Is BPM the new Taylorism?


I read an interesting series of posts from Scott Francis of BP-3 and Max Puscher of ISIS discussing the business value behind BPM.  Max’s post is from 2010, but it raised an interesting thought that I think is worth looking at.  I won’t post the whole thing here, but the gist of the article is this:

We are…going backwards with BPM to Tayloristic management concepts.

What is wrong with the idea of BPM as implemented in many BPMS, is that huge amounts of time have to be spent to analyze process flowcharts that the people then have to adhere to…Only a small percentage of work (20%) might be that stable…

The most popular fad is now to buy drop-in process packages for BPMS to speed up implementation… Businesses often buy ERP because they are buying the hardcoded processes to improve the way their businesses work, lacking the skill to do it themselves. That is all the hardcoded processes a business can survive. Encoding more processes in BPM is not beneficial.

…the greatest of people WILL BE held back by the bureaucracy of methodology and by those hardcoded processes made for low-cost, unskilled, and simply replaceable staff.

The solution in Max’s post is:

Technology must allow processes to evolve to any structure they might need at any point in time without bureaucratic overhead. The focus must be not to cut cost, but to make the best people (knowledge workers) the most productive and effective. The most important knowledge workers of a business are at the top management level.

I think there are two things to think about here.  First, does modeling a process restrict innovation?  And second, should the focus of IT be on enabling top management to be more productive and effective?

Let’s talk about process modeling first.  To start with, the solution you pick to model your process in makes a big difference.  Having done my share of ERP implementations, I can tell you that if you’re trying to solve the same kind of problems with BPM that ERP addresses, you’re probably not doing it right.  Done right, BPM and ERP solve two completely different challenges.  ERP should focus on those processes that are non-differentiating, or things that for regulatory reasons have to be the same as your competitors.  Examples include basic accounting and payroll functions.  It’s not so much that customers of ERP lack the skill to implement these in BPM – it’s an economic decision to leverage something off the shelf.  When ERP fails, it’s usually because it has been overly customized and expanded beyond these basic, non-differentiated business processes.  You can also crash and burn when you try to turn BPM into an ERP or CRM system with massive prepackaged processes that take months to implement and millions to deploy.  And in the process, you’re killing any chance of differentiation in that process.  Large, complex, prepackaged BPM applications are like a 1976 Thunderbird – fast to get started, but don’t try to make a turn or it’s game over.

And does modeling a process inhibit innovation?  I couldn’t disagree more.  Done correctly, modeling a process is about quickly understanding something that was previously not collectively understood.  This collective understanding doesn’t inhibit new ideas – it does the opposite.  You may decide that it does not make sense to implement the process in a BPMS, but often you will discover ways to innovate by having the dialog.  The trick is to engage all stakeholders (not just a few process experts) in a timely and cost-effective way.  If it takes two months to model a process, you’re doing it wrong.  BPM isn’t the answer to EVERY problem out there.  But if it is a differentiating process, I’ve seen first-hand how it can have a positive impact for people.

Moving on to the second point, about how IT should focus on enabling top management.  Again, I have to disagree.  IT’s unbalanced focus on top management has been the problem!  When you have employees purchasing their own iPads, using services like Yammer, gmail, etc and basically circumventing IT, what do you think that is saying?  It probably isn’t a revolt against BPM.  Furthermore, the economics of most packaged applications make it impossible for more than a few knowledge workers to have access to the systems that a typical company spends the majority of their IT budget to maintain.  Even large-scale deployments of packaged apps usually only reach 20% of all employees.  What about everybody else that participates in a business process? You’re on your own, or you use a point app that is disconnected from the overarching process.  This is exactly the space that BPM can address.  Because IT involvement is not mandatory for every change to a process, the incremental cost of BPM drops as you scale it out to more users.  Making better information available to the people closest to the process is the key to agility.  What good is knowing a shipment will be late if only the CEO knows about it?  Isn’t that information more valuable to the warehouse manager?

Done wrong, BPM can be exactly what Max Puscher describes – a Tayloristic soul-sucking waste of everyone’s time.  But you could say that about a lot of software products!  After all, most software is about helping you to do your job better.  If you botch it up, it will make your job harder, not easier.  But done right – with broad participation, focusing on differentiating processes, and putting more power into the hands of people closest to the process – BPM can be a powerful tool for innovation.



Information Week survey: Got Innovation?

Interesting survey out this week put together by the folks at Information Week looking at IT innovation and a the relationship between IT and line of business.  You can get your copy here (registration required).

The report is well worth a read.

One of the stats that really got my attention was this one:

 We’d be dead in the water without IT: 60% of IT pros agree, only 43% of biz pros see it that way.

Let me read that to you again.  Only 60% of IT pros feel that they would be dead in the water without IT.  If you work in IT, and they get rid of it, you are pretty much dead in the water.  Not just mostly dead.  Completely dead.  And in the water.

When asked how important IT is to innovation, 32% of IT pros say extremely important. Only 25% of business pros agree.

This statistic really got me thinking.  If only 1 in 4 people who are supported by IT feel like IT is helping the company innovate, then what do people think the purpose of IT is?  According to the study, most view IT as a maintenance organization.  With the vast majority of IT budgets going to maintaining the status quo of enterprise apps, it is not totally surprising to see this number from the line of business.  But when 68% of IT staffers believe that they are not a source of innovation – now we’ve got a real problem.

Eric Kimberling of Panorama does a nice job on articulating some of the challenges with ERP deployments – a bucket where big chunks of IT spend have been going for the past few years.  Panorama does an annual survey of ERP users and what they find every year is pretty eye-opening.  Roughly half of ERP projects fail to deliver even half of their expected benefits.

Why?  I would argue a big reason is that it takes too long to roll out, and what you are putting into production is often not unique.  The result is what we see in the Information Week report – a lot of people in both IT and LOB end up saying that innovation is not something that IT delivers.  I’m picking on ERP here, but this  challenge is not limited to that domain – long projects that don’t deliver anything unique can happen in a lot of domains.

So how do you fix this innovation gap?  How do you get the mojo back for IT?  I think it starts with focusing more on adoption of technology, a renewed emphasis on doing unique things rather than “best practices”, and moving away from excessively long rollouts of new software.  I know this is easier said than done, but when you think about it, innovation requires three things in order for it to take hold.

  1. First, you have to be doing “new” things and not just maintaining stuff.
  2. The new things you are doing should be unique.  Nobody innovates the cow path.
  3. And third, you have to be trying a lot of new things.  The more people you can engage in the process, the better.

The only way to accomplish all 3 of these things in a way that makes economic sense is to do more projects with smaller scope, engage the broadest possible audience, and focus on the things that can differentiate your business.  All of these things are in the sweet spot for BPM solutions.  Putting in place a BPM solution doesn’t magically make innovation appear, but it creates an environment where innovation has a chance to take hold and grow in IT.