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Are You Really Doing BPM

In Europe as in the States, the conference market around Business Process Management (BPM) has been buzzing for a while. They can be great places to mix with “real people” and to hear what they are actually doing rather than what we the analysts and commentators suggest they are doing. The contrast between events can be quite startling. While the something like the GBPF event was a full blown conference with a mix of expert input and user case studies, the Gartner events have mainly analysts and, the IQPC Exchange was made up almost entirely user case studies, and focused on the financial sector.

What I found particularly interesting at the latter, was that over 80% of the audience claimed to be doing BPM, while less than 5% saw it as involving the executives. There can be no doubt that with over 20 highly interesting user case studies and presentations being made, serious work is obviously being undertaken. But, in my mind this begs the question “Are they really doing BPM?”

Listening to the presentations, many from some of Europe’s leading financial institutions, it very quickly became apparent that companies who focus on Business Process can deliver some quite amazing bottom line business results. At the same time however it also became apparent that many of the projects undertaken were focused mainly on workflow and process automation. I guess in an industry that deals with low margins and high transaction costs that even the smallest saving multiplies the benefits to a point where the apparent savings are huge. But, again the question by simply focusing on the cheaper, faster better school of process are they really doing BPM?

It was the banks from South Africa and India that particularly impressed me. Companies from these Countries talked far more about BPM as an enabler. They saw BPM as a way for them to identity new and different ways of doing business, a way of creating white space between them and their competitors. It was this desire to seek new and innovative ways of doing business that both impressed and scared me. For, if we too cannot rise to that challenge then the chances are that we will increasingly lose market share to these more innovative companies. Of course, they too were also saving money through automation as well it was simply that they did not see it as the end goal.

As an aside I heard a great line from the Director of an Irish Bank “We did not set out to save costs or improve revenue, we set out to improve customer service. But as a result we wound up making far larger savings and drove revenues far higher than we might ever have expected.” a great lesson in the value of focusing on the customer.

It is this focus on the customer that perhaps truly differentiates those doing real BPM work from those who are just focused on process mapping, documentation and automation. These are the companies who are really looking at themselves from the outside in and questioning everything they do and asking whether it really makes a difference in the eyes of the customer.

This external focus is one of the key points in BPM, others would include the fact that it is a management discipline and therefore needs to be supported by if not driven by the most senior levels of management within an organization. Additionally, if you are truly doing BPM then you must be looking across functions, not just carrying out incremental process improvements within them. Of course, incremental improvements are not to be belittled or ignored, they play a valuable part in consistent improvement, but neither should they be confused with true BPM.

I should point out that while these comments are aimed quite generally, some of the presenters were from companies who were achieving stunning results and had organized themselves in such a way that they were able to combine all of the various facets of process in such a way as to provide an extremely comprehensive toolkit. Again for example I can recollect a South African Bank who had created a specialist team whose role was to facilitate and mentor process teams, taking with them high level views of the business to put context around any given project. This team is also trained in techniques like Six Sigma and so is able to assist teams in creating measures, whilst also having the ability to encourage creative thinking in order to ensure that all solutions are considered, not just the obvious ones.

In summary, if you are working on process improvement or automation and delivering business benefit you are to be applauded, improvement is never a one shot process. If you are simply automating the existing processes without questioning them, then you may either be carrying unnecessary overhead or missing out on greater opportunities.

If the program you are working on does not create a culture of change within your organization then the chances are that you may find that people quickly slip into old habits and you can’t retain the gains you make. People and culture are talked of as a cornerstone in process projects but very often get forgotten. I prefer to think of it as a three legged stool – the legs being made of People, Process and Systems – if only two are present (whichever two) then you don’t have anything as it will simply collapse.

Lastly true BPM as we have said requires cross functional thinking and management, if you are not looking across your whole organization through the eyes of the customer, then the chances are that you are not really undertaking BPM. Of course in not doing so you are not alone, as we said at the beginning, the vast majority of projects being undertaken today under the guise of BPM are still nothing more than functionally based process optimization projects, and there lies the challenge – can history really judge whether BPM as a paradigm was successful or not when in reality we simply used the name and carried on doing what we always did?

Note: This article first appeared in June 2004 on Mark McGregor’s “Postcard from Europe” Series of articles on BPTrends

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