Could BPM have saved RIM, Kodak, or Blockbuster?

John Wenger wrote this fantastic post on the subject of complexity and uncertainty, reminding control freaks that they exhibit ignorance when they demand that economy and business do not follow the laws of nature. He reiterates so many points I have made over the years.

John Wenger also reminded me of something Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ While we seem to enter the fighting stage, I only care about the concepts being understood and not only in the BPM arena. The problem is a widespread one.  Applying Gandhi’s thinking to BPM reminded me of something else he said: ‘An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation.’ Just because many promote orthodox BPM does not prove its working. There is a huge consulting and software market at stake. On the other hand there is no need to prove that adaptive concepts work because we see them in nature every day of our lives. I find it utterly amazing that someone in a dark suit, white shirt and tie can stand up in front of an audience of obviously intelligent people and say with a straight face: ‘The laws of nature do not apply in business’ and is not immediately showered with rotten eggs and tomatoes.

In another post on ‘BPM disruption’ the question is asked if the BPM community should stop people like me from provocatively proposing that orthodox BPM is not all it claims to be. The BPM community is clearly afraid of change and would prefer a gradual, cautious and reasonable evolution of the BPM concept and not question its principles. As always the grey zone between BPM methodology and software makes the discussion more difficult. In principle, if a BPM approach only defines objectives, targets, goals, process handovers and customer outcomes and does not enforce flows then it follows the Adaptive Case Management (ACM) concept. Hardly any BPM effort does however do so. At the same time not every piece of software that provides flexible task collaboration supports an ACM approach.

What about RIM, Kodak and Blockbuster?

If BPM governance would really provide the strategy-relevant processes it promises then could it have saved RIM, Kodak and Blockbuster? Obviously not, you will say. Only a better strategy to head off external changes in the video rental, photo and mobile phone markets could have saved them. It does not matter how efficient processes at these companies were once their competitors changed the name of the game. These businesses were run by bean counters who looked at statistics rather than customers and executives who looked at share price rather than market changes. In such companies, strictly defined processes might keep costs at bay but freeze the organization in an illusionary optimal mode of operation. To change them becomes harder each day they are being used as more and more knowledge workers who could have changed the business leave the sinking ship. No one with half a brain wants to work in a process-optimized business.

BPM pundits need to read a little history. Technology always disrupts! And those like Kodak or Blockbuster are simply the necessary fallout. Everyone talks about change and adaptation but they really do not want to see the speed at which things are moving.  I do not understand why people are asking why we at ISIS Papyrus are abandoning content management (when that is utter nonsense as we are the only ones to truly integrate process and content) when the market that we used to have ten years ago no longer exists. All our outbound content competitors have been sold! So we went through that difficult period to adapt to a changing marketplace ourselves.

Our strategy is simple: we develop what businesses really need and not what analysts list as the most common features in some market fragment. My original ideas were the electronic document original based on AFP before there was PDF in 1990, the integration of inbound and outbound document processing in 2000 (which others copied in 2005) and managing their business context in adaptive processes, today better known as ACM. It all logically followed from my first idea to bring the smplicity of working with documents as the carrier of the business process into the 21st century. Those who see just the short-term cost cutting, the next sale or only report on what has been sold in the past are not the ones who create the future.

The knowledge worker is the new director!

Businesses with the old command and control attitude are fast disappearing or changing. Even at old companies like GE the distance between management, staff and employees is shrinking rapidly. It shows in the way that their previously separate cafeterias are merging. They suddenly need to collaborate rather than hand out direction. The knowledge worker is the new director. Managers finally become what they should be: Enablers!

Harvard Business Review ran a three article series on the future of knowledge work in their January-February issue to discuss the related human resource and management issues as well as the need for different process technology.

While the BPM community is stuck in the belief that a business needs to optimize processes and cut manpower cost to survive it is clear to others that it is the people who make or break a business. An executive is a nobody without the hard-to-duplicate know-how of a company’s most-skilled knowledge workers: engineers, salespeople, scientists, physicians, and many other decision makers, including line management. No business can afford to not treat these people right or to not use them as effectively as possible. Efficiency is utterly secondary.

Yes, the right kind of process management can help them to collaborate with lower-skill people to offload less essential work, but as it is an element of their work it can never be a rigid process flow. The organization needs a skill database and more flexible work assignments to utilize scarce and distributed talent correctly. The idea that one could simulate such collaboration is ridiculous to say the least. The most important tool to increase effectiveness is to create transparency — from the top down by laying out the goals and from the bottom up to see exactly what is going on in real-time. Not just simple social networking tools but purposeful and guided collaboration with embedded business content and data towards process goals.

These requirements demand a much more dynamic and fluid organizational structure. Old department boundaries need to become transparent to non-existent. Knowledge work in the 21st century drives change: the employee relationship and where they work; abandoning rigid workflows to allow individual contributors to add value; and the importance of technology to support those process goals in a more effective manner than email.

While we could discuss endlessly why for example Apple has done many things different to others in regards to strategy, that is really not my subject here. What we need to discuss is what a business needs to enable management and knowledge workers to implement those strategic objectives and how to stay nimble when they require frequent change. That’s really all I do when I question management styles and BPM methodology.

And yes, while John and me like the term ‘catalyst’ more you can also call us disruptors: ‘A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.’ (Mahatma Gandhi)

3 Comments on “Could BPM have saved RIM, Kodak, or Blockbuster?

  1. Max

    A great blog post as always. I agree that knowledge work needs to be managed differently to conventional BPM that evolved from workflow. It needs to be adaptive, tasks must be loosely-coupled (not fixed with flows), it needs to provide decision support to advise (but not enforce) the Best Next Action and it needs to be collaborative to support the way knowledge workers work.

    It doesn’t subscribe to the conventional view of BPM but I think there is growing support for an approach that allows knowledge workers to exercise their knowledge, experience and intuition without trying to map their work in advance in some rigid flow model.

    As Tom Davenport pointed out “You can learn much about knowledge work but simply observing it”. Maybe we should observe more and dictate less.

    It’s great to have someone else also question the relevance of applying factory-style work management to knowledge workers.

    Like

  2. Max, Isn’t it comforting to realize one’s thinking, years ago, remains valid.

    Regrettably, I cannot remember who quipped, regarding BP(X), “You better fix the [customer satisfying] quality of the thing before you try to speed anything up [improving workflow with structure & control], or you’ll just produce crap faster.” Applying this insightful gem has helped me manage BP(X) efforts for 20 years.

    This axiom helps me understand ACM somewhat — there is so much adaptation and flexibility required to satisfy a customer — the target never stands still, if you will, that any hardening of a business process to make it scalable (meaning high volume with good oversight with minimal errors) — classic process control, naturally resists changes — fights adaption.

    Adaptation and scalability are difficult constraints to optimize, for scalability comes from stability. Flexible AND scalable infrastructure is not easy, as sooner or later as features and functionality must be locked down to build dependent features and functionalities.

    Kodak, Blockbuster, and RIM — as manufacturers ultimately, are in extremely risky manufacturing business models, where manufacturing, and the scale required for mass markets, is by it’s nature less adaptive. The same battle will devour Apple and Android-based hardware, assuming the hardware gets “dumber” and the value remains in the apps.

    Like

    • Hi Rosey, thanks for commenting. Much appreciated. Glad we agree on the focus being outside the process primarily.

      I see no reason why scalability requires stability, which I translate as rigidity. There is no need to lock down anything in ACM as the features and interfaces are made available in libraries that the users can pick and chose at any time. You are referring to the implementation issues of old-style BPM systems.

      Yup, strategy eats process optimization for lunch, but if you change your strategy and your processes can’t follwo then you are another Kodak. Remember, it is the people who make the processes work and not the process designers …

      Like

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