In our reader's poll in January, we asked readers to tell us what they expected from 2016 relating to process work. A few readers told us their organizations didn't do much process work in 2015 and didn't expect to do much more in 2016, but a solid majority of those who took the poll indicated that they had done a lot of process work in 2015 and would be doing more in 2016.
This follows on a BBC conference that BPTrends co-sponsored in November of 2015 that had a record attendance and suggested that there was a lot of interest in process improvement.
More broadly, however, the US and Europe have both endured several years of slow growth and seem poised to experience an expansion during the coming decade that should promote business growth and spending on new and improved business processes. This is only a tentative conclusion, however, as slow growth in China may push certain industries or countries back toward slow economic growth.
Whatever the economic climate, process is a perennial concern of management. Senior executives, however, can't seem to focus on basics for any extended period of time. They seem to shift from one concern to another – embracing some fads and some critical elements along the way. Sooner or later, however, they return to the vision of wholeness that says that the best way to understand work is to understand how it flows, from the input of raw materials or basic information to the final delivery of valued products to stakeholders. Within limits, it doesn't make any difference what you call it – work simplification, industrial engineering, Six Sigma, Business Reengineering or Business Process Management – sooner or later management returns to this view of things because it's fundamental, just like tracking costs, making a profit, satisfying customers, or measuring output.
The latest round of process work was kicked off in 2003 with the publication of Smith and Fingar's book on Business Process Management and has had a reasonably long run, but it has begun to seem a little exhausted. The BPMS tools are being used, but aren't delivering the revolutionary improvements that were promised in the book. Today's analyst firms are looking around for a new term to use to generate some new interest in process work. One group is focused on Business Architecture and another is focused on Case Management. Both seem too narrow to generate any real enthusiasm.
Our own belief is that IBM's Cognitive Computing will be the next wave that draws lots of people together and gets them excited about improving processes. Cognitive Computing isn't a process technology, as such; it's a set of software technologies that can be used to automate various aspects of an organization's work. To be successfully deployed, however, Cognitive Computing requires some process thinking – it requires that companies identify places that knowledge automation can be used to improve organizational performance. And that, whether most consultants realize it yet or not, is going to require a process perspective. Indeed, Case Management is really just a specific process-focused approach to discussing how we might incorporate cognitive computing into our business processes and will undoubtedly merge with cognitive computing at an appropriate time. In essence, Cognitive approaches are going to result in more intelligent and flexible processes, and Case Management is about how one models flexible processes.
The availability of a new generation of Cognitive capabilities will undoubtedly lead to new software development tools. So far IBM's strategy seems focused on developing packages for specific industries. Thus, instead of acquiring simple tools and then creating knowledge bases and natural language vocabularies in those tools, a company will acquire an Insurance package from IBM that includes lots of the knowledge and the vocabulary for many different insurance applications. This approach provides new companies with a step-up and can sharply reduce the time it takes a new organization to come up to speed on Cognitive development.
Other companies will try other strategies. Undoubtedly some of the existing BPMS tools will seek to add knowledge bases and vocabularies to render them more useful for cognitive development.
Leaving aside the still small and evolving interest in Case Management and Cognitive Computing, the rest of the BPM market seems ready to repeat 2015. Companies will invest in improving specific applications and in efforts to reduce costs. Some will continue to use Six Sigma, but more will shift to Lean, which is the “new thing” in incremental process work and has been for several years now. Lean will hold its own against BPM, as an established approach, but over the longer term, Cognitive Computing, with its promise of automation and radical reductions in costs will continue to grow.
There has been only a little movement in combining Six Sigma, Lean and BPM, but there has been a lot of movement toward combining BPM and business analysis. Indeed, the Business Analysts are currently becoming more active in process work precisely because of the fact that Cognitive Computing is gaining attention and that tends to shift the process focus on what IT can do to automate things.
All in all, I expect a slow to average year for those promoting BPM, but I expect a growing interest in Cognitive Computing, and I expect that to re-interest people in process – at least as it relates to how an organization might incorporate Cognitive techniques in their existing work processes.