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Technology or process? IT or BT? Mark answers!

Mark McGregor is part of the group of pioneers that gave us BPM. He speaks at Gartner conferences and continues to write books. Mark was the featured speaker at India's first business process management conference, which I hosted in 2007. Mark has been a mentor to me and I thank him for this interview, which is also the 100th post on this blog! To see the full interview. click here.

1. Has your view of BPM changed since your first exposure to this important management tool?

My views have changed a lot! And I hope they continue to do so. Perhaps the biggest change that I have taken on over the 15 years is the importance of two particular things in the area of process success. They are "change" and "people." I think that in the early days of BPM we were potentially blinded by technology and now leading organizations are recognizing that technology comes a poor third in terms of what it takes to be truly successful. I would also counsel that time has taught me that we don't know all the answers, but by being open and sharing we can at least learn how to ask smarter questions, which in turn enable us to continue to grow as individuals.

When I first started to push the “People” aspect, I was considered too unconventional, but now we see that just about everyone, including conference organizers, is jumping on the bandwagon.

2. How do business processes drive business results?

This I find a fascinating question. You would have thought that with over 100 years of development since the industrial revolution people would be clear on this. But, as you know yourself, they still do not appear to. In its simplest form, process is merely the way that work gets done. We can shuffle data, information or raw materials around, but in the end it is how we move them around that delivers value and thus results.

No amount or reorganizations, systems or technology will make a true impact on the results of the business, unless we question how work gets done (the processes) and then apply the technology in ways to better support the processes.

As you and I have both seen, too much effort today is still placed on simply automating what we currently do. While this can reduce cost and eliminate jobs, it rarely brings about a sea change in the way we work. It is only by bringing about such change that companies will really see major improvements, and indeed ensure their long term survivability.

If you look around the world at truly successful process centric organizations, people like FedEx, GE, and South West Airlines, you will see that they tend to focus more on people and process, and then apply appropriate technology. Their business results over a long period of time suggest that perhaps this is a smarter way to go.

3. CEOs have been demanding business results from technology investments. How would your process-to-results equation change if you were confronted with an IT-rich process? Could you illustrate with an example?

CEOs have always demanded a business return from any investment and so they should. In this respect an IT investment is no different to buying new machinery or new office accommodation. The challenge is that historically IT has not provided the expected benefits and so perhaps is more in focus today than ever before.

The idea of an IT-rich process exists more in people’s heads than in reality. I think that when used, people very often mean a process that can easily be substituted with technology. For an example I would like to use a process from HR, the recruitment process.

When we send in a resume to a company today, chances are that an IT system will scan it and search for buzzwords. Then, if the resume matches the buzzwords, it will get passed on to the next stage of selection. All very easy and saves a lot of time of someone going through the resume. Business results are easy to see, we saved the time of a person trawling through the resumes.

If we consider though that as applicants we all have varied skills, more than just words on a resume, so we now no longer get responses from hiring firms (seems very rude) and recruiting managers are no longer able to see some great resumes of fantastic people. Business result ... great candidates are no longer considered, with the result that many opportunities are missed.

In my past career, I may have often over-delivered against expected performance. But now, not one of those jobs I succeeded at would I even make it past the automated selection process. Is that progress? Or technology for technology sake?

4. The IT-to-BT movement started in the early part of the previous decade. Why do you think software teams and vendors still struggle to deliver business-aligned results?

Historically at least, software teams and software vendors have been about selling IT solutions to IT people. Today though does a business care about buying a BPMS based on BPEL using BPMN and SOA etc to improve their cash collection process? Or do they simply want a solution to the problem that delivers on time within budget by a trusted partner?

For many, not all, this is challenging when you have to learn a new vocabulary and can no longer rely on technical specs to get you through. Especially when things like expressing your solution in terms of other people’s pain point, connecting emotionally and building business cases is not part of what you were taught.

I suggest that software people and technology vendors spend more time listening to business people expressing their needs in simple language. Learn to communicate with those people in that language and finally take more time to learn more about what business is really about.

5. The call to bring business and IT together does not appear to have worked. Do you think it makes better sense to create the required cross-functional skills in the same person, say, someone on the IT side?

Has it really not worked? Or is it simply that IT people have failed to make business people see the world their way? We have both said for a long time that there is no such thing as an IT project only a business project supported by IT. This of course can be quite a challenge if you are an IT company who sells and delivers IT projects, with staff who learned IT at university and have only worked in IT.

I agree with you that it not only makes more sense to approach things with a cross functional view, but believe it is the only way. At both a personal, departmental, and business level we need to create more rounded people. I suggest that the world of specialization has gone too far, we no longer value general managers, those highly skilled people who have a broad knowledge of many aspects of our business.

My hope is that we get back to recognizing the value of broad skill sets and understand that detailed specialized knowledge is only required at times.

In the area of process we see the same things. How often do you see a bank or insurance company advertising for a process expert with banking experience? Surely they would be better with a process expert with great communication and facilitation skills without industry knowledge – so that they focus on facilitating change not imposing their own ideas.

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