Enterprise 2.0 and processes : what are we talking about ? (and why…)

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Summary : the business process issue recently burst into the enterprise 2.0 world. Sacrilege for some, pragmatic approach without which no value will be created for others, it seems we’ve reach a tipping point. But what are we really talking about ? It’s not about turning unstructured activities into processes but to make it serve processes without distorting it. Then, if we define process as a set of tasks that gives structures to production, it’s important not to mistake what processes applied to some kind of activities should be with what businesses have been used to do for decades. It’s about production as it should be and not as it is today. That said, knowing why this approach is emerging matters too. There are many reasons to that and they are inequally worth but it does not matter : even if many things have to be done out of the process field, this issue will have to be tackled one day or the other. It does not matter anyone wants to change them, keep them unchanged or break them down : they can’t be overlooked.

Big agitation in the small enterprise 2.0 word : since some people at the last Enterprise 2.0 conference suggested that business processes had to be taken into account this topic has become very trendy. Salutary brainwave for those who see there the evidence that enterprise 2.0 is not a funny gadget disconnected from reality and unable to deliver any measurable benefit, crime of lese-majesty for those who see a horde of hungry wolves entering a house full of little red riding hoods.

Cela fait plus d’un an que je milite en faveur de cette approche (ou en tout cas de ne pas refuser de l’aborder et être dans le deni permanent) et je ne vais donc pas me priver de commenter la chose.

What are we talking about ? (Or the story of a big misunderstanding)

The word process is so scaring for some that they run away as soon as they hear it without even listening to the rest of the sentence. It’s not about turning informal and unstructured dynamics into carve-ups but making sure all the energy goes in the right direction. As I said earlier, serendipity is a very limited model for value creation and I find legitimate that businesses want channel what looks like chaos to them. As Rex Lee brillantly wrote recently :

Enterprise 1.0, would suggest that only specialized, trained individuals with the resources knew how to find pearls (i.e. where to dive, specialized equipment, knowledge on how to abstract the pearl from the shelled mollusk, etc.)

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Enterprise 2.0 suggests that we can simplify and remove some of the “specialization” barriers to enable more people to search for pearls.

Enterprise 2.1 would suggest that rather than “serendipitously” finding pearls, that we coordinate our efforts to actually create pearl farms.

The purpose of any business is to create value and to do so it tries to optimize its production. Nothing shoking here. So sets of tasks are defined in order to make things more predictable, manageable and cost efficient. It often ends with a very rigid result and that often is the main point of friction.

In a manufacturing world, where production flows are tangible and can be normalized, rigidity is well adapated, exceptions to the rule being very rare. In a world where people work on knowledge, continuously solve problems, exceptions are the new normality and rigidity only works in a few cases.

As Sigurd Rinde wrote in 2008 : there are processes that are easily repeatable and some others that are barely repeatable. For the first we already have tools and some best practices, the other still being a world under construction.

1. The Easily Repeatable Process (ERP for me)

Processes that handles resources, from human (hiring, firing, payroll and more) to parts and products through supply chains, distribution and production. The IT systems go under catchy names like ERP, SCM, PLM, SRM, CRM and the biggest players are as we know SAP and Oracle plus a long roster of smaller firms.

2. The Barely Repeatable Process (BRP)

Typically exceptions to the ERPs, anything that involves people in non-rigid flows through education, health, support, government, consulting or the daily unplanned issues that happens in every organisation. The activities that employees spend most of their time on every day. Processes that often starts with an e-mail or a call. A process volume, measured by time and resource spent at organisations, probably larger than for the Easily Repeatable Processes.

The misunderstanding with processes is to believe they are rigid and restricting by nature. That’s what has been done to them but, now, a gradation has the be implemented in rigidity and constraint. If we defined processes are a sequence of tasks with variable flexibility depending on their object aiming at turning raw material (even intangible) into a product or service, maybe the concept would become more reputable. To keep up with Sig’s analogy, enterprise 2.0 may help with ERPs (at least in an ongoing improvement process) and is the best way to run BRPs, which will become more and more essential in the workplace.

That’s what John Tropea mentions here with the concept of “adaptative case management”‘, as well as David Mastronardi when he writes that processes has to be designed for chaos.

In one sentence and to be done with this misunderstanding, when we talk about processes and enterprise 2.0, it’s not necesarily about processes as they are but as they should be.

When Taylor is shown as the embodiment of Evil, of standardization and deshumanization there is a common mistake : the focus is put on the result and not on the method. If Taylor was living today, his method would lead to other results just because context has changed. And when it’s said that processes are the legacy of an old world while we have to build a new one, I have to disagree. Saying that means looking at things with old eyes and an old mindset : being modern means understanding that process has to apply to a wider range of situations and operating models. Don’t dream : even with a lot of flexibility, there will always be a need to define how things are done and provide a least a little structure and direction to people’s activities.

Why should we deal with this issue ?

There are many reasons to that. Some are more respectable than others, some more rational, some more politically correct, some have to used very carefully but at the end it does not matter. Since we won’t be able to afford overlooking the issue, anuone should find the reason he’s comfortable with…and go. Only the destination matters, not the reason why people get into the train?

– that’s the only way to articulate a tangible value proposal in terms of efficiency, productivity etc… since businesses currently mainly rely on processes. That does not mean they won’t have to be refined, fixed, changed, made lighter. But it’s impossible to change something you don’t want to deal with.

– that’s something known and reassuring. But be careful not to lie or overpromise : it’s not about turning enterprise 2.0 into processes but improving processes with 2.0 approaches,  bringing0 some flexibility and “human power” where rigidityand constraints were the only know solutions.

– it’s the only thing that’s measured (sometimes well, sometimes wrong). Waiting for a global reflection on “measuring what and how in 2010” to come, rather start from the existing.

– It’s the smallest common denominator to all employees or businesses, the only thing that makes sense, drives people activities (even if they don’t like it) regardless to corporate or national culture issues.

– even if eveything is about people, culture, management, these three dimensions are currently thought to fit a world of processes. It’s impossible to reivent management, to change the corporate culture without, at the same time, tackle what they have to support to be able to update the whole paradigm.

– one of the lesson learned from the Enterprise 2.0 conference 2009 (one year ago !) was that enterprise 2.0 has to learn to speak the corporate language. Businesses speak process, so let’s speak process even if it’s to make them open their eyes and inculcate them into a new vision.

Enterprise 2.0 refusing to tackle the process issue is like the captain of the Titanic saying “Sorry, I don’t want to see this iceberg”.

One more thing to avoid any misunderstanding : enterprise 2.0 is much more than process enrichment as well as it’s much more than random community dynamics driven by a kind of invisible hand, but after having spent a long time on the “above the flow” layer and got the demonstration that is was not an easy to start, it’s logical than businesses start to work on the lower ‘in the flow” layer to create synergies between both and help enterprise 2.0 to deliver its full potential…and not only through “process socialization”.

Another point of view would be to admit enterprise 2.0 aims at improving the way work is done without caring about how things are done today. Keeping our eyes away from actual and current managers and decision makers’ concerns ? Let’s be serious…