There are business processes, and then there are processes that mean business. Not all work activities are created equal.
Take me, for example. A work process for me is: Decide to write an article; worry about it; pace the floor, fret, stew and finally get it done at the last minute. Most of the time. Doesn't sound like much of a "process," does it? You'd think that after 30-odd years of doing this, it would get easier. Nope. But I try to keep in mind the advice my friend David Weinberger gave me once: "Crappiness is hard to detect, but lateness is apparent immediately."
Having said that, when the topic is as serious as "business process management," the problems of flaky writers like me don't amount to a hill of beans. BPM, or BPA (for "automation"), can be very simplistically described as the clever application of a series of rules and "what-ifs" that help avoid the inefficiencies of mere mortals like us. In this very simple expression, BPM is a sort-of glorified workflow. "If a purchase order is under $X, pay it; if it's over $X, send it to your supervisor for approval." Like I said, that's about as simplistic as it gets. It qualifies as an expression of BPM, but it is woefully underpowered.
BPM has come to mean something far more complex—and valuable—than mere transactional workflow. BPM should be thought of as a living process, an ongoing, self-aware organism that is constantly seeking ways to improve itself and optimize business performance. Wikipedia insists on using "holistic" in its essay; I guess I don't argue with that. It implies that BPM extends beyond the repetitive, rote, mundane and everyday nature of its workflow ancestors and strives for something... greater.
BPM, when deployed and leveraged properly, is a never-ending, self-perpetuating cycle of life. If anyone ever asks if "your BPM strategy is finished yet?" just chuckle and shake your head slowly. BPM is never finished.
Using a pretty widely adopted definition (fire up the PowerPoint slide here), BPM creates a living, closed-loop cycle:
- Vision—strategize functions and processes.
- Definition—baseline the process or the process improvement.
- Model—simulate the change to the process.
- Analyze—compare the various simulations to determine an optimal improvement.
- Improve—select and implement the improvement.
- Control—deploy this implementation and monitor the improvement in real time.
- Report—feed the performance information back into the simulation model in preparation for the next step.
- Re-engineer—revamp the processes from scratch for better results.
What this store-bought definition leaves out is the last step, and it's the beauty part of BPM: Now do it all over again!
If there is a yin and yang of business—the cost-saving yin as compared to the value-creation yang—BPM should definitely be thought of on the value-creation side of the continuum.
Eyes of the Beholders
The article by Ben Farrell of Appian Corporation in this white paper gives us a great, revealing example of the reach of BPM in today's organizations. In the course of about 300 words, Ben name-checks "mobile," "cloud," "customer experience," "social," "productivity," "performance improvement" and "information technology" as each benefiting from a BPM mindset. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had included "back rubs" and "sliced bread."
Bob Puccinelli, writing on behalf of EMC Corporation, describes the holistic nature of BPM, too, except he comes at it from a slightly different angle. He correctly underscores the notion of "case management" as the crucial organizing principle for managing the many fluid relationships among customer, solution and the numerous processes—the "technological and human factors"—that need to interact seamlessly. As he puts it, case management controls both the "linear, structured processes—typically following a predictable path for automating repetitive and routine tasks-with nonlinear and unstructured processes for handling unpredictable and exceptional aspects." That's a definition of business process management if I ever heard one.
Remember: It's a big world; someone's gotta manage it.