Harmon on BPM: Process Improvement–The Perennial Concern

I recently read Adam Tooze's Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. It chronicles the 2008 financial crisis that began as a banking crisis in the US and rapidly spread to undermine international financial systems as well. In essence, the world was over-leveraged and the debt finally caught up with it. As an analyst of the business process market, at first it seemed as if the 2008 crisis wouldn't affect the demand for process products and improvements, but as time passed, the slow down affected all aspects of business, including corporate commitments to process improvement. Moreover, the crisis deepened before it began to alleviate and so its impact on process work seemed greater in 2010 and 2011 than it seemed in 2008.

Looking back on it all from today's perspective, it marked the end of the more enthusiastic interest in BPMS and the various process initiatives and conferences that had been kicked off in 2003 with the publication of a number of process books, like Smith and Fingar's Business Process Management: The Third Wave and my own Business Process Change. In essence, the growth of Internet technologies enabled the development of a variety of software tools that made it possible to easily link existing applications together and to manage them with business process models. These same techniques made it easier to change processes and to monitor processes, and they generated a lot of interest that translated into a number of new Business Process Management conferences and a lot of excitement on websites like BPTrends, where new tools and new BPM software standards were discussed.

Consolidation occurred in the BPMS market around 2007-2010, and today, there are only a few conferences on BPM – mostly combined with something else, like business architecture or business analysis. It isn't that there isn't still some interest in BPMS, but its very muted compared with the halcyon days of 2005-6.

Business process work is a perennial concern of all large companies. Companies produce value by executing business processes. Getting people to do an efficient job as they generate processes and services has a direct connection to the results obtained by organizations. Moreover, technology continues to change rapidly and new techniques, new computer software, need to be constantly implemented and processes changed accordingly.

More important, to my way of thinking, process is a way of thinking about how an organization is structured and managed. In essence, process is a variation on the general systems perspective that imagines organizations as systems that work to transform inputs into outputs. From this perspective, everything within an organization is linked to everything else. Without having this interconnected perspective, manager's lack the ability to easily identify the levers they can use to improve the way organizations work.

The systems or process perspective has always been important, but it becomes ever more important as organizations become more automated and as software systems link automated activities into automated processes and, ultimately, into worldwide value chains. One of the real achievements of the early years of the millennium was the development of a Business Process Management discipline. Today there exist departments within major universities or groups with IT departments that are focused on defining, teaching, and improving BPM practices. This provides an ongoing knowledge-base that will grow with time and benefit everyone.

It's easy to predict that enthusiasm will return to process work in the near future. In the course of my career I have seen process enthusiasm organized around Human Performance, Six Sigma, Lean, Business Process Reengineering, ERP, and, recently, BPMS. I'm not sure that the next wave will be organized around a focus on improving how people perform processes (as Six Sigma was), or around automation (as BPR was), or around something else. I am confident that there will be a new “process spring” in a few years, simply because it is important, and it seems to experience periodic bursts of enthusiasm.

I personally expect that the next driver of a major process enthusiasm will be Artificial Intelligence (AI), which continues to grow and will certainly inspire a major interest in new automation, and in various kinds of knowledge management. I expect that as interest in AI grows, there will be a spin-off of AI that will focus on how one changes business processes to incorporate AI effectively.

I could be wrong about the driver – perhaps it will be a new software technology, or some human resource technique arising out of Chinese factory practice. What I am sure of is that something will kick off a new round of excitement and people will once again realize that a holistic view of how organizations work and how its efficient to analyze them by tracing processes from inputs to outputs will catch on. That's the way it is with perennial things: They bloom again and again.

Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of Enterprise Alignment, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in San Francisco. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.com
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