Harmon on BPM: Then and Now: The Impact of Change on Organizations

The world is changing faster all the time. I read an article on innovative products coming out of China. Some were trivial but some were amazing. And they all remind me that people generate innovations. If you add a billion people to the pool of people who are thinking about how we could make socks, or toasters, or cars more useful or fun, you are going to get a lot of new ideas. Even if only a few of them catch on, they are going to drive the speed to change. And, of course, it's not just China. Everyone has got the idea that innovation is important and more companies, governments, and universities are investing in research and labs than ever before. I read another article about a new hi-tech center in Africa that was churning out new companies with new software innovations. More people, more perspectives, more needs, and more change.

A few decades ago, when I was a young manager, I read books on positioning and strategy that all suggested that if a company thought things through, developed a sound strategy and an excellent operational base, it could count on milking its market position for decades. Research showed that leading Fortune 500 companies, once they established dominance in a market, could hold it for decades. By the same token, young managers expected to find a solid company, work hard, and rise through the ranks, creating a rewarding career. That was then. Today, the pace of change is such that any smart young executive should plan on working for several companies in the course of his or her career. Indeed, if he or she is really sharp, he or she will plan on working for several companies to learn about business and then get involved with a startup, create a new business, and then quickly sell it and move on.

Today, even the largest companies find their product lines popular for a few years and then find themselves scrambling to release the next new thing. Younger, more innovative companies, find themselves struggling to release the next new thing in months. Apple consistently roles out a new iPhone every year. Some of their competitors are releasing new smartphones with new feature sets every few months.

Some companies track their innovation. They keep track of the income they receive from products released within the past year, or perhaps two years. If they are getting less than half their income from recently released products, they worry that they are falling behind the innovation curve for their industry.

Nothing has changed more than the role of information technology (IT). In the 80s, IT was still conceptualized as a support service. Departments had goals and IT provided services to support departmental goals. Different departments obtained different software to help them with their specific concerns.

In a similar way, business process people were often located in personnel departments and focused on analyzing processes to identify people problems. If delivery was slow, one checked to see what the employees were doing to slow things down. If errors were present, one checked training to see if employees were being given the right training.

Today, IT – or at least the senior executives of IT – are key members of the executive suite. When an organization thinks of improving its processes, it asks what new technology is available and what options for automation can be utilized. Increasingly, business strategies are simply the realization of the application of a new technology to the business. One company used to publish music CDs, but has now changed its business model and sells its music in a digital format. Another organization used to have stores throughout the US, but now sells its products and services from its website and ships its products on demand. Still another organization used to manufacture spare parts. Now it sends digital blueprints to customers who create their own spare parts, as needed, using 3D printers. The key to understanding these new business models depends on digital formats and the willingness of customers to use them.

Table 1

Table 1. Some differences between companies then, and now.

Today, process people are much more likely to be located in the IT department and focused on how they can insert new technology in existing processes, or, better, on how they can eliminate current processes and replace them with entirely automated systems.

A few decades ago, a middle manager wrote memos to communicate with his peers or his superior. Today, she is more likely to send an email to document anything needing documentation.

To make matters even more complex, we are entering an era of meta-automation. A few years ago manufacturing organizations focused on automating production lines. We've all seen photos of robots assembling cars with hardly a human in sight. In the Nineties it was popular to refer to factories with this kind of automation as “lights out” factories. Today, cutting edge manufacturers are using more flexible production machines and still other computers to control them. Instead of building a production line to manufacture Toyota Camry's, one builds a line to manufacture any of several types of Toyota cars. Then managers can program the line to manufacture 10 red Camry's, followed by 10 of another type of car, and then followed by 50 of still another car. In essence, one is building flexibility into the automated systems so they can be tailored to rapid shifts in customer demand.

Thirty years may not seem like a long time to some – it's less than the time commonly termed a generation – but it's led to a nearly complete change in the way managers and employees think about how business functions. Gone are the days when one created a product, built a business, and lived with it for 30 years. Today's world is totally dominated by change – and not just change, but rapid change. Today's business people, be they managers or employees, need to think about things in a very flexible manner. Today's products and services won't be next year's products or services. If they are, they certainly won't be next decade's products and services. One's a lot safer thinking about how to be part of the change process than focusing on how to be part of the existing process.

There's nothing wrong, for example, with talking about a business process architecture. But if you work at a large organization, and think that developing a good business process architecture could take two or three years, you should start by asking how likely it is that the organization will still have the same processes in two or three years. Do you want to tie yourself to a project that will be out-of-date before its finished? Consider documenting the core business process of your organization.

Or simply consider a single process improvement project. Will that business process still be the same when you have finished documenting it? It might be safer to think about how you could improve the process than to focus on documenting it. You'll certainly be better off if you focus on simple documentation methods that zero in on problems that can be changed quickly rather than focusing on documentation methods that take months or years. No one in senior management imagines they can make money by creating documentation. Improving products and services improves the bottom line and you will get a lot more recognition for managing that.

Change isn't going to stop. We've all got to learn to continually learn and adapt to new ideas and technologies. And if we are going to prosper, we are going to learn how to develop work habits and processes that take change into account and assure that we are part of the change process.

You can imagine new technologies automating all manner of work – but you can't imagine new technologies that survey all the changes taking place and come up with new business models and new ways of helping customers accommodate change. Jobs that help facilitate change are the safest jobs I can imagine.

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


  1. One of our more advanced customers retitled their BPMO as their BTO – Business Transformation Office. The words as-is and to-be have disappeared, there is now current state and future state. Their strategic planning office constantly runs new strategies past the BTO to assess viability/return and the BTO manages the implementation of those judged good to go. The CEO sets the overall direction in conjunction with Strategic Planning There is no more annual or quarterly planning. It is a daily function, based on new technology, new business models, and changes in customer/supplier strategy, all of which are arising every day. The CEO role is like that of the a ship’s captain, setting the course and leaving the navigation to others but getting involved if needed.

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