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The fundamental distinguishing characteristic of this approach is that knowledge workers, rather than rules and processes, drive decisions, Whereas insurance claims processing and other clerical tasks are guided by defined (and inflexible) algorithms, person-to-person BPM systems allow users to interact with each other and set their own parameters. This can only work, however, if knowledge workers are allowed to make commitments with each other based on a negotiation process. Instead of assigning a task with the expectation of a binary outcome (done/not done), managers must make a request to the relevant knowledge workers within their organizations. Once this request is received, knowledge workers must then evaluate the request and, if necessary, propose alternatives. Their decisions drive the sequence, participants, and timing for these process types. For example, a director of marketing may want 10 new pieces of collateral produced in a quarter, but the designer may feel that he can only produce five. Instead of rejecting the initial proposal outright, the designer comes back with an alternative proposal. Through a negotiated series of offers and counteroffers, a commitment is finally reached. The commitment serves not only as a mutual understanding of expectations, but also as the benchmark against which knowledge workers are evaluated.

In an ideal world, the negotiated commitment should be the essential unit of person-to-person BPM software solutions. The problem with most of these packages, however, is that they are built on the “command and control” framework used in person-to-system BPM, in which orders are given and expected to be followed. While this approach may work for simple decisions, it can’t handle complex processes with a large number of variables and inputs. It’s one thing for a CEO to order new blinds for his or her office; it’s quite another to assign someone to design and build a new car model in 20 months.

Both system-to-system and person-to-system BPM software work well in environments where data and information can be hierarchically managed based on repetitive, pre-defined rules and sequences that have very little flexibility. They can benefit organizations only as far as they allow the simplification and automation of basic decisions and interactions, but what they cannot do is facilitate the work of people whose jobs require them to invent, decide and collaborate to accomplish complicated multi-faceted work. In blunt terms, the inherent inability of system-to-system and person-to-system software to support negotiated commitments makes them ineffective tools to manage knowledge work, and a BPM system that cannot make the distinction between a simple work item and a complicated process is just not going to create real value in today’s business climate.

About the Author

Bill Welty is CEO of Action Technologies (www.actiontech.com), a 20-year-old Bay Area software firm whose products improve the productivity of knowledge workers interacting in complex business processes. Please contact bwelty@actiontech.com.

More by Bill Welty

About Action Technologies

For more than 20 years Action Technologies (www.actiontech.com) has delivered award-winning Business Process Management (BPM) software that increases the productivity of knowledge workers, reducing the time and cost of knowledge-driven processes by 40-60% and typically generating returns of more than 300%. The ActionWorks Suite enables leading global companies to analyze, redesign, implement and continuously improve their operations through a patented system for managing negotiations and commitments.


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