Keep IT Simple? Yes, but you can’t ignore complexity.
Despite my apparent opposing stance, I do promote the concept of organizing a business through processes. I believe in goal- and outcome-oriented processes that are auto-discovered and adaptive. What I oppose is the short-sighted ideas of cost cutting and simplifying processes by flowchart-automating them. There is enough solid scientific theory to show that one can’t turn a business into a predictable engine due to the social complexity in itself and of the economy. There is no proof that current BPM methodology guarantees long-term business benefits. It is actually utterly boring having to keep repeating it, so I wondered why it is so hard to gain traction with my holistic, systems-thinking based approach.
I can’t really fault people for a lack of interest. It is purely human. We like to organize things into simple stereotypes and rather not spend too much time questioning them. Look at your own reaction at these statements: ‘It is obvious that foreigners (immigrants home and outsourced in Asia) take our jobs. – Or: Our carbon footprint causes global warming.’ You will have an immediate right or wrong judgement without thinking despite these being extremely complex issues without a definite truth. Studies have shown that the less people know about something the more certain they are that they are right. Humans are limited by their perception and while they recognize repeatable patterns they can’t understand that what they see is not really there. It is a product of their brain’s pattern matching capability using feature simplification and stereotyping. The illusion of simple algorithms guiding our life (i.e. the Ten Commandments) is too dear to be lost to more painful thinking and the unpleasant realization that we know zilch! Why should we bother to try and understand our perception, model thinking and emotional decision making. Nah! Come on. Keep it simple. Saves money …
You can’t simply set a course to reach a certain point.
Both simplicity and complexity can always be found in the construct, function or the process of a thing depending on your approach. It is a choice and not a natural or scientific law. Take any odd object around you and you will be able to describe it in simple terms: ‘This is an apple. It grows on trees. I can harvest and eat it.’ And while all that is true to our perception and practical, it has very little to do with the real complexity. It will be hard to use those simple terms for controling what happens with apples. Many go on and say that Eva seduced Adam with an apple and that this had dire consequences for us all. Simple causality. Right? Our pattern matching semantics are strongly influenced by prior beliefs (mostly confused with knowledge). Our resulting behavior is really one of conformity to common desires and adhering to simple algorithms of survival. The apparent success of that makes us conclude that the more rules we create the simpler the complexity we see will become. Simplification is important, but you can’t control the complex by creating simple rules and algorithms. Simplicity is no more than a semantic layer for our pattern matching. Those who promote simple solutions have hidden motives and count on limited intelligence and ignorance. Neither simple nor complex views allow us to accurately predict the outcome of our actions. You can’t set the rudder on a boat just once to get to a certain point. You need to steer continuously and correct. Simplification works fine close-up and now, but much less from a distance and interpreting the past or predicting future.
‘Complexus’ is a Latin word that best means twisted together. Complex structures can’t thus be decomposed because they emerge in a constant unpredictable interaction. We don’t know how or why. If you can’t decompose you can’t build a causal model of construct, function or process. If you simplify your understanding of a complex structure into superficial terms and algorithms, does it not seem rather daft to believe that this would now allow to exert some kind of exact control over a complex reality? We live in a control illusion because our sensory perception and motor-function is highly interactive. Try to cut a tomato into thin slices with a knife and the lights turned off while wearing thick gloves. There is no encoded process that will make that work! Simplification is for understanding and communication and not for prediction, control, or problem solving. Creating simple models from observed patterns is error prone and must continuously be questioned and corrected by humans close up and now. Otherwise there would be an investment fund that is purely run by a computer algorithm. Those that tried have all gone under!
You might ask: What does this esoteric gibberish have to do with IT and processes?
That alone answers the question. The problem is that human perception is in itself not simple. What we might perceive as simple and easy-to-use is not achieved through simplicity! Simple solutions to complex problems are for the ignorant and doomed to fail. The grander the plan the bigger the fall. Unfortunately we see an incredible amount of that in politics and yes, in business management too. We see even more in information technology projects. Just because technology is complicated and can be decomposed, that does not mean that one can use it to create a TRUE semantic model of a complex reality that enables controlling actions. Yes, I can build a model of car (and a blueprint) and repeatedly recreate it with fairly high accuracy. But once that car is built and goes out to be sold and used, the environment it enters is one of complexity. I can no longer predict who will buy the car, use it, crash it, or else. Manufacturing versus social human interaction. Apple built the easy-to-use iPhone and the Appstore ecosystem, but they only exert little control over what products can be sold. As one can see, some structure and boundary rules are good but the trick is to find the sweetspot before they stop innovation. The same is true for business processes and represents the EPIC fallacy of BPM(S) methodologists, pundits and gurus. You can build a model of a process and instantiate the process most accurately for years to come and it will have nothing to do with the REALITY of its social complexity context. Each process instance must be open for judgment and adaptation to the REAL current context. You can’t define a process and expect it to produce a certain outcome. You can however set a goal and give the captain a GPS chartplotter. He will still need to use caution and understand the inaccuracy of these tools or the boats props might end up like those in the picture.
Unfortunately many ACM Adaptive Case Management named offerings are only usable for unstructured and unpredictable lists of activities that have little in common with processes. BPM vendors claim that those can be done by the ‘modern’ BPMS too. Caveat Emptor! Buyer beware. There is a lot of BS out there. Despite all the misrepresentation, a full ACM solution in my book can handle the most rigid processes with ease and can auto-discover them too through social performer/process owner/customer interaction. Orthodox BPMS are complicated and they don’t create simplicity, but only create simple minded illusions for everyone who doesn’t understand any better. Rigid BPM methodology can’t provide the power of innovation that social complexity brings.
There is no scientific theory of BPM that deals with complexity.
For the longest time I have argued above points (Complex Adaptive Systems – 1988) and recently reformulated them due to popularity of social networks. My research and software development has always been focused on the real-world dynamics and adaptiveness of business as understood by Systems Theory, but the solutions I developed don’t fall into an analyst chosen market fragment. When you look at the Gartner Hype Cycle for BPM with 30-odd approaches you must realize that there isn’t the slightest agreement as to what BPM is about and what technology could actually work. More and more fragments appear and incumbent vendors simply add each new buzzword to their marketing material. I would expect that analysts point these issues out, but they don’t. They just report …
My son-in-law, a Ph.D. in biochemistry said to me once: ‘Analysts are the pain of science. They add nothing new and create confusion with useless classifications of things.’ While I agree, I had to reply him that also research scientists mess up as they have failed to give BPM the stamp of approval as a scientific concept, because it lacks any kind of theory plus test. If nothing else, THAT should make us think … or not.
Maybe we are just not used to thinking anymore, beause we follow simple rules.