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?
My favorite Clay Shirky quote is "process is an embedded reaction to
prior stupidity." That is, there was an exception to process and an
expert designed a way for people to work together in one context that
should fit all prior contexts. The problem is, the process becomes
calcified and accepted as the rule. After all, it's a rule, and in
corporations we follow them, even if it fails us or simply doesn't make
sense. Because of constant change in our environment, processes are
outdated the immediately after they are designed. The 90s business
process re-engineering model intended to introduce change, but was
driven by experts which simply delivered another set of frozen
processes. Because participants in process are not considered experts
in theory, they are empowered to make decisions on their own when
Organizations are trapped in a spiral of declining innovation led by
the false promise of efficiency. Workers are given firm guidelines and
are trained to only draw within them. Managers have the false belief
engineered process and hoarding information is a substitute for good
leadership. Processes fail and silos persist despite dysfunctional
matrices. Executives are so far removed from exceptions and objections
that all they get are carefully packaged reports of good news and
numbers that reveal the bad when it's too late.
John Seely Brown and John Hagel point out that while 95% of IT
investment goes to support business process (to drive down costs), most
employee time isn't spent on process -- but exceptions to process.
Further, competitive advantage comes from how we innovate in handling
exceptions. When something fails, informed and empowered employees turn
to their social network. The informal network, or heterarchy, where
most business gets done.
Today, some staid corporations are abandoning process all together (I
wish I could quote the source for this). Google is a more public
example, albeit an exceptionally new large enterprise, where wikis and
weblogs enable a culture of working openly in a flatter and
decentralized organization. This is data point helps plot the trend of
decentralized organizations that realize economies of scale, as
described by Thomas Malone in his book, Decentralization.
Assume for a moment that the 25% of GDP that is search costs falls. Or
the 50% of GDP that is transaction costs similarly declines.
Coordination costs fall with rising connectivity. The cost of personal
publishing and easy group forming are rapidly falling to zero. If a
knowledge worker has relevant information at their finger tips, can
form the right group to handle an exception, leverage the social
context of information and contribute to memory as a natural by-product
of getting work done -- what is the role of process?
A process is like a standard. It provides a common definition for
others to build upon. This is generally a good thing. In technical
systems it helps resolve complexity so higher order abstractions can
keep things simple. But even in technical systems, efficiency comes at
a cost of adaptation. In social systems, especially where not everyone
helps design what they participate in, the constraints against
adaptation are compounded.
At best, a process should serve as a reference model. Something that
others can reference when completing a task. Something that can be
leveraged for innovation, a boundary condition for experimentation at
As with many things, gaining greater participation and innovation requires sharing control. I do not believe we are near the End of Process, yet. I do believe the arguments for engineering organizations are being trumped by new practices and simple tools. The first organizations bringing it to an end will have a decided competitive advantage.
UPDATE: Comments are starting to get interesting. 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.