Business Process Management in the Information Era

Anu George, Chief Quality Officer, Morningstar
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Anu George, Chief Quality Officer, Morningstar

Anu George, Chief Quality Officer, Morningstar

Do you know what is common to a car, a motorcycle, and a naval ship? Perhaps you are thinking of responses such as “iron and steel”, “heavy machinery”, “complex manufacturing”. Those maybe the correct answers, but did you think the answer could be “software”.

Yes. Software. These heavy machinery and highly industrial products are more computers and less machinery. Cars have become giant, complex, mobile computers. Ditto your shiny new motorcycle. Ditto that jumbo, gray, naval ship.

The information age has transformed that hulk of steel mass into the intelligent, information rich “creatures” powered by chips, CPU’s, microcomputers and sensors. And just like that, the information age has transformed companies and industries.

So where does Business Process management fit in this new world? It’s a misfit. When entire industries and organizations are undergoing deep structural changes, focusing on business process management is like protecting the grand staircase of the Titanic, when the entire Titanic was about to sink.

Business process managers must shift their focus from process improvement to business transformation management. They must be an active player in helping organizations morph or reborn as new identities as industries are disrupted by technology.

Given that reality, it will be useful to understand what will the future of business process management be like. Here are some thoughts to ponder on:

1) From “Continuous Improvement” to “Strategic Transformation”. In the past or maybe even currently, process experts and continuous improvement leaders helped organizations improve their processes, led change management projects or even led enterprise wide process reengineering efforts. In the information era, process experts and continuous improvement leaders will play a bigger role of “strategic transformation leaders”. They will help organizations identify potential market disruptions.

  ​When entire industries and organizations are undergoing deep structural changes, focusing on business process management is like protecting the grand staircase of the Titanic, when the entire Titanic was about to sink 

With an understanding of the business strategy, they will help identify the transformation purpose for their organization. They will guide the organization from evolutionary changes to “transformative big bets”. The book Exponential Organizations talks about “Massive Transformation Purpose”. One can call it the “Big Why”—which provides the reason and the soul for the transformation. Most organizations cannot determine the “Big Why”. They are so steeped in meeting the daily revenue and profit numbers, that the winds of change are often left unnoticed. The transformation leader needs to be that constant voice that reminds the organization to keep an eye on the future, to ask questions that spur disruption, and to prevent the organization from burying their heads in the tyranny of today.

2) From “Pursuit of Excellence” to “Pursuit of Innovative Ways”. Strategic transformation leaders become the flag bearer of new ways of doing things. Transformation leaders constantly strive to find the latest and best practices in the industry (or even across industries). From Robotics Process Automation, to crowd sourcing, to creating communities, transformation leaders drive “big bet” change across the organization.

Most managers are deemed to be successful because they have mastered the ability to scale their processes and organizations, while maintaining stability and consistency in their operations. But these behaviors are the antithesis of transformation. It is the role of transformation leader to pick up the binoculars, and peer beyond the horizon, and help the organization look for new lands to conquer.

3) From “Lean Thinking” to “Design Thinking”. The business process manager in the pre-information era was mainly focused on process improvement or process re-engineering. Lean, or Six Sigma were the tools or philosophies adopted. But in the information era, the transformation leader is now charged with helping the organization shape itself differently. From process level change, the focus is now on the entirety of the organization– its process, purpose, systems, people, and structure. The holistic change is 100x more complex than just process change, even if the process was a top tier (L1) wing to wing process. This is where design thinking comes to play. Design thinking refers to creative strategies designers use during the process of designing. As Ideo, the global design company states, “Design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable”. Design thinking is an excellent approach to co-create future solutions that are customer based and human based. It leverages the same principles of LEAN, i.e. respect for people and focus on the customer, but offers an array of facilitation tools that are a lot more applicable to situations where one is looking to find solutions to multiple challenges, and to imagine a new future very distinct from the current reality. Design thinking offers a more multipronged, holistic and conceptual framework than LEAN.

4) From “Process Expert” to “Technology Enthusiast”. We are in the information era. Technology is the biggest disruptor. ebay brought a new virtual marketplace to the homes and workplaces of millions of people across the globe. But, perhaps, in the future, maybe the near future, ebay may not exist, thanks to new blockchain driven models like OpenBazaar. Relentlessly emerging new technologies are the crux of the information era. The constancy of change becomes immediate and permanent with these emerging technologies. The transformation leader must immerse himself/herself in understanding these technologies. He/She need not be a technology expert, but must clearly understand the implications of those technologies on the business model. How would it impact the revenue model? What would it do to the operating costs?

Can it be leveraged globally? What about legal restrictions? How would the approach to talent and culture change with the adoption of new technologies? The transformation leader must be curious to find answers to those questions.

5) The Agile, Collaborative Genius. The strategic transformation leader should be a master at collaboration. Creating webs of networks and communities internally and externally will accelerate the transformation.

Governance to manage these communities, without being overshadowing the enthusiasm of participants would be a delicate balance that the transformation leader will have to practice. Injecting ideas and energy in the communities will be a core skill of the transformation leader. And hand in hand with collaboration come agility.

The transformation leader should be keenly aware of the accelerators and decelerators of the transformation initiative. Learning from failures, pivoting, bouncing back are part of the transformation leaders daily work. Agility and collaboration are the perfect antidotes to zombie transformation projects.

The world is changing fast. Roles we performed in the past cannot be just the same. They need to evolve with the disruption injected with the information era.

The business project manager cannot escape this disruption. This role is changing in an interesting and challenging way. In fact, the newly morphed role of the strategic transformation leader is more intellectual and impactful.

Embrace and enjoy the new reality.

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