This post discusses an issue that most vendors would just as soon forget — how do business process management tool sets become relevant, when organizations do not have enough repeatable or documented process to make the tools useful.
Does the Following Workflow Seem Familiar?
Organization defines strategic goals around a particular Enterprise IT Program Initiative.
Organization determines that it needs a tool or suite of tools to solve all of its problems.
Organization contacts vendors and conducts an evaluation process.
Organization determines that a particular vendor can solve some, most, or all of its problems.
Organization purchases costly tools and builds costly infrastructure to support the costly tools.
Organization implements the tools, typically with a large contingent of vendor staff.
Organization tries to determine how to make the tools useful, because of its own lack process (e.g. it is easier to buy a tool, then to fix a process.)
Organization creates test cases to fit the tools they purchased, rather than model real-world business processes.
Frustration builds when vendors are not able to live up to either realistic, or perceived expectations.
Enterprise Information Technology (IT) Program is jeopardized, or fails outright.
The preceding steps are of course shortened and intensified to make a point. The point here is that software vendors are out to sell tools, whether or not business clients are able to take advantage of them. Some vendors may just be interested in selling only tools, some are more service and consulting oriented, others have a foot in both camps. Unfortunately, all business software tools start from one of the following premises — that what an organization wants to do is either understood well enough to be truly helped by a tool, or that the organization will get there eventually with the help of the tool.
Enter Business Reality
Many businesses — like us as individuals — are just not as organized as they should be, or want to be. It is not the fault of the organization necessarily. Businesses expand and contract, companies are acquired or spun off, key people leave the organization to pursue other opportunities, stakeholders get too busy with meetings and daily running of the business to fully understand or document processes. Processes live in peoples heads, on scraps of paper, in emails, faxes, digital images, websites, etc. In other words — real life happens.
Enter Standards and Regulations to Combat Human and Business Reality
In the “old days,” organizations and individuals that were strongly oriented toward business process management could strive for International Standards Organization “ISO” or Six Sigma certifications. As a co-worker explained to me many years ago “ISO is simple. Doc what you do, and do what you Doc.” Yeah….real simple for diverse, busy, real-world business executives! In the “new days,” regulators have determined that organizations need standards, even if the organizations have to be audited and fined into oblivion get there. So…organizations that were not…shall we say “ISO inclined” now had a new unwelcome regulatory option — comply or get fined. Like a penitent dieter trying to get back on the wagon, companies spend millions or billions on tools to become “compliant,” achieve “separation of duties,” and “accountability.”
Enter the Magical Software Tool to Make Everything Better….
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a tool – a point and click tool – that we could install in our business environment and take care of this onerous mess for us? Too many identities? No problem – just click a button. Need to run access reports on all of your financial databases? Click another button. Document and automate your business processes? Another button. I will grant that security and business process-related tools have come a very long way since the mid 1990s, but they are far from living up to most vendor claims made about them. Tools still run on computer systems, computer systems are binary systems that take input, perform actions, and generate output. If the input is bad, then the output will be bad or worse.
There is an old adage which bears repeating: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Business process management or “BPM” tools are great – with the right people, processes, and policies behind them, BPM tools can truly achieve high levels of automation and even realize a comfortable Return on Investment. In fact, the right tools, documented the right way, and in the hands of the right people, can help propel a business organization to new heights of success. But, there is a lot of human and real work needed before the tools come along. Start with your people first — worry about the tools after the processes and policies are defined.
Decide to Take the Hard Road Early in Your Enterprise IT Program
Don’t start with a business process management program — or any strategic IT program — with technology tools. Don’t think “gee, now that we have fully committed to business process management we will just outsource the whole thing to a software vendor, and the vendor will take care of our business process for us.” Instead, make the commitment to understand and work through processes internally, one department and process at a time. Don’t worry yet about higher-level tasks such as “role engineering” and “compliance baselining.” Instead, collect processes. Start with “business snippets” (see below) and work up from there.
How Do You Start a Business Process Management (BPM) Initiative?
Start small. I use a term called “business snippets.” These are the little bits of process that different people in the organization all have a piece of, and collectively comprise an end-to-end process.
Bring in an outside consultant. Someone with experience in extracting, understanding, modeling, and automating business process. It can often be difficult to “see the forest for the trees” and this is where an experienced outsider can help.
Focus on the process and snippets collection first. Like a brainstorming session, your process collection team (yes — you will have to dedicate some valuable resources to the task, but trust me — it’s worth it) collects all “process bits”, tags each with descriptive meta language (I generally recommend Wikis and related tools for this process, but it can be anything….as long as it is easily searchable and retrievable) and posts the information in the Business Process Repository.
Add diagrams and charts as needed, or available (Basic PowerPoint or block diagrams with simple arrows can really help people visualize processes in a business-relevant way with relatively little effort.)
Add your current Enterprise IT software tools to the evaluation process. What functions do they provide today? How can they be centralized and streamlined? Think of your in-house applications as capsules of process. Your applications have to already have a good foundation of process, because they are algorithmic.
Cross-reference the snippets with their parent processes, and map relationships with other processes
Maintain focus on what is core to your business. This is an important point – never focus your collection efforts on what your auditors or others in your industry want you to do. The process effort is focused specifically on what makes sense for your organization. Only after your data is collected, and processes documented and shared in a way that makes sense to anyone and everyone in your organization, should you go back and overlay your processes with regulatory, audit, or industry-specific process requirements.
Ensure that all processes are fully collected, defined, cataloged, indexed, searchable, repeatable.
And now…. you can understand truly where your organization is, where it wants to go relative to business goals, and ready to consider tools to help your organization achieve the next level.
Business process management can be a challenging, yet highly rewarding exercise when done correctly. If your organization is ready to tackle its processes, consolidate and optimize, then make the commitment full and total. As my grandfather continually said: a job worth doing, is a job worth doing right. Take the time to understand your organizational structure, business processes, goals, and requirements. With a clear understanding and roadmap, you are now ready to tackle the automation of your business processes with software tools.
Corbin Links – Corbin Links is known in professional circles as “Your Guide to Thinking BIG in Business IT Consulting” because of his extensive advisory role in helping …
Business process modeling