When Does A Tool Become A Platform?
What’s the difference between a process tool and a process platform? And does it matter? I think so, and here’s why.
Let’s define a ‘process tool’ broadly, as a means of describing work, of ensuring it is undertaken efficiently and effectively, and of enabling improvement and change.
Many organizations have quite a list of process tools they use: procedural documents in Word or pdf formats; flowcharts in Powerpoint, Excel or Visio; fishbone diagrams and Value Streams created by a Lean Sigma team; detailed BPMN process diagrams, and business requirements capture tools, for IT purposes; and capability diagrams in enterprise architecture applications. And, to add to that Tower of Babel feeling, the process tools adopted will often vary by functional silo and by business unit. In short, if the purpose of process is to enable effective collaboration, it’s a mess.
Vendors these days tend to describe their offerings as ‘process platforms’, capable of providing a platform for effective collaboration and continuous improvement across the enterprise. It’s clearly the future. But what makes a platform?
For me, there are two essential capabilities for any sustainable process excellence platform:
Universal Adoption. Stakeholders across the enterprise have to buy into the platform as ‘the way we do things around here’. It has to be understood as the universal business language. For the foreseeable future, no single platform can meet every need, but the chosen platform should be everyone’s baseline and reference point: the enterprise double helix.
Unified Governance. The platform has to provide a single embedded governance framework for managing quality, risk, compliance and change. Otherwise you’re quickly back to tool proliferation.
No vendor has all the answers, but in many ways the deficiencies in their ‘platform’ offerings are nothing compared to the challenges for the enterprise. It’s difficult even to procure an enterprise-wide process excellence platform, let alone to implement and maintain it. But it’s where the real value lies. ‘Detoolify and Platformize’ doesn’t have much of a ring to it but it’s absolutely the right strategic direction.
It’s worth noting incidentally just how much can be achieved – without any sophisticated tool or platform – by a disciplined organizational culture that enables effective collaboration. I’ve been amazed to come across well-run businesses in highly regulated sectors that are orchestrated largely by (a very structured and well-managed use of) Powerpoint and email. It’s far from ideal – there’s a huge maintenance overhead, just for a start. But it illustrates how success requires the right process platform and organizational maturity, and arguably it’s the latter which matters most.
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