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Whither business process management?

Blog: Colin Crofts - Business Process Improvement

My good friend and colleague Roger Burlton has kindly invited me to sit on a “Ten Years After” panel at BPM Europe 2015 (16-17 June, London). Roger’s idea is for those who were “there at the beginning and still in the field” to discuss what progress we have made and to speculate about what might be accomplished going forward.
BPM Europe is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer. This vibrant conference is presented by IRM UK, co-produced by Paul Harmon and the team at BPTrends (where I am an occasional advisor) and chaired by Roger. The panel will discuss the past, present and future of business process management, in the fullest sense of that phrase. Paul will also be presenting a retrospective white paper and forward-looking analysis of where we stand, following his excellent annual reviews. Once again, the role of information technology in business process change will no doubt be hotly debated!
It will be a real pleasure for me to reconnect with these luminaries of the BPM scene, following my work at the Business Process Management Initiative ( and the publication of my books: Business Process Management: The Third Wave and IT Doesn’t Matter? Business Processes Do (co-authored with Peter Fingar). 
A great deal has happened over the last 10 years, both in the IT landscape and in business practice. Some fundamentals, however, remain. I look forward to sharing my perspective at the event, and will publish my initial thoughts here in due course.
As backdrop to my comments I will share once again the idea expressed in the epilogue to our original book:
“To business people, it seems that technology is always getting more complex. Technical people feel the same way. Over the years, delivering business applications has become much more complex, with layer upon layer of new infrastructure requirements and new features. While this has been good for the IT industry players that sell new products for new layers, it is not necessarily so good for companies that use them as business tools. When complexity mounts and eventually becomes unmanageable, it’s time for action. As Walt Disney once said, objecting to a proposed sequel to his Three Little Pigs cartoon, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” In the world of business, stacking a thousand doghouses one atop the other to build a skyscraper is a great proposition for doghouse vendors, but not for future occupants. Skyscrapers need an architecture of their own – their own paradigm, not a sequel to the doghouse paradigm. 
The mathematical spreadsheet is a simple yet eloquent example of a useful paradigm shift (albeit limited to one specific function). The convenience and low cost of the breakthrough was so striking that it led to the PC revolution in business. The spreadsheet could not have been successful had it not been for the fact that personal computers – a standards based commodity – were spreading like wildfire elsewhere in society. To the business, the PC loaded with a spreadsheet meant a radical simplification of routine calculations, transferring to the everyday business person a function that had once required special programming skills. 
A similar simplification and transfer of functions is needed by those pursuing business process development and optimization, for as the management prophets foretell, the next phase of corporate development will require systematic control of the value chain, rather than narrow-gauge application fixes. Michael Hammer had admitted that managing such wholesale change is mind-numbingly complex. In fact, it is no longer possible without computer assistance. The technology-planning horizon for Global 5000 companies is now a synthesis of software engineering and process engineering. With the widespread adoption of application servers, component-based development and Web services, the field is ripe for the wildfire spread of process management systems.
Some paradigm shifts created by the IT industry have been truly “radical” – disruptive, costly and unappealing. BPM is different. The architects of the third wave bowed low to the futility of trying to persuade the business to switch from one three letter acronym to another. They paid close attention to the urgent needs of business to preserve, extend and flex their existing investments, as well as to enable future opportunity and growth. Building on what already exists in companies everywhere, the third-wave innovators have provided a new level of convenience – the open vista of native process management. 
Our message is equally clear for technicians, both in the software industry and the IT shops of major corporations: Build new applications on a process foundation, the CxO team expects nothing less.  Embrace process management in the way companies adopted data management decades ago, by separating out data for application-independent management, analysis and sharing. At that time, companies knew they had a data problem, and they responded by recognizing the value of relational data management systems. We believe that companies are now recognizing that they have a process problem. The balance of power in the business-IT relationship must shift, away from the need to squeeze business processes into the pre-packaged fashions of the IT industry, and towards the ability to design, improve and transform business processes directly. 
BPM does much more than facilitate process design. It provides a direct path from vision to execution, not so much “rapid application development” as “remove application development” from the business cycle. Show the BPM capability to any executive at any level and they will understand inside five minutes how to break through the IT logjam. Some may still want to prevent managers from defining business processes themselves, saying it is too complex a job and should be left to specialists. They may be true right now, but it won’t be by the week after next. Winning companies will invent, not forecast their own futures. BPM provides the ability to create the future by innovating with process without the costs of reengineering or adding more layers to the already complex technology stack.”   — Howard Smith and Peter Fingar, Epilog to Business Process Management: The Third Wave
That was 2003. This is now.
It is easy to forget that before general-purpose spreadsheets and database programs existed, sales executives had to formulate their reports offline, place a request with IT and wait in line until the end of the month to see the results. All that is so much history. What happened with spreadsheets has now been replicated in many other application categories. That’s the result of sound data-centric application design. History has, however, been repeating itself. The symbiotic relationship between the PC and the spreadsheet now exists between Web services and new business processes.
Key questions now include:
  1. To what extent are today’s enterprise IT systems based on processes? What do we expect going forward?
  2. Is process thinking among business people on the rise again? If so, how will the IT industry respond with new and improved products?
  3. To what extent do businesses really think in processes? What about services? Or capabilities?
  4. Where do we see formalised process models, and are they executable as IT systems?
  5. Have process-modelling tools improved and how are they being used?
  6. What business problems can only be tackled through process change? What is the role of IT in supporting such change?
  7. Are businesses constrained by IT systems when responding to business change initiatives, as they were in the past, or are other issues now of greater importance?
  8. Where is the best bang for the process-change buck?
Those of us who have spent time as internal or external consultants, trying to bring change to our clients’ organizations, know that the imperative to think in terms of process has never been greater. The greatest benefits often come from insights that lead to new end-to-end process designs — whether on-stage customer-journey mapping or the intricacies of services integration.
  1. Where should we place our process-modelling efforts? The on-stage customer journey and experience, or the back-stage systems and Web-services integration?
  2. How do people outside of the technical realms approach such problems?
  3. Is the business-IT divide greater or smaller than it was a decade ago?
  4. Who is driving process change today? What tools are they using, and with what results?
Recommended core reading on core business process change:

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