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IT Directions

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Social BPM and the new IT stack

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In my last post I discussed the difference between handling knowledge work processes via social BPM (i.e., traditional flowchart-based BPMS applications with the addition of tools for presence and chat) and collaborative planning (i.e., the Human Interaction Management System, or HIMS, such as HumanEdj).  The purpose of the post was to explain that social BPM is not a solution at all - rather, it is simply the next step in the learning curve of mainstream software vendors and the analysts who work on their behalf.  By and large, they have realized that current products fail to meet end-user needs for managing collaborative human work, but not yet come round to the understanding that a true solution takes more than revamping existing products with a few Web 2.0 bells and whistles.

This is often clear to thought leaders and consultants in the BPM field, who have to try and use the tools that vendors are providing.  A typical view is expressed by Keith Swenson (Chairman of the Workflow Management Coalition Technical Committee):

"Proper use of social software will be about individuals producing, publishing and running their own processes. Not collaboration on the design phase, but designing individually, and collaborating with a completed process.  This won't just be the BPM lifecycle using social software, it will be the elimination of the BPM lifecycle, the elimination of a design phase, the elimination of the separation between designers and workers.  Call this Social Business Management, or Social Case Management, but please, this is not Social BPM."

Swenson is pointing out that social technology is not a bolt-on to the traditional IT-led BPM approach, but a revolutionary development that empowers business people to work together in a completely new way from start to finish.  In other words, social technology should allow people to take charge of their own processes, a critical enabler for next-generation efficiency and effectiveness.

But how?  Technology aside for a moment, what are the steps involved in reaching this nirvana of user empowerment?

The answer can be found in the 5 principles of Human Interaction Management.  Taken in order they show exactly what is needed for business people to collaboratively design and use their own processes:

1. Build effective teams
Effective for what?  The first step is to work out what you are trying to achieve - the goals of the process.  Having done this, you can start to define the sort of people that should be involved, by working out the combination of skills, experience and personal qualities necessary to meet these goals, then assigning to each team member responsibility for particular aspects of the process.
With HumanEdj, you start by defining the goals of a "Plan".  You then add people with specific characteristics to play "Roles" with specific responsibilities.  These people can belong to your organization or any other - you do not need to know what instance of HumanEdj they are using (in fact, they do not need to be using HumanEdj at all).  As long as you know their email address, you can include them in a Plan you are designing, and they will be able to take part just like everybody else.

2. Communicate in a structured way
Communicate about what?  The next step is to refine the high-level goals into more detailed objectives.  These are not steps in a flowchart - to the contrary, achieving the various objectives typically requires an unpredictable degree of concurrency and rework.
With HumanEdj, you refine the initial Plan by adding "Stages", that may overlap and whose sequence is only a starting point, in each of which a set of related deliverables is produced (to which all participants in the Stage have access).  Communication in each Stage via chat, by means of document contents, or via other means is automatically between all Stage members and focused on the objectives of that Stage.

3. Create, share and maintain knowledge
Knowledge about what?  For use in what way?  By whom?  And how is the knowledge to be kept current?  With collaborative human work, it is essential to appreciate that the creation, sharing, maintenance and purposeful usage of knowledge associated with a process is of at least equal importance to its concrete outputs.
With HumanEdj, you populate each Stage with Activities in the different Roles, each of which consumes certain "resources" and produces certain "deliverables".  The distribution and usage of resources and deliverables drives the Plan and is the basis for forecasting.  Critically, there is no assumption that any deliverable is a concrete output of the Plan.  A deliverable of a healthcare process, for example, may the symptoms described by the patient or the result of a test taken during diagnosis - as opposed to the concrete outputs, which from a typical BPM point of view might be the diagnosis, prognosis and prescribed treatment.  Similarly, a deliverable of a marketing process may be the user focus group reports generated during a branding exercise, which could be of value in future positioning exercises.

4. Align your time with strategic goals
Peter Drucker observed that an effective executive manages their time, not their task list.  In other words, they decide at the beginning of each day how best to use the time they have available in the interests of their organizations, rather than starting with the list of tasks they have been assigned and working through them in order.  In order to achieve this, it is essential to have an overview not only of the goals of each process, but (on a lower level) how your own work relates to that of your colleagues and (on a higher level) how these goals relate to a bigger picture.
With HumanEdj, you can see the goals of a Plan, the objectives associated with each Stage, and how the work of each participant contributes to those objectives.  You can also see how the goals of high-level Plans relate to the goals of the lower-level sub-Plans that they initiate and manage.  This provides the context necessary to make judgements about how to use  your own time effectively.

5. Negotiate next steps as you work
As Keith Swenson observes, true social process management means eliminating the gap between design and execution for business processes.  People collaborate first to create processes, and then to update them during usage.  This is the natural way for humans to work together - continually to negotiate next steps, agreeing and implementing whatever way forward is most appropriate to the situation as it changes.
With HumanEdj, the Plan owner works with other participants to agree changes to the Plan as it is used, implementing and distributing new Plan versions as necessary.  Receipt of a revised Plan does not require any action on the part of other participants - they simply find themselves using the new version.  Non-owners can also make localized changes to their own part of a Plan at any time, without needing to wait for approval - for example, to add a new deliverable as they deem appropriate.


If you need to fuse the structural benefits of BPM with the collaborative potential of social technology, you won't find it in the products currently being marketed as "social BPM".  Rather, you need to look elsewhere, for what the Chairman of the Workflow Management Coalition Technical Committee calls "collaborative planning" (as exemplified by a Human Interaction Management System such as HumanEdj).

This is not to say that BPM has had its day.  Far from it - BPM tools are as useful as ever for the straight-through (automated) and human-centric (data entry and approval) processes that is their stock in trade.  Most organizations over a certain size need both BPMS and HIMS technology - as well as support from other forms of business system for business rules, document management, data storage, and so on.  Today's IT stack has many layers, and they fit together well - unless, that is, you try to position the wrong technology at the top.

The top of your IT stack is, of course, your Intranet.  To see how the various technology puzzle pieces fit into this, read http://bit.ly/new-it-stack.  And have a Happy New Year!

Keith Harrison-Broninski cuts through the hype in his hands-on guide to where enterprise IT is really going

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a researcher, writer, keynote speaker, software architect and consultant working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds.


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