Rethinking Business Processes

Process Mapping is generally seen as a laborious exercise in workflow mapping that is supposed to add value by helping improve business processes. Once the As-Is model has been mapped with sufficient and just enough detail, the analysts are supposed to find ‘obvious’ areas for improvement and can then triumphantly arrive at an obviously improved To-Be process model.

This approach may be adequate for incremental workflow improvement but does not address good design for a business process.

The reason a process exists is because it adds value to the customer. Otherwise the process shouldn’t exist. This is the golden rule for good Business Process Design.

James Martin and Michael Porter have been expounding on the central principle of value creation for the past few years with the Value Steam approaches.  Recently Ralph Whittle reviewed the background and presented Enterprise Business Architecture as the overarching concept to capture the value-driven approach.

Given that (value-driven) process design is the core of any successful organization, I am a little concerned to find Graham Hill bidding good-bye to Process Thinking and welcoming Design Thinking as a replacement.

It may be that his use of the word ‘design’ in this fashion is too generic. A good DESIGN will bring user-centric interface design, user-friendly information architecture and customer-value-driven business processes together into a rewarding experience for the customer – and a profitable transaction for the business. Process thinking (from a customer’s  viewpoint) is key.

Incremental workflow improvements in the guise of process management are ineffective unless they rest on solid business processes built after asking, “Does this add value to the customer?”

Generating Ideas from ‘Crowds’? Really?

Ever been in one of those brainstorming workshops with lunch provided, staring at a blank whiteboard with a ‘facilitator’ exhorting everyone not to be bashful and to think outside the box.

Thinking ‘outside the box’ is the romantic ideal of creativity, but the brutal truth is that there ALWAYS is a ‘box’ that defines at the very least the goal of creative thought – and in most cases – a variety of constraints that need to be respected on the way to creative nirvana. Asking people to think and to begin with a blank sheet of paper will cause a ‘thinker’s block’ in most cases while the ‘thinker’ works through the goals, constraints and assumptions in his mind. Mark McGuinness has a very interesting experiment on thinking ‘inside the box’. He concludes that

‘Creative freedom’ is usually spoken of as a positive thing – but in this case, having total freedom to write any kind of story they like tends to paralyse people.

So, a successful brainstorming begins with something already on the board. There HAS to be a workshop owner (not just a ‘facilitator’) who brings the framework to the table and has a vested interest in the end-product. All participants should be there for their skills, experience or a ‘stakeholder-pass’ – not just to have more ‘heads’ to get to bear on the problem.

The workshop ‘owner’ taps into the entire group – gets them to add more flesh to the framework, validate or repudiate assumptions, extend the concept into the practical execution challenges, push and poke at imagined or defined boundaries and iterate through various cycles of conception to execution to fine tune the solution.

On tools, I prefer mindmaps and structured (lateral) thinking as the two most valuable accelerators for brainstorming.

At the individual level, laying out your ideas on a mindmap is a powerful idea management technique that I can personally attest to as my implementations evolve. It can be scaled up to manage group brainstorming sessions as well  – with similar powerful outputs as Michael Deutch insists.

From a structured thinking perspective, we need to make sure that the discussion has adequate representation of the six color ‘thinking hats’ from Edward de Bono – (Facts, Emotions, Critical-Judgment, Positive-Judgment, Creativity and Big-Picture). I am still trying to digest Jeffrey Phillip’s refreshing new term ‘Elastic Thinking’. More on that later.

Group Brainstorming in itself does not ‘generate ideas’. It helps amplify and sharpen individual thoughts – that need a vehicle for validation and improvement – and an organization framework for implementation.

Dirty Little Secret of Business Rules?

James Taylor is out again revealing secrets. Here is the latest dirty laundry.

Business users don’t want to “maintain rules” any more than they want to “write code”

What they want to do is run their business better……

…..They can’t and don’t want to use the same technology IT does but they can and should be brought into the process. To deliver this requires thought and effort but it will pay off in increased agility, decreased costs and improved precision in decision-making.

I agree with James’ prescriptions on what IT needs to do to make it easier for business users to define business rules that ‘run the business’. The Business Rules Engine interface needs to be intuitive and  familiar;  presented in a business metrics context; allow ‘what-if’ scenario building; and provide audit and governance ‘under the covers’.

The underlying assumption here is that business users do have a reasonably well-defined and agreed-upon decision-making criteria. So when ‘business rules’ need to be built into the ‘business logic’ of a system, the IT team should be able to pick up the binder listing all the rules and start implementing the system. In an Orwellian parallel universe maybe. Not in the real world.

Too frequently the business needs to think through the business processes, objectives, decisions and rules first before any system can be implemented. These rules are again subject to change depending on business direction and market conditions. So IT is increasingly abstracting the business-rules-engine component out of the underlying implementation.

IT can develop and procure Web Services that enable individual business processes – and provide ‘switches’ to configure the process and its interaction with other processes. The Business Rules Engine that brings the full value chain together is then the ultimate responsibility for business domain experts within the business.

No matter how dirty, techie, complex or ridiculous the Business Rules Engine is, the business needs to know where the switches are and how to drive. Can the business visualize a Ferrari dashboard or is a Model-T ‘dashboard’ sufficient?

Automating Higher Education ‘Factory’

Kevin Carey has a very thorough review on the state of Higher Education cost structures in the Washington Monthly this month. He showcases innovative uses of technology in lowering costs of lectures – leading to increase in productivity, better grades and lower costs.

The key is letting computers do what they do best—grading multiple-choice tests, providing 24/7 access to text, audio, and video, connecting people to one another at a distance—while retaining the human element when only real people will suffice. The Virginia Tech Math Emporium is staffed twelve hours a day with a combination of upper-division math majors, graduate students, and faculty, each of whom is prepared to help students with any of the Emporium-based courses.

And even when the notoriously nocturnal undergraduate lifestyle puts teachers of any kind out of reach, the Emporium never closes and the computers never sleep. Virginia Tech students always have access to the mind of Michael Williams, the ghost in the Emporium machines.

Kevin goes on to explain why universities are not passing the cost-savings back to students. In fact, tuition costs are rising – with all of the money being spent on ‘status-building’ investments in athletics, building, etc in order to boost college ranks on various lists like the one maintained by US News.

Leaving the economics of higher education aside, the technology application is the interesting part. Applying technology in agriculture and manufacturing resulted in phenomenal productivity increases in the past decades. Technology has increased productivity in the so-called Third Wave of Services industry already with communications, collaboration and analytical tools. Even in education, we have plenty of online courses and other technology-enabled initiatives. Moving the boundary well into the hallowed lecture halls on campus is new. Professors are being replaced by intelligent machines! Sounds like a sci-fi movie plot…

You can learn to speak any language you wish on a tape/CD/Computer; Pilots can learn to fly planes using computer simulators; and you can google for any piece of information that you care about on the Internet. So, why do we need Professors for delivery of classes? Let them design new computer courses. They can even design feedback mechanisms into the delivery so that students can provide input for the course to self-correct. Professors can then be free to do original research and expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Machines have taken over the campus. Are you sure your Professor is human?

Video Games- Beating the Economy

Earlier this year, I discovered that the Gaming industry is well on its way towards overtaking the Movies business.

Video Games are almost 75% the size of the Movies Business! And growing at close to 50% per annum!!……Admittedly, the show biz is a mature industry and is not expected to have a blistering rate of growth – but Gaming almost as large as the entire Movie business?

And now, amid the doom and gloom of slowing economy and stagnant consumer electronics business, the market research specialist NPD Group is reporting

In the U.S., third quarter total industry unit sales grew 8 percent versus 2007, even as the economy showed accelerating signs of recession…… Heading into the critical fourth quarter, the U.S. games industry is on solid ground..

One of the largest companies in the industry, Take-Two

….envisions future revenue for the video game industry, …sees microtransactions and downloadable content as the “biggest opportunity” and calls subscription revenue the “holy grail.”

Meanwhile, Television viewing is moving online in a multiple-viewer, social, ‘gaming’ environment. Jenna Wortham writes on Wired

As television audiences migrate online, media companies are eyeing social networking as a possible killer app for hooking viewers through their laptops. From simple chat rooms to unique games, the race is on to develop content that complements traditional shows — the more creative and addictive the better.

Then, the Wall Street Journal reports on Gaming coming full circle back to a hand-held device – the iPhone

The iPhone and its sister device the iPod touch, which feature big screens and powerful graphics, are emerging as serious competitors to Nintendo’s DS handheld and Sony’s PlayStation Portable….Developers are being lured by Apple’s online method for delivering games, which has lowered distribution costs and made it possible to profit on games that sell for just a few dollars or are given away with advertising…

So, Games are overtaking Movies…both are moving online along with the TV shows…these are all framed in interactive, social settings…all are available via pay-per-use subscription models…and right on your iPhone. All your entertainment is now in the palm of your hands to be consumed at will.

It’s clear that the ‘game format’ has taken over entertainment and online subscription has eroded purchase thresholds. Economic news and debates do not matter in the pastimes anymore.

Update 11/26/08 – Daniel Terdiman at CNET is also writing about the video game industry being recession-proof despite noting some caveats from Wall Street-types.

Controlling the Corporate Message? The PR Tight-Rope Walk

So, how do we encourage informal collaboration and communications amongst employees – but still retain some control over the corporate image that will get diffuse without the professional touch of Public Relations and Corporate Communications. The Economist reports –

On October 31st Virgin fired 13 of its cabin crew who had posted derogatory comments about its safety standards and some of its passengers on a Facebook forum. Among other things, crew members joked that some Virgin planes were infested with cockroaches and described customers as “chavs”, a disparaging British term for people with flashy bad taste. On November 3rd BA began investigating the behaviour of several employees who had described some passengers as “smelly” and “annoying” in Facebook postings.

Cracking down on employees in this case may have merit, but this highlights a growing uneasiness in the corporate communications and public relations circles. Where does social networking fit in the corporate world?

If such cases are considered aberrations or problems that need to be ‘solved’, then a huge opportunity would be squandered – with little or no chance of the problem going away. With the rise of social networking and associated acceleration in communications, it is very easy to share ideas and influence opinions by aggregating preferences. Everyone has already been ‘networking’ in the real world. It is just that the network is now moving online to a virtual world as well. We can legislate and create procedural and legal barriers asking our staff to ‘switch off’ their network for work related items – and invest in a thought police to enforce the rules and punish the guilty. It might work in the short run, but it is a losing battle. Thoughts, ideas, communication and collaboration that could be leveraged for everyone’s benefit will now just be driven deeper underground…. These things cannot be switched off in sentient beings.

The other approach is to consider why we need to control the informal communications. Maybe the ‘official’ corporate image does not match with reality; or maybe the corporate vision and goals have not been communicated to the employees – reflected in daily actions, not just an official scroll; or maybe the leadership is not leading from the front in creating a common vision and in getting constant feedback to keep the vision fresh, current and relevant…or a combination of all that..or..or…

The wall between ‘internal’ communications and ‘corporate’ (external) communications is being chipped down. Why spend resources on shoring up the wall and in crafting the pristine external message and in defending against ‘rogue’ messages? Some of those resources are better spent in creating one consistent message for everyone. Employees are the best brand ambassadors besides being customers too!