Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Semi-structured processes

A lot of the focus in the BPM world is on highly repeatable, controlled processes. These processes follow a strict management lifecycle.

  1. analysed and designed by process experts on behalf of process owners,
  2. implemented by process engineers using sophisticated BPM tools and workflow engines
  3. performed by armies of obedient employees or compliant customers
  4. monitored and calibrated by statisticians using sophisticated analytical tools
This is essentially the BPM lifecycle presented by Ann Rosenberg of SAP at the London TOGAF conference today.

In this lifecycle, we can achieve process agility and innovation through rapid redesign and recalibration. If the design and control phases can be make more efficient and effective (for example by being supported by tools), then the set-up costs are reduced, and this improves the economics of scope as well as the economics of scale.

At the other extreme, there may be some processes in an enterprise that are completely adhoc, with no repeatable structure. For example, a decision to merge with a competitor may involve a number of highly complex steps (investigation, evaluation, due diligence and so on) but without any systematic process structure.

Is there something in between these two extremes? Well there certainly should be. In my previous post on Activity-Based Computing, I mentioned four important examples.

  • Sales. The sales team produces a detailed proposal in response to a complex request from a customer or prospect.
  • Customer Complaints. Each complaint follows a different path, which depends on the nature and content of the complaint.
  • Problem solving.
  • Medical intervention.
All of these processes are semi-structured. The people doing these jobs are given some degrees of freedom to customize the process to their own understanding of the requirements of a particular customer or patient or situation. However, they are still accountable and their performance is measured; and therefore there must be some underlying process structure.

Who is doing the process management? All the participants in the process are participating in the management of the process, and should have access to all the management tools (not just BPM but also BAM and Business Intelligence). Then the job of the process architect is not to lay down the process but to create a collaborative process space in which everyone can be productive and appropriately innovative, with the right balance of variation and standardization, freedom and control.

So the big question for the process architect is not optimizing one process, or even optimizing lots of different processes, but managing the process continuum. In this way, the process architect becomes the enterprise architect.

Update: see Semi-structured processes 2


cybersal said...

Thomas Davenport's book "Thinking for a living" addresses the question of managing the performance of knowledge workers, carrying out less structured processes. Rather than a continuum, he presents a 2x2 classification, whose dimensions are complexity and interdependence. I find this categorisation quite useful.

cybersal said...

A clarification of my previous comment: I’ve just realised that I didn’t quite intend what I actually said.
My point about the Davenport matrix is that there are 2 dimensions. I did mean to imply that it's a hard classification – I see it as a continuum in both dimensions.

Richard Veryard said...

thanks Sally

I've read some excellent pieces by Thomas Davenport on process and knowledge, but not this one. Will follow up.

Putting "Thomas Davenport semi-structured processes" into a search engine, I found some interesting stuff including a paper called Bringing human information behaviour into information systems research: an application of systems modelling. There is clearly a lot of work going on in this area, so it is surprising that people claiming expertise in BPM are apparently unaware of it.

saulc said...

Hi Richard, this falls into what I call "non deterministic" or "open ended" processes which are very difficult to handle with traditional BPM. We've tackled this in a few cases using CEP and specifically using TIBCO businessevents whee you model a space if states that the process can move within, mediated by rules and events.