The digital effect on the BPM lifecycle

Digitization has fundamentally changed how businesses operate, but is the same true for business process management? Here's why the BPM lifecycle remains the same.

Business process management (BPM) in the digital age is a whole new deal. Not sure if this is just more techno-geek industry hype (TGIH) or an important reality to be embraced and reckoned with? Actually, it's a hefty measure of both.

No one with a pulse would deny the fact that business as we have known it in our lifetime, or even within the last 10 to 15 years, has undergone radical change. Social media is no longer something that teenage kids obsess about instead of doing their homework. In a recent report published by the Social Media Examiner, 97% of marketers surveyed said they use social media in their business and 92% affirmed that it was important to their business. Mobility is clearly ubiquitous -- very few of us would argue with the premise that doing business without a smartphone, tablet and/or laptop would be unimaginable. Analytics are just about everywhere and, where they are not yet present, the Internet of Things will ensure that your toaster remembers precisely how you like your bagel done and how firm you like your mattress. Then there is cloud -- the fabric of silicon life forms that brings all of this good stuff together in a context generally referred to as digital business.

With that briefest of descriptions of digital business, I will now, rephrase my opening statement as a question: Is business process management in the digital age a whole new deal? For the next 1,000 words or so I will make a provocative point: the "whole new deal" is really about moving from traditional to digital business and operating models. While the subject matter (the digital business processes) is changing radically, the fundamentals of good business process management remain, by comparison, relatively unchanged. 

Business process management lifecycle

According to Gartner, "Business process management (BPM) is the discipline of managing processes (rather than tasks) as the means for improving business performance outcomes and operational agility. Processes span organizational boundaries, linking together people, information flows, systems and other assets to create and deliver value to customers and constituents."

Here is a typical BPM lifecycle diagram

BPM Life Cycle diagram

Note that whether we talk about an enterprise, a department or an individual process, a product or a service, the automotive sector or healthcare, the fundamental stages of the BPM lifecycle endure.  I am quite confident that the operations researchers who designed BPM had that level of applicability and persistence in mind when the discipline was created and introduced.

In fairness to those readers who may take exception to what may seem to them to be a gross over-simplification of the subject in question, the digital era has certainly had meaningful impact upon BPM in many important ways, for example:

  • Cloud availability and pricing models for BPM suites that make the technologies available to a much broader marketplace
  • Visual design and collaboration tools, including integration with familiar end-user applications, e.g. Sharepoint, Visual Studio, etc.
  • Separation of business rules from process logic flow, greatly simplifying changes when the business needs to change
  • Event reporting, to notify administrators of critical event incidents in ways that streamline and simplify process monitoring and optimization
  • Content Management, including support for unstructured data and rich media (video, audio), additional document types, e.g. project, and case management, etc.
  • Social media integration, as above
  • Easier integration with other third party software through standard APIs, middleware, etc.

Mea culpa if I have omitted anything significant from this list. That said, as impressive as the list is, many if not all of these advances within BPM's underlying technologies can be considered incremental improvements. The "whole new deal" as they say (whomever they are) can more readily be seen in the evolution towards digital business and in the underlying assets and processes that the BPM lifecycle manages.

Digital business imperatives

In contrast to the changes described above, the shift from traditional to digital business goes well beyond incremental improvement. In metaphorical terms, moving from the railroad to the automobile would be incremental change; the transition from traditional to digital business would be more like moving from the automobile to the space shuttle, i.e. whole new game, new players, new rules, new stakeholders, and importantly, new risks and new rewards. The major characteristics of this shift include:

  • Business focus, which is now much more external, e.g. on customers and partners, compared with traditional models which focus much more on internal operationally oriented business drivers, e.g. products and services.
  • Organizational structure, which is now much more based upon collaboration across communities of interest (which often include customers and partners), compared with more traditional hierarchical organizational structures built around governance models based upon command and control.
  • Supply chain management, which now concentrates on the just-in-time availability of commoditized resources that allow the enterprise to increase its focus on its core competencies and competitive differentiators, compared with more traditional "customer-to-cash" supply chain ownership and management hierarchies.
  • Self-service, which now allows customers and partners to perform many functions in a connected self-directed manner from inquiry, to purchase, to on-going relationship/account maintenance compared to handling customer and partner interactions through more traditional brick-and-mortar stores and/or back office operations centers.
  • Balance of power, which now places customers and partners in a much more empowered context by enabling them to become much more educated consumers during the purchasing stage. These customers and partners also have a voice that can be heard across social media as they describe their experiences with companies and products to potentially millions of interested parties around the world simultaneously. More traditional models typically empowered enterprises and sales people as the main source of product information (for better or for worse) in a world where individual customers could make only minor impact upon a company's brand or reputation.
  • Information technology focus, which now concentrates on usability, intuitiveness, simplicity and product/service integration (service brokerage), compared with more traditional models focused upon large development efforts, and product/service features, functions and architectures.

Mea culpa once again if I have omitted your favorite digital business imperative from the list; however, I think that the point is sufficiently made. This is definitely not your father's Oldsmobile. The shift from traditional to digital business models changes everything -- from how enterprises are organized, to what products and services they deliver, to how they make money and manage risk, and, importantly, to whom has the power. Needless to say we are certainly going to need and make very good use of all those digitally-enabled BPM tools to reimagine, reinvent and continue to manage and refine the business processes required by these digital businesses and whatever may come next.

Digital business CIO imperatives

While the subject matter (the digital business processes) is changing radically, the fundamentals of good business process management remain, by comparison, relatively unchanged.

It is a marvelous instantiation of the chicken and the egg: does the business enable the technology or does the technology enable the business? I will, for now, be comfortable with the simple answer: YES. Let the philosophers amongst us continue to impress their cocktail party friends with the more verbose answers and profound wisdom that can only be found in the third glass of wine. In the meantime, here are a few things that digital business CIOs should be thinking about:

  • Create and foster a shared vision.  If your enterprise has not already created a shared vision around evolving into a digital business organization and culture, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership abilities by initiating and nurturing the conversation. Once created, the vision should be widely and frequently communicated and reinforced with the enactment of each major digital initiative.
  • Adapt your organization.  If you have not already done so, ensure that you have the right skills within your organization to support the technologies required by the digital business.  Social, mobile, analytics and cloud skills are a good start.  Ensure that you also have people in your organization that can work in relatively unstructured environments and still produce results both as individuals and as team members.  If your organization has many layers of hierarchical reporting, seriously consider creating a much more flat structure.
  • Adapt your management and decision making style.  If you have not already done so, consider empowering a wider base of your community (including stakeholders) to share in more collaborative decision-making activities.  Augment the traditional hierarchical command and control style of management with more bottom-up communication, conversation and direction setting, consistent with a flatter organization structure.
  • Become a convener.  If you have not already done so, enhance your leadership abilities and style to include the skills of a convener -- the organizational equivalent of the technology service broker role.  Bring the right people from inside and outside the organization together in the right place at the right time for the right discussion and good things happen.
  • Instill core values.  If you haven't already done so, ensure that the core values of your organization are well defined and frequently articulated. Include trust and respect for all as top cultural priorities and ensure that end-users and partners are a key component of the definition of "all".

Let me know what you think. Post a comment or drop me a note at [email protected]. Discuss, debate or even argue -- let's continue the conversation.

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