Ad hoc process? Leave the e-mail out of it

When it comes to unstructured, human-centric processes, organizations do realize they can’t (and don’t) use business process management tools, yet many continue to rely on e-mail and office documents which are just as inadequate, said a New York-based vendor of human process management systems.

Ad hoc and unstructured processes – like those that require negotiations and human judgment, or a change in structure or participants as the work progresses – comprise about 80 per cent of all business processes, said ActionBase’s chief technology officer Jacob Ukelson.

It doesn’t work to use e-mail and office documents to manage processes that are unstructured, said Ukelson, “because once it goes off into an e-mail stream, no one knows how it’s going to complete, there’s endless follow-up, telephone calls, extra e-mails.”

Business process management (BPM) tools, on the other hand, best manage the types of processes that are well-thought out, packaged, and easy to model, explained Ukelson, and they tend to “handle the more structured kinds of processes that are relatively rigorous and sort of standardized across companies.”

However, modeling human-centric processes can be tricky given they tend to change in a very fluid manner, he said. For instance, a human-centric process might entail various steps including a person assessing a situation, determining how it could best be solved, escalating the situation to others, gathering information, and engaging in negotiations. “And almost every time the process is invoked, in every instance, in some ways it’s different than the one before,” said Ukelson.

Modeling such a fluidly changing process would mean having to build rules that reflect every possible scenario and exception, said Ukelson, and “you’ll end up with a humungous chart… somehow you’d have to build all that smarts into your system and that would be very, very difficult.”

For that reason, Ukelson suggested that organizations use human process management systems (HPMS), like ActionBase, to manage and monitor fluid processes. He explained that by way of plug-ins for Microsoft Outlook and Office, users can create a separate inbox for action e-mails “that look and feel like regular e-mail” but is manageable and trackable.

The system also leaves an audit trail thereby creating “a system of records of human processes going on within the organization.” A typical HPMS deployment, he said, would be owned by operations or audit managers and supported by the IT department.

ActionBase marketing manager Dalit Siegmann said customers run the gamut of verticals, but the company has garnered a lot of interest from the energy industry where there is heavy emphasis on people compliance processes.

There exists an entire industry around management tools for human-centric processes with ActionBase being just one of many that offer the technology, said Craig Le Clair, principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

Le Clair agreed that organizations shouldn’t try to manage human-centric processes using a document-centric BPM. And, he said he’s observed those that are making a clear distinction between structured and unstructured workflows by deploying a combination of BPMs and HPMSs.

While there has been ample investment in structured BPM tools in order to support production workers and shave costs, however, these businesses are, said Le Clair, “realizing they are moving more towards a design and innovation-oriented world where it’s the knowledge workers that require more orchestration and more support to become more efficient”

It’s certainly an awareness that’s beginning to grow, said Le Clair, where collaboration and human-centric management tools are enabling knowledge workers to be more productive.

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