A deeper look at Business Process Management

Not so long ago, Enterprise Resource Planning initiatives were the industry’s poster child for undelivered IT value. Just about every industry gathering featured a well-attended “whine-in,” where CIOs would lament the time, dollars and pain it took to get an ERP implementation up and running.

You still hear some horror stories, but for the most part, ERP initiatives are no longer the bad boys of IT value creation. Career hopes appear to be dashed more and more on the dashboards of BPM systems.

Business process management is in the headlines of the trade press, and it’s the subject of conferences, focused e-newsletters and vanity-press book releases “co-authored” by vendor luminaries. More substantially, research centres attached to fine institutions such as Ohio State University are being designed to codify and distribute emerging knowledge about BPM. All this is testimony that BPM is going to be big.

Before you sign up with Gartner/Forrester/Robert Frances Group and leap into the tea-leaf-reading exercise of choosing where and with whom to spend your BPM money, step back, take a deep breath, and think long and hard about why you are spending this money. Work the left side of the decimal point of value. Great IT leaders examine broad trends and ponder deeper meanings before jumping into pools muddied by thrashing PR wonks and headline-hungry analysts.

Talks at the IT Leadership Academy have led us to conclude that before spending a dime on BPM, you need to ask yourself four questions:

• Do we as a company want to know the truth?

• Will people tell the truth?

• Can we get the truth into the system?

• Will we behave differently when confronted with the truth? Here is a little-known and quite surprising tidbit: If you dissect critical business processes into their informational components, you will find that the majority of decisions made in business today are based on hearsay and hubris.

Yes, we live in a sensor-rich economy. Yes, we are only about 15 years away from having every molecule on this planet IP-addressable. And yet, at the beating heart of our economy, we are still guessing and making stuff up! This is why BPM is so important. It is the end of an early-wave, planet-wide move to a fact-based world.

On the surface, one sees a large and growing BPM ecosystem coalescing around the money to be made by catering to the well-documented (though rarely well-executed) senior executive obsession with being in control and in the know. Many BPM vendors claim to scratch that itch.

But wait. There is a well-known saying among metrics scholars: “Fat people hate scales. Stupid people don’t like tests.” So the real question is, Do executives really want to know? History is filled with examples of leaders who consciously and willfully ignored the facts in front of their faces.

Anthropologically, one must examine the value a culture puts on truth and truth-gathering. In 1929, a new secretary of state, Henry Stimson, cut off funding to intelligence-gathering, stating, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Students of gender analysis enjoy citing an insurance company study that revealed that British men waste six million hours of driving time every year out of a stubborn refusal to ask for directions.

Over the course of the next several months, the academy will examine what is really going on with BPM.

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– May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

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