Process is Conversation, or ‘Did you hear the PIN drop?’
Yesterday I flew to Frankfurt after the Gartner ITxpo Symposium in Orlando. At the Lufthansa check-in I asked for an upgrade, using some of my half-million frequent flyer miles. I have done this often before without problems. This time the agent asks me for a PIN. I was stumped. Wondering if I had simply forgotten it, searched my iPhone subsidiary brain for a Lufthansa Miles&More PIN. No luck. I asked to simply use my card as before, but despite her access to a Lufthansa computer, the agent told me to go online to get my PIN. At miles-and-more.com i was asked for my PIN again. I was not even sure if it was the same one. I clicked to get a missing PIN resent by entering the card number and my email. How secure is that? I waited for the suggested five minutes. No luck. At the agent counter, I could hear them talking about giving away the upgrade seats. The webpage suggested to call the service hotline. I did and after a shorter wait than expected I gave my card number and was told that I needed to call another number to receive my hard-earned Senator service. The lady could not connect me and I had to find a pen and paper to write it down. I called the number and now I had to wait for at least fifteen minutes listening to advertizing. So that was the special Senator Gold Card treatment? I gave once more my number and explained my predicament. To my amazement the lady said: ‘I need your PIN for security reasons.’ I told her again that I did not have one. She told me go to the website and have it sent by email. I explained that it had not worked and that I wanted to upgrade NOW and needed my PIN to do so. The lady said: ”I am very sorry, sir. I cannot give you your PIN without your PIN.’
In 1999 Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto – The End of Business as Usual. The key message was ‘Markets are Conversations‘. The book predicted many changes that would be brought by the Internet. One of the key elements is the empowerment of the consumer, who would be in control over his relationship with the vendor. Hmm, so what happened at Lufthansa? I had to use the Internet, but I had not seen anyone empowered by it!
What broke at Lufthansa check-in was the (customer service) process that markets need to function. Can we therefore extend the formulation to say that processes are conversations too? I would answer that with yes. What does the likeness to a conversation mean? On the ebizQ website a recent point of discussion was: ‘Does the language of process matter?’ The BPM expert opinion on ebizQ was that language is important to enable the expression of needed functions. I consider processes with predefined questions, statements and replies to be like stage plays, where actor performance will make the play more entertaining. Seeing the play twice will usually not bring a different ending.
I find however that the purpose of a process language is misunderstood. Is there any plausible reason to create a process language that covers at best 20% of the necessary functionality, such as BPMN 2.0 or most other forms of BPM definition? What sense makes a language that requires an IT expert? Well, the BPMN spec is already 520 pages so am I asking for a language spec that would have 2.500 pages? I guess it would be a lot more than that because the necessary functionality for data, content, rules and user interaction are a lot more complex than defining flows. Human language has usually a lot more words than that and the opportunity for expression is limitless. So it seems we need a completely different way to express and converse in processes, especially if we are not just trying to automate (a.k.a. BPM for Dummies) for cost reduction.
What kind of process language should we look for? Languages are created by an ontology of terms to describe the scope of the language. The users map the terms to a taxonomy of like entities in the real world. Even with the most well defined ontology of terms, it is the interpretation into the listeners taxonomy that makes the language usable. Rule number one of communications: ‘What I say, is not what I mean and it is not what the listener understands.’ MY taxonomy of perceived classes is different to any other. My brain is utterly unique.
Therefore the meaning of language is not created by one-way utterances, but by a protocol of conversations (Social BPM) that try to align the meanings of the terms in the ontology as closely as possible. The problem of Social BPM is that it doesn’t define or extend the language. Hence the 520 pages of BPMN spec and it is still ambiguous and limited. Which is why all models are wrong, and only some are useful. If the process language does not allow to hold a conversation, but is only capable of describing a stage play of actors performing the same piece over and over again then that process does not serve a real-world purpose. Like on stage it is pure fiction. No conversations, no process, no markets! The social element needs to move into process execution and the analysis phase must be done completely away with.
Processes ought to be conversations and not rigid flows of actions. Process is about empowerment with authority, goals and means. Everything else is just another form of programming and it really does not matter what kind of language you chose. For processes to be conversations, the human actors need to be able to manipulate process entities freely, only limited by their authority and boundary rules. For process conversations we need a simple user interface that enables the same intuitiveness as body language that is understood without ontology. I admit that rules do need a language syntax, but that must be a subset of natural human language and interact directly with the entities of the process without needing to understand the technology.
So could a process conversation have helped me to upgrade at check-in? I say yes. No one was interested in my problem, but just in sticking to the process. The Lufthansa website did not empower me in any way. Also their agents were dis-powered and their authority taken away by a rigid, broken process. The story has a happy ending, because I managed to convince one of the agents in a conversation to accept my passport, my card, and my signature as a form of identification and use the ‘old’ paper form for the upgrade.
Without conversations, most processes will be neither efficient nor effective, nor do anything for customer retention.