BPM in the C-suite: A look at the emerging CPO role

Talk of the chief process officer (CPO) has swirled around the business process management community for years. Some were calling the CPO an "emerging trend" as far back as 2003; still, the position has yet to become widespread.

Now, as process leadership becomes a C-level imperative across many industries, some experts say it's time for a deeper look at the CPO role. But if the CPO concept does become mainstream, it may happen differently than many executive teams and BPM professionals might expect.

"I'm not sure [the CPO role] is becoming more widespread in the way we thought it would," says Connie Moore, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "We thought that CIOs would become CPOs. You don't necessarily see 'CPO' on their business cards now, but people are filling that need in organizations, whether they get the title or not."

Notably, there’s a lack of consistency around the CPO designation itself. For example, some process-management leaders hold titles such as “chief transformation officer” or “vice president of business process management.”

But most are fulfilling the same role, says Bruce Robertson, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc: “Regardless of what the title is, it's for whoever is championing and leading business process improvement.”

Moore, who is currently conducting research for an upcoming report on CPOs, has only met four or five executives who identify exclusively as CPOs. More frequently, executives will combine "CPO" with their pre-existing titles. Typically, over time, executives “may become very aware of the whole process-improvement dimension," she says. "Then they can start slowly but surely adding that to what they do."

That path to process leadership relies on the individual executive to have interest in process work, and the business knowledge to back it up. However, the CIO role doesn't always lend itself well to that scenario.

"It's much more likely that an executive with process and strategy types of goals takes over IT than it is that a CIO becomes a CPO—although it's a possibility," says Tom Coleman, chief process and information officer (CPO/CIO) and process owner for corporate strategic planning at Sloan Valve Co., a manufacturer of water-efficient solutions.

Coleman began as Sloan Valve's CIO in 2000. By 2004, he was managing and facilitating process improvement for the company. Only then did he take on the CPO title. "I don't see myself as having evolved into this role," he says. "I slid up into this strategy process role, never letting go of the IT portion. From my first year, I was planting seeds for process."

Jan Van Dooren, the former CPO/CIO of Safmarine Container Lines, a global shipping company, adds that many CIOs don't have the right background to transition effectively into a CPO position.

"I started out as the CIO, but I was not a typical CIO," he explains. "I don't have a technical background; I come from a business background. Many CIOs have a technical background, but the CPO needs to understand the business."

As Coleman puts it, the key is realizing that IT is most effective when focused on business processes that are designed and implemented in ways that deliver strategic value.

While process management leaders were once more prevalent in process-oriented fields such as manufacturing and utilities, they're showing up across industries today. "The CPO role spans the services industries, the technical industries," says Moore. "It has more to do with whether or not the company is visionary."

Once executives have taken on the process-leadership mantel, they can help to surface and support process improvement projects throughout the organization. At the same time, C-level process management can centralize the focus of BPM initiatives on high-value business processes. It also reflects the company's overall commitment to business process transformation.

"Having a CPO shows an elevated intensity or focus on business process improvement across the enterprise, because you've named someone to head a post at a very high level in the enterprise to focus on process improvement," says Robertson. "Executive management is sending a signal when they do this. It does seem to actually improve the level of commitment by middle management to focus on cross-initiative type projects."

From their position in the C-suite, CPOs can orchestrate enterprise-wide communication and collaboration, which leads to better visibility into business processes. At Sloan Valve, for example, Coleman partners with the VP of human resources to co-lead change management in the organization.

"One of the key roles of the CPO is to be an architect and to be visionary about how process can connect to corporate strategy, how things like human resources and information technology can enable those processes," Coleman explains. The CPO also fosters a new way of thinking, according to Van Dooren, who currently serves as CEO of Shipping & Signalling Services, a provider of services to port users and ships.

As a CPO, “I was responsible for making sure siloed thinking went away," he says. "It's about creating a mindset that priorities need to be put in place. It's really a role where you have to influence an organization, rather than do it yourself."

Although it can be a boon to process improvement efforts, a CPO role is no silver bullet, Robertson cautions. "As with all things, it's just a matter of creating a position as a signal," he says. "It's one thing, but it's not enough."

Moore says it will be a while before the position can stand on its own as an effective way to lead process improvement efforts. One key component: the support of an executive team with a shared vision of business process transformation. "A CPO role by itself is a pretty vulnerable position, unless you've been in that company for a long time," Moore says. "It's a whole culture that you have to create."

READER FEEDBACK: Does your organization have a CPO? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Stephanie Mann is the former assistant editor for ebizQ and its sister TechTarget site, SearchSOA. Before joining TechTarget, Stephanie was a contributing reporter and proofreader for a Boston-area weekly newspaper and an editorial intern at a Cambridge, Mass.-based publishing company. She has also worked for several nonprofits and as a freelance editor.

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