Human Processes: Too Many Cooks

I started writing for bptrends in March 2005 with a rather technical paper about mathematical techniques for managing process change (bptrends.com/managing-process-change-easy-as-pi-and-petri) and eventually started the column “Human Processes” in November 2007 (bptrends.com/human-processes-what-are-human-processes). After more than 10 years, it's salutary to take a look back at the opening words of my first column:

Welcome to a new column for BP Trends. In “Human Processes,” I will be looking at the nature of work that involves human beings, explaining why it is critical to manage such activity from a process perspective, and showing how to do it.

Some of you – regular readers of BP Trends, in particular – may already know something of what I have to say on this topic. Others, however, may be asking what such an analysis has to offer. Surely enough has been written about the theory of process management by now – Isn't it time just to get on with it?

The truth of the situation is that process handling of human work in the workplace is currently restricted to a certain kind of human work – work that is repetitive and often semi-automated, work in which human involvement is restricted to data entry and low-level decision-making.

How much has changed in this time – not. My expectation back then was that process techniques and tools would evolve to streamline not just routine work but also collaborative work, including where human interactions crossed organizational boundaries, and reaching into all areas of working life. But here we are in 2018 and for most people the greatest strides in that direction have been a little used (and hard to use) BPMN construct for “conversations”. Techniques and tools for managing collaboration across multiple organisations have been adopted in the worlds of local government and community (towndigitalhub.info), but for the business world nothing has really changed.

If after 10 years the private sector still has the empty swim lane problem (bptrends.com/empty-swimlanes), does it really matter? Well, it may matter more than ever now that automation is fast taking over not only the work for which BPMN caters but also the collaborative work traditionally thought to belong to real people (bptrends.com/human-processes-the-rise-of-humans). In effect, computers are taking over critical decision making but we don't have any means of understanding how they are doing it.

AI is improving all the time, of course. We've moved on since the Black Monday crash of 1987, when program trading strategies for blindly selling stocks as markets fell caused the biggest one-day crash of all time. Or have we? It may not be a formal approach to assessment, but it's fascinating to compare the top ten AI failures in 2016 (techrepublic.com/article/top-10-ai-failures-of-2016) with those in 2017 (techrepublic.com/article/the-10-biggest-ai-failures-of-2017). While AI seems to be making strides on racism and gaming, security issues appear to be more prominent:

figure 1

This isn't a surprise, since as AI matures, we are handing over so much more into its control – and we won't really understand the consequences until the first AI Black Swan event (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory) comes along.

Adjusting for inflation, Black Monday cost investors $1.1 trillion (time.com/money/5140335/dow-correction-trillion-dollar). Sebastian Faulks puts this figure into perspective in his novel “A Week In December”, when one of the characters is asked how high a stack of a trillion dollars would be in tightly packed $100 bills. Answer: seventy-one miles. What would be the consequences of an AI safety incident equivalent to Black Monday?

Einstein's definition of insanity springs to mind: “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a consultant, writer, researcher and software developer working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds. Keith wrote the landmark book "Human Interactions: The Heart And Soul Of Business Process Management", described by reviewers as "the overarching framework for 21st century business technology" and "a must read for Process Professionals and Systems Analysts alike". Keith founded Role Modellers, whose company mission is to develop understanding and software support of collaborative human work processes, the field Keith pioneered with his work on Human Interaction Management. For more information about Keith, see http://keith.harrison-broninski.info.
Keith Harrison-Broninski

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