If a knowledge worker has the organization’s information in a social context at their finger tips, and the organization is sufficiently connected to tap experts and form groups instantly to resolve exceptions — is there a role for business process as we know it?
UPDATE: Euan Semple nails it: “Process is the sort of word that grown ups in suits use to throw their weight around and to convince others that they know what is going on and that it makes sense.”
For once I disagree with Euan and Ross (and I think they both write good stuff normally). It’s easy to be dismissive of process when you are experienced, but knowledge workers and experts are made not born. There’s a popular saying – first learn all the rules then break them. Process is invaluable when you are inexperienced and learning something new. Once you understand the process, you start to test it, break it, change it, ignore it… that’s when practice and instinct take over.
In my mind, process is something that can be documented, usually as a workflow with well defined boundaries. Follow the process and you will get a predictable output. Practice is about gaining the experience to know when (and when not) to break the rules. It’s not just about managing exceptions, it’s about intuitively knowing that changing or ignoring the process is the right thing to do in a given context. Process is about dealing with information. Practice is about applying knowledge. (See related entry: From data to knowledge and beyond). If the same practice starts to replace the ‘official’ process on a regular basis regardless of context, then it’s time the process was updated – process and practice should be interdependent and regularly reviewed.
If you think process is just something people use to pull rank over others, you need to step out of your comfort zone and remember what it’s like to have absolutely no idea what you are doing. Making the assumption that you can always rely on experts risks not learning for yourself, and one day it might be you that others need to tap into. I’ve used the following quote once already (in Dashboard Dangers) but it is also relevant here. From the book ‘The Elephant and the Flea’ by Charles Handy:
…My first independent command was running Shell’s marketing company in Sarawak. There was no telephone line to the regional head office and my bosses in Singapore. We managed because we had to. And maybe it was better, because there was no real way they could judge me other than by results. Things had to be pretty worrying for anyone to spend two days coming to visit me in what was not the most luxurious of places… If I made a mistake I at least had the chance to correct it before anyone noticed. That might not be possible today without a lot of self-discipline by superiors. Fewer mistakes, maybe, but less learning, less responsibility.
That’s not to say that people don’t sometimes get over zealous in focusing on process (the point I think the article was really trying to make). In Seven Productivity Tips, #6 described automating business practice instead of business process. A documented process is the theory of doing business. Before you automate it, make sure: a) it is actually used (don’t just trust the manual, witness the real ‘as is’ process in action), and b) you understand, and don’t inhibit, the practice that surrounds it when designing the new ‘to be’ automated process.
- Ross Mayfield’s blog: The End of Process
- Nicholas Carr’s blog: Process Matters
- Book Review (Amazon): The Elephant and the Flea
- My blog: Seven Productivity Tips, From Data to Knowledge and Beyond…, and Dashboard Dangers