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Anthony J. Bradley acknowledges that, initially, “BPM” and “social media” may seem like mutually exclusive concepts.

After all, BPM is based on engineering, with emphasis on standardizing and automating processes. Social media are messy, chaotic, volatile, largely unpredictable.

“Can you combine these two into something meaningful that you can derive significant business value from?” Bradley, a group vice president for Gartner research, asked during a keynote speech to the recent Gartner BPM Summit in Baltimore. “The answer is absolutely yes. This is a new frontier in business process management.”

In fact, Bradley told a rapt crowd of business and IT professionals, “your most important processes might just be in the crowd, with all its messiness.”

Yet, he said, most businesses have no idea how to tap into that resource for their business process improvement efforts.

He defined social media as online environments “created for the purpose of mass collaboration,” with emphasis on the last two words. “Mass collaboration is the differentiator for social media,” said Bradley, who is co-author, with Mark P. McDonald, of ”The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011). “Social technologies are the enablers.” Among the most obvious examples is Wikipedia, in which individuals worldwide collaborate to compose and edit information for a massive, dynamic online encyclopedia.

He divides social media into four categories:

• Social creation via collaborative projects such as wikis and Google Docs
• Social networking via “social profile management” services such as Facebook and LinkedIn
• Social publishing—that is, content sharing and aggregation on, for instance, Flickr and YouTube, among many others
• Social feedback—that is, ratings, rankings and commentary, such as customer product reviews on Amazon.com.

All can be—and are being—used in businesses as well. But, Bradley says, doing so requires thinking about things in new ways.

Tom Sawyer, the mischievous star of Mark Twain’s famous children’s book, was once was assigned to paint a wooden fence. If Tom had been a perfectionist, he’d have done the job himself, but, of course, he didn’t do so, Bradley noted. If Tom had been a manager, he’d have hired people to paint the fence, but he didn’t do that, either. “Instead, he convinced the community of children that it would be fun, that there was something in it for them, and they did it for him,” Bradley said.

That’s the goal for harnessing the power of people through social media, Bradley said: “Convince the community that there’s something in it for them.” As another familiar example, he cited Facebook. “Nine hundred million of us built Facebook. What would Facebook be without us? An empty shell of code that nobody would ever visit.”

The challenge, then, is: How do you extend the capabilities of your company to, or through, the community?

If there’s a single best practice to using social effectively—especially in BPM—it’s this: Start with a clear, well-defined, common purpose, and mobilize your community around that. “The three most important criteria for success in social media are: purpose, purpose, purpose,” Bradley said. “If you get the purpose right, you can make a lot of mistakes and still succeed.” Get the purpose wrong, or start without one, and just about anything else you do will fail.

The right purpose will be meaningful, specific and significant, with strong value, Bradley said. It must motivate people to share their time, energy, knowledge and expertise.

Only after you’ve got a clear common purpose should you choose your technology. “Will providing access to a technology change your organization? Let’s dispel that myth,” Bradley said. “Access [alone] does not equal social-media success.”

He warned attendees to avoid the “provide-and-pray” approach—that is, providing a social technology platform, then praying that something good results from it. “Most of the time, ‘provide and pray’ fails,” Bradley said. Or even if people do adopt the technology, they may use it without creating value, leading higher-level executives wondering why, exactly, everyone’s spending so much time collaborating.

Bradley shared this advice for taking a social approach to process improvement:

1. Develop a new mindset about using social processes to enable business processes. For instance, allow for “design by doers”—the people who actually do the work that processes affect, Bradley advised. “Delegate business process design. Get the community to do the job for you. Make it people-centric,” he said.
2. Focus on business process discovery and nurturing. “Start with the purpose, then nurture the processes around that,” he advised. “Look for patterns using social analytics.” And, again, let those who must ultimately execute the process play a role in evolving it.
3. Enable new experiences. Paraphrasing another Tom—actor Tom Hanks in his Forrest Gump role—Bradley noted: “Communities are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” Keep adding new capabilities and opportunities, such as incorporating mobile and game technologies.
4. Think process protection. Change processes that seem to stifle collaboration. Integrate structured and unstructured processes. Facilitate new processes that support collaboration.

The path to social BPM starts with learning about the combination, then figuring out where it fits in your company. “Educate yourself on the impact of social on business processes,” Bradley said. Find out what social initiatives are already taking place in your organization. Focusing on business performance, identify opportunities where social and process would play well together. And get involved in your organization’s overall social-collaboration planning and initiatives.

Bottom line: “Social BPM” is not an oxymoron, Bradley said: In fact, “every strategic process will end up being social” eventually.

And, he reiterated, success hinges far more on effective leadership and management than on tools and platforms. “It is not a technology challenge,” he concluded. “It’s all about changing human behaviors. It is the future. It is the new frontier. Good luck with it.”

READER FEEDBACK: Have you used social media and BPM to create significant business value? Or, have you faced challenges to implementing social BPM? Either way, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Anne Stuart, ebizQ's editor from mid-2010 to mid-2013, is now senior editor for SearchCloudApplications.com at ebizQ's parent company, TechTarget. She is a veteran journalist who has written for national magazines, daily newspapers, an international news service and many Web sites. She’s specialized in covering business and technology issues for 20 years. Based in Newton, Mass., she can be reached at astuart@techtarget.com. Follow Anne on Google+ and at annestuart_TT on Twitter. For general questions about ebizQ, please e-mail editor@ebizQ.net.

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