One Saturday night the other week I was typing away on a book that I’m working on (probably called The new instability. How cloud computing, globalisation and social media enable to you to create an unfair advantage) and I let out what was probably a quite involved tweet without any context to explain it.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the shift we’re seeing in the business environment. The world seems pretty unstable at the moment. Most business folk assume that this is simply a transition between two stable states, similar to what we’ve seen in the past. This time, however, business seems to be unable to settle into a new groove. The idea behind the book is that the instability we’re seeing is now the normal state of play.
Since Frederick Taylor’s time we’ve considered business – our businesses – vast machines to be improved. Define the perfect set of tasks and then fit the men to the task. Taylor timed workers, measuring their efforts to determine the optimal (in his opinion) amount of work he could expect from a worker in a single day. The idea is that by driving our workers to follow optimal business processes we can ensure that we minimise costs while improving quality. LEAN and Six Sigma are the most visible of Taylor’s grandchildren, representing generations of effort to incrementally chip away at the inefficiencies and problems we kept finding in our organisations.
This is the same mentality – incremental and internally focused, intent on optimising each and every task in our organisations – that we’ve used to apply technology to business. Departmental applications were first deployed to automate small repetitive tasks, such as tracking stock levels or calculating payrolls. Then we looked at the interactions between these tasks, giving birth to enterprise software in the process. Business Process Management (BPM) is the pinnacle of our more recent efforts – pulling in everything from our customers through to suppliers to create optimal straight through processes for our organisation to rely on.
Some vendors have taken this approach to its logical extreme, imagining (and trying to get us to buy) a single technology platform which will allow us to programme our entire business: business operating platforms. They’re aligning elements in the BPM technology stack with the major components found in most computers under the (mistaken) assumption that this will enable them to create a platform for the entire business. Business as programmable machine writ large.
The problem, as I’ve pointed out before, is that:
Programming is the automation of the known. Business processes, however, are the management and anticipation of the unknown.
Business is not a computer, with memory, CPUs and disks, and the hope of creating an Excel with which we can play what if with the entire business is simply tilting at windmills.
The focus of business is, and always has been, problems and the people who solve them. Technology is simply a tool we’ve used to amplify these people, starting with the invention of writing through to modern SaaS applications and BPM suites. While technology has had a previously unimaginable impact on business, it can’t (yet) replace the people who solve the problems which create all the value. People collaborate, negotiate, and smash together ideas to find new solutions to old problems. Computers simply replicate what they are told to do.
We’ve reached Taylorism’s use-by date. Define the perfect task and fit the man to the task no longer works. The pace of business has accelerated to the point that the environment we operate in has become perpetually unstable, and this is pushing us to become externally focused, rather than internally focused. We’re stopped worrying about collecting resources to focus on our reactions to problems and opportunities as they present themselves. Computing (calculating payrolls, invoices, or gunnary tables) is less important as it can be obtained on demand, and we’re more concerned with the connections between ourselves and our clients, partners, suppliers and even our competitors. And we’re shifted our focus from collecting ever more data as it becomes increasingly important to ask the questions which enable us to make the right decisions and drive our business forward.
Success today in today’s unstable environment means matching the tactic – process – to the goal we’re trying to achieve and our current environment, with different tactics being using in different circumstances. Rather than support one true way, we need to support multiple ways.
There has been some half steps in the right direction, with the emergence of Adaptive Case Management (ACM) being the most obvious one. A typical case study for ACM might be something like resolving SWIFT payment exceptions. When the ACM process is triggered a knowledge worker creates a case and starts building a context by pulling data in and triggering small workflows or business processes to seek out data and resolve problems. At some stage the context will be complete, the exception resolved, and the final action is triggered. Contrast this with the standard BPM case study, which is typically a compliance story. (It’s no surprise that regulations such as SOX drove a lot of business processes work.) BPM is a task dependency tool, making it very good at specifying the steps in the required process, but unable to cope with exceptions.
So what do we replace the Talyorism’s catch cry with? The following seems to suit, rooted as it is in the challenge of winning in a rapidly changing environment.
Identify the goal and then assemble the perfect team to achieve the goal.
Note: This was also posted on noprocess.org.
1. Ismael Ghalimi (2009), Introducing the Business Operating Platform, IT|Redux↑
2. Business is not a programming challenge @ PEG↑
3. Keith D. Swenson (2010), Mastering the Unpredictable, Meghan-Kiffer Press.↑