Survive the recession through some stealth BPM

Today I hosted a ComputerWorld Canada Technology Insights event called “Building value through business process management in a downturn economy.” If we had schedule this session even a few months ago I don’t think it would have had nearly the resonance.

As I told the audience, BPM to me is technology that integrates people, processes and information, but it’s also a yardstick for accomplishing alignment between business and IT. If you’re doing BPM well, there usually isn’t any doubt IT is running the business. Most of the enterprise IT managers we talk to, however, aren’t really doing BPM. They might be doing some process modeling, which is great, because it means they’re starting to discover how things really get done around the office (and senior management learns to their horror that few processes are consistent). They might be doing some business activity monitoring, but probably because there has been an incident – a retailer might have gone through fraud issues with product returns after Christmas, for example – rather than adding to a more comprehensive BPM strategy. BPM is not really a point project but a modus operandi for running corporate enterprises successfully.

Our speakers at the event included a trio of IBMers: Peter Beggs (formerly Toronto Software Lab), Paul McKay (former Canuck now living in Boston, expert in event process management) and Patricia Nielsen, a Websphere specialist. They managed to discuss not only the steps to making a successful business case for BPM, but how to start thinking about complex rules-based processing engines and the best practices around implementation. They said you didn’t have to have already set up a mature service-oriented architecture (though that clearly would help) and they said the same approaches could work for small businesses (though larger ones are probably more appropriate.

One thing that kept nagging me throughout the half-day conference, however, was the lack of discussion around office politics. As they discussed the application of BPM in the enterprise, it sometimes sounded as if the customers they were talking about were all filled with hard-working, cooperative colleagues. There was no mention of the bitter, resentful naysayers who have to be dragged in kicking and screaming to a BPM kick-off meeting and who remain so welded to outmoded, cumbersome processes that they inhabit like an old winter jacket that they gum up any attempt to untangle process inefficiencies and introduce automation.

When I asked this during a Q&A panel of our speakers, Peter gave me a long answer which essentially boiled down to this: You can do get past these people, but it will take some effort. The follow-up question I should have asked, and didn’t, was how long that kind of thing would take. I would suspect that many of the people in our audience on Thursday already go to plenty of meetings. How do you strike a balance between making time to analyze and act upon business process issues while still actually, you know, running the business? Given the intense pressure on companies to perform amid the slumping global economy, who can afford that kind of a luxury?

Of course, of you also argue that you can’t afford not to tackle BPM, but if it’s going to be a continuous, ongoing effort, perhaps it’s best not to draw to much attention to the fact that it’s happening at all. As companies struggle to stay lean and mean during the downturn, they could adopt “stealth BPM” and keep picking away at bad processes until the technology and the good processes are embedded within the culture of the organization. You known you’re doing business process management right once it becomes business as usual.

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