, finding the right person is only half the game -- it’s only one part of what that sentient participant could do. The other part is collaboration. People can collaborate with each other to solve problems in remarkably efficient ways -- if they’re allowed to. Static business processes, however, often don’t allow (let alone encourage) collaboration. If we’re going to evolve at a faster pace than our competitors, we need to make it easy, and rewarding, to find and collaborate with one other.
Well, as it happens, that’s exactly what this “Enterprise 2.0” stuff is all about. The term was originally coined by Andrew McAfee, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and he came up with a mnemonic for it: SLATES. Over time, the term has been refined somewhat, a fact best seen in the FLATNESS mnemonic coined by Dion Hinchliffe, an analyst and enterprise architect. Graphics on this, and next slide courtesy of Dion Hinchcliffe, http://blogs.zdnet.com/Hinchcliffe/?p=143
“ Social networking software in the enterprise” is probably the simplest possible way of expressing the concept, although it’s important not to disregard the attributes represented by SLATES (and FLATNESS). So what is “social networking software”? In a nutshell, it is software that helps people find, and collaborate with, other people. Sound familiar? How do blogs fit that description? Or wikis? What about stuff like instant messaging? Or email? Since this stuff is still sorting itself out, it probably makes sense not to obsess about the definition. The key is whether a tool helps people find and / or collaborate with each other. Blogs and wikis, for example, are conversational content repositories -- they definitely pass our simple test.
So what can we do to make use of this idea? We need to build Enterprise 2.0 capabilities -- social networking software functionality -- into our business processes. Ideally, we need to build that functionality into the same software we use to automate and manage our business processes -- we want to enable people to find each other...
... And collaborate with each other, all within the “flow” of their normal tasks. This is an important point, and we can’t afford to underestimate it -- the really big win for us will come when we can enable people to collaborate such that tasks are completed with less friction : lower coordination costs. That will produce measurable gains, reductions in cost, and make it relatively easy to measure (and achieve) ROI.
If there’s one aspect of Enterprise 2.0 that can’t be emphasised enough it’s this -- the barriers to entry (usage) have to be as low as conceivably possible. Enterprise 2.0 is a consequence of, and informed by, the dizzying pace of innovation on the consumer web. Social processes have to be as easy (and fun!) to use as consumer software on the open Internet. That’s also why it’s important that we find a way to bake this into a single, coherent user interface. BPM tasks, blogging, wikis, user profile searches, tagging, linking -- all in one place.
The geeks will howl in protest at that, but in fact, it’s true. Despite all of the focus on concurrency in IT systems, their capabilities remain laughable compared to “simple” human intelligence. Ad-hoc arrangements, made as part of collaborative work, can achieve efficiencies that algorithmic solutions cannot -- lacking a HAL 9000. And if done via software baked into the overall solution, this can be achieved with no loss of accountability or process visibility. There are anecdotal indications that other benefits may emerge. One clear example is concurrency -- the execution of different pieces of a given task in parallel. IT systems struggle with this, and people are better at it.
The overall meme of Enterprise 2.0 also encompasses a lot more than just social processes. The use of social networking software can (and probably will) accelerate the change of an organisation from a hierarchical, command-and-control structure to a networked one. Increased collaboration also correlates tightly with other benefits, such as increased innovation. Social processes are just one element among many -- one answer to one question, not the answer to all questions. But it’s probably not unreasonable to argue that social processes are the “killer app” for Enterprise 2.0.
By adding social networking functionality to existing BPM systems, enterprises can combine the benefits of Enterprise 2.0 with clear, measurable business benefits. Reducing coordination costs within existing business processes is smack in the crosshairs of social networking software. Social processes -- the combination of BPM and Enterprise 2.0 will be greater than the sum of those parts. And until HAL 9000 goes online, that combination is likely to provide a massive competitive advantage to somebody. Why not you?