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Business processes has recently became quite a buzzword among the Enterprise 2.0 community, notably since June’s Boston conference. It suddenly seems that the whole discourse has changed from a leadership-fueled point of view to a down-to-the-ground (and to the balanced scorecard) vendor’s one. Pragmatism? I rather think that this approach is severely flawed, in three places at least: core processes concepts, knowledge handling and customers’ consideration.
When cats are called dogs
I recently wrote about SAP StreamWork and the fact that, despite their claim, this new tool is not a collaborative decision-making solution, but allows for better collaborative problem analysis, which is not, and by far, the same. Mistaking the mean for the goal is a clever tactic: this allows for frictionless adoption of an otherwise useful tool into existing processes, with the added hype of 2.0 technologies.
In a much more subtler register, Bertrand Duperrin made a common mistake in one of his last posts ‘Community management and processes by the example’. What he calls “process” is in fact a resource lifecycle, describing who is involved, when, in relationship to whom, where a process is a matter of chained actions allowing to progress through this lifecycle. Substituting communities for individual along the flow is of course an improvement of the entire lifecycle, but has de facto no impact on the process design or execution. The difference is important, since processes were developed to minimize variability and risks, specifically facilitating and streamlining execution when different silos, different business logics, are working in parallel through complicated operations and/or organizations. Moreover, there are designed to be as people independent as possible. They are typically built to avoid “reinventing the wheel”; but what would happen if tapping into the networks comes out with a solution which doesn’t require a wheel at all? Predictability is processes’ mainspring and, unless breaking them into much smaller, adaptive, parts, which contradicts their efficiency chasing goal, socializing resources lifecycles won’t have any positive impact on existing processes, besides giving the opportunity to integrate 2.0 technologies into workflows. This clearly is a dead-end for anybody believing that Enterprise 2.0 is more than technology.
Processes are Taylorist knowledge
Cecil Dijoux recalled Michael Grives’ interesting distinction between processes and practices. Unfortunately, practices, built upon people’s behavior, and not upon the least variable output available, still fall short from giving us a way to harness collaborative work. When it comes to knowledge, they behave quite the same, fossilizing thinking into formal procedures.
Fostering the use of tacit knowledge, which represents 80% of available knowledge in an organization, requires a much more flexible framework than those given by processes and practices. Knowledge is variable, unfocused, complex, and messy. By building automatic workflow rules, by assuming that today’s conditions are the same as yesterday’s ones, processes segment knowledge into bits of repeatable information and decision making guidance, exerting a division of knowledge similar as the division of labour envisioned by Adam Smith. Socializing business processes won’t take advantage of collaborative work, but of specialized cooperative knowledge. The only feature of processes which might benefit from social integration is their ownership.
The customer-centric Enterprise
Besides owners, processes have customers. Dealing with internal customers is usually a matter of connecting dots, which often means offering predictable output through connected, repeatable, actions. This could be fine, regardless of the two precedent points, as far as external customers are not involved. But the social web is transforming the way customers act and react in a radical way, and maintaining our business processes to engage and interact with customers is nonsense. If capturing internal tacit knowledge in a non obfuscating way is a challenge, ignoring customers knowledge about your products and services will soon become a deadly attitude. Business processes, with their inability to deal with uncertain, irreproducible knowledge, are the least suitable tools to establish and maintain any kind of relationship with your customers.
Wait, we need processes
Yes, we need business processes. Not as we know them today, driving our organizations from end to end, but we need them as an infrastructure, to free knowledge workers from complicated tasks, even collective ones. But they must now be considered as tools at our disposal, not as our organizations’ backbones. Besides that, not any company is destined to become a social business, not any product or service is meant to be discussed about on the social web. The future of business is both brands and commodities, and that will be the subject of my next post.