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Models and Organizations Don’t Mix

Blog: Collaborative Planning & Social Business

This another installment in the series pointing out the problems with using a hand-drawn business process model.  The last post was how a business process model fails in the promise to be easier than programming.  Even if you get past that issue, and hire programmers to make the models, a static model is not really suitable for a human organization anyway.

Office Work and Automation

Another key idea behind business process modeling was to enable the push-button office. That is an ideal of an office where the workers simply press the buttons and have their work done for them. This is an exaggeration that can not be realized in the practical world, but nevertheless represents some sort of idyllic goal to strive for. If you could figure out all of the things that the people in the office are going to do, it’s then possible that you might program them all into a computer.

It seems intuitive that such a capability should be possible. We understand the jobs that people do. It seems like those jobs are quite straightforward and could be programmed readily. But automation of the office tasks ignores the significant subtle interactions that are going on between the people who are doing the work. Office workers are unaware of these factors because they come so natural. When you actually automate what office workers do, then one finds that it is not as straightforward as one might expect.

Not a Factory

A business office is not as rigorously controlled as a factory.  A factory is an environment where all aspects of the work can be controlled. The walls of the factory keep the chaos from the rest of the world out of the workplace. The controlled environment allows one to set up an assembly line where every step along the way is designed in advance. Every item that comes off the assembly line is expected to be identical. If there are variations in the items being produced those variations are usually relatively minor. The process of putting the items together can be strictly controlled and it can happen in exactly the same order in exactly the same amount of time each time. But office work is not this way.

Business processes in an office are not as constrained or controlled as a factory. It’s not just that people are interacting with each other in the office space, but also that people within the office are interacting readily with people outside of the office. The external world is chaotic and messy. The external world cannot be controlled at all. Your business process must survive even when laws are changing, customs are changing, seasons are changing, technology is changing, and customer needs are constantly changing. An office business process must be designed to meet the needs of these external customers. The office business process cannot be a strictly defined the way a factory process can.

Some Exceptions

To be perfectly clear some parts of business processes can be completely constrained by the internal practices of the organization. For example once the customer has filled their information into the sign-up form then the process to set up a new account for that customer is constrained only by things within the organization’s control.  Note carefully that the only processes that can be clearly defined to be repeatable are those that stay within the organization. Any process that involves dealing with people outside the organization are much more challenging to define in advance. These processes must be more flexible then programming practices would allow.

Even processes that are entirely internal to the organization need to change when the organization itself is constantly changing. New teams are organized. People take on new roles, new job assignments, and new positions. Some people leave the organization to pursue other opportunities. New products are defined that need to be handled differently and sometimes bring about new divisions in the organization. Even if your organizational structure remains the same, the people playing the roles will be constantly changing over time. Since the office is not a factory, different skills and capabilities of the people filling the positions will affect the way that others in the organization relate to them. It is so natural to accommodate the flow of people into different positions that we don’t even think it’s odd when a new person takes moves into a new position that changes all of the roles around them.

These are themes that I have talked about in the past in terms of the need for ad-hoc processes.  But we can do better than simply throw up our hands and let the case worker do what they want.   Maybe BPMN will help?  Maybe CMMN is a better approach?   Check out my upcoming posts.   In fact, Emergent Synthetic Processes is an approach that promises to offer a custom-built process for each instance.  Check this out in my upcoming book: Beyond the Business Process Model.

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