Omnes viae Romam ducunt.

During the heyday of history's longest-running empire, that slogan faced travelers everywhere. Translation: All roads lead to Rome. The deeper meaning reflected much more than directional guidance. As masters of communication (long before the information age), the Romans were sending a message: Rome was the world's center, and Roman rule was central to life in the empire.

In the world of business, a similar maxim holds true: All roads lead to a process. Whatever an organization does, its day-to-day operations boil down to a set of processes that involve people, machines and the marketplace at large. Businesses that achieve longevity - like the Roman empire - take this axiom to heart by paying close attention to their processes and analyzing and optimizing them on a continual basis.

To determine the likelihood of a project's success, and in the spirit of good communication, it is wise to  assess the language used to describe the endeavor. Typically, technical terms dominate discussion of ill-fated initiatives - talk of architectures, messaging protocols and the like. Successful programs still include such dialog, but they focus more on broader concerns of the organization and its people as well as key partners, customers and prospects.

Let's examine why people are again talking about business process management (the original BPM). An array of refined technologies in business intelligence (BI) and business performance management (the new BPM) have recently coalesced.

With BI, organizations are gaining valuable insights about their business via reporting and analysis of transactional and other data. With data mining (including predictive analytics), some companies are optimizing cross/up-selling potential through advanced customer relationship management (CRM).

With business performance management, companies are using a variety of tools to gain visibility into everything from front-line operational activity to overall corporate performance. They can manage their businesses with unprecedented speed and accuracy. Using disciplines such as business activity monitoring (BAM) companies are able to measure and thus manage remarkably granular operational costs.

Combined, these technologies and methodologies allow companies to close the proverbial loop by weaving the intelligence gleaned from their BI environment directly into the operations of their business via BPM (as in performance).

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

So, what's the catch? Two major issues stand out. First, in order for an organization to put this kind of intelligence into action, someone must change their behavior, and everyone knows that old habits die hard. Second, you can't change what you don't understand. Many organizations discovered a hurdle at the end of the BI rainbow: knowledge of their business processes existed largely inside the heads of their employees, some of whom were no longer around.

This can be especially problematic in large organizations because several degrees of separation often exist between decision-makers and front-line employees. Issues can't be resolved merely with hallway conversations; rather, a published set of business process material that far-flung employees must be able to read, comprehend and put into action is required.

One need not look far to discover real-world examples of employees ignoring corporate procedures. Consider such commonly used terms as "rogue" or "shadow" IT, which describe unsanctioned software or hardware used to execute operational or analytical processes. Such tools and solutions are pervasive in most organizations, often to the detriment of achieving the coveted single version of the truth.

Just last year, one enterprise initiated a comprehensive project to map all their business processes, linking information systems to those processes. At the outset, they thought they had approximately 1,500 information systems and sought to eliminate many of these. When the process work was done, they were alarmed to find 3,300 applications running in their business. Their application reduction efforts took on increased urgency.

A common thread runs through many of the organizations where such disharmony occurs: the implementers and even sponsors of change-oriented initiatives focus too heavily on the technologies involved and the implementation of those new technologies. Instead, they should pay greater attention to the process of gathering requirements up front, defining an effective and efficient development process, implementing that process and thoroughly training employees to ensure that those employees can execute the process.

Many employees stick with shadow/rogue IT instead of using a new and improved system because it is simply easier to not change. Any time a new system is put into place, a tremendous amount of training and encouragement is necessary to get everyone (or at least, a critical mass of employees) up to speed. This is especially true with large solutions such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, which are critical to the operations of a business. Yet, even with such crucial applications, due diligence is often not done, to the detriment of the business.

To drive home the potential value of changing a process, think about how an upstream process change can have far-reaching effects. In large organizations, even across whole industries, fundamental process changes can dramatically alter thousands of downstream processes, thus significantly altering business models, investment strategies and innumerable individual lives.

Consider modular homes, for instance. The modular revolution was a true process optimization exercise. Instead of bringing only individual pieces and parts of a home to a particular location, then constructing the whole house from scratch on site, the modular process involves prefabricating sections of homes in a factory, then shipping large portions of the house to its ultimate destination. This innovation greatly shortens the time needed to assemble a house on site, thus saving costs and also protecting the infrastructure of the home by limiting its exposure to the elements.

In this example, countless individual business processes and activities have been changed, if not outright eliminated. The end result is still a house, but the processes, time and costs by which we created that house are significantly altered. Modular homes show how dramatically an upstream process can change an entire industry.

In the realm of enterprise software, consider the Internet. Any number of retail operations changed their businesses almost completely due to the World Wide Web. Many large department stores used to publish thick catalogs with glossy images of several thousand items.

Today, while some of these companies still produce catalogs, most have transferred that business to their online presence. To do that, they didn't go out and buy a new printing press, more ink or paper. Instead, they engaged in a completely new process, for which they had to hire a whole complement of new talent. They bought new types of machinery and engaged in extensive training. That is organizational change.

Eyes on the Prize

Many companies are falling further behind in their ability to respond to competitive change because they have yet to fully appreciate the human factor. Organizational change is essential to any business transformation initiative. A valuable lesson many learn is that, more often than not, newly adopted technology can be detrimental to the organization unless it is coupled with sufficient behavior, job and educational changes. Ironically, IT usually gets the blame if things don't work out.

Organizational transformation is not just about reshuffling and reorganizing to support some new process or IT system change. Real process change requires planning for the desired process behavior, and determining what the implemented technology and organization must look like to support the process. After implementation, the process must be measured and monitored, and when it is not working as desired, it must be improved. These improvements or optimizations can be done by changing the process flow itself, the technology and the organization.

Business transformation efforts have struggled and will continue to struggle so long as the leaders and teams driving transformation do not pay ample attention to the organization's human involvement, commitment and evolution. Many an IT initiative has failed simply because the organization and its people were unprepared for the altered day-to-day system interactions. It is not the technology that fails; it is usually just that the organization was not prepared to use the new technology.

The involvement of people in a business process design, their understanding of it, the implementation of technology to support that process, the new jobs created as a result of the transformation, the training and new skills - all of these are absolutely essential to the success of any transformation, regardless of which hot new technology is in play. 

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Information Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access