Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Tech Factor

SOA. ERP. EAI. ECM. BPM. BPM again. Yep. There are two BPMs – Business Process Management, and Business Performance Management. C’mon already! Really, what is it we, all process professionals, are trying to accomplish?

There are still two “sides of the aisle” so to speak in the process improvement community. There’s the IT side, and then there’s the business side. The advent of object oriented technology and the development of modeling protocols like UML some 15 – 20 years ago by pioneers like Phillippe Kruchten and Grady Booch swung the door wide open for businesspeople with relatively light technical backgrounds (like myself) to develop application diagrams that were readily discernable by programmers. The current proliferation of Business Process Management Suites with their design environments, automated conversion to BPEL and instant enterprise deployment has all but obliterated the business – IT divide. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict with certainty where this is all going: the technical elite are being pushed way into the shadows as they create ever more simple means to develop in intuitive, graphical design environments. The need to understand the rigors of a procedural programming language is being relegated to the development of technologies that make that code all but invisible. Consequently, the IT function is becoming more macro-focused, and the bewildering array of acronyms is being adopted and interpreted by the business class.

It reminds me of 1995 or so when everyone wanted Java-based web applications. They didn’t know why, exactly, but they wanted them. I remember running a small web shop in New York at that time, and getting calls from people who asked, “Do you guys do Java?” No kidding. Five years ago it was ERP. Then EAI. These days it’s SOA and BPM. You wanna know something? It’s all the same thing: An attempt to standardize enterprise architecture by creating universal abstractions that can be extended for specific applications depending upon the enterprise. That’s right, certain basic, redundant elements of the enterprise system are encapsulated into archetypal forms so they can be utilized throughout the enterprise with minor modification (i.e., they’re polymorphic).

Hmmm. Abstraction? Extensibility? Encapsulation? Polymorphism? That sounds a whole lot like object oriented technology, no? And as we come full circle we genuinely believe we’re innovating, when really all we’re doing is evolving – a natural, logical progression using now ancient ideas but applied in a brilliant way.

So let’s stop with the acronyms. We all want the same thing.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Just Ask Jack

Jack Welch famously guided GE through the single greatest increase in shareholder value – some $400 billion during his 20-year tenure – in the history of corporate America. When he took the helm as CEO in 1981, one of his first mandates was to layoff a huge number of people and redirect funds – $7 million in fact – toward the refurbishment of GE’s educational center and the attraction of top-level educators from major business schools. The move was extremely controversial; Jack was branded the meanest boss in America as the population at large could not understand why he’d sacrifice huge numbers of his workforce in exchange for a “nicety” like a corporate education center.

Throughout his reign as CEO, Jack continued the tradition by unceremoniously terminating the bottom 10% of his workforce. Ever the careful gardener, he and his managers diligently pruned the corporate ranks so that the cream rose to the top. And what of those at the top? The top 20% of employees were treated especially well. There was plenty of incentive to be great at what you did at GE under Jack Welch. Welch believed that a smarter workforce meant a more effective workforce. Today, being admitted to any of GE’s management programs means you’re on the fast track to the top. It’s no longer a “nicety” for advancement, it’s a necessity.

Jack epitomized leadership and vision. Though his early decisions were very unpopular – the terminations, the education center, and the divestiture of many of the businesses his predecessor worked hard to build or acquire (the only acceptable market position for any GE business was number 1 or number 2; all others would go) – there was a method to his madness. It took raw guts, courage and a belief that he was right to make the moves he made when he made them. The results, of course, speak for themselves.

Jack’s success at GE had much to do with frameworks designed around continuous process improvement. Improvement initiatives spanning decades included management innovations such as Work-Out, TQM and, today, Six Sigma. In turn, these methodologies became the GE Way, and those who broke ranks and dissented were swiftly shown the door. Embracing a “Way” of your own, committing to it and encouraging the rank-and-file to educate themselves in that Way is at the root of all excellent operations. Just ask Jack.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Real Process Improvement Dilemma

Sure, there's an increasing array of enabling technology - technology that promises to help us to refine the way we do our work, that promsies to make more effiicient the day-to-day drudgery of even the most mundane workflow. The Real Dilemma is, however, not rooted in the lack of inventive ideas and innovative systems, rather in the one major obstacle that no amount of technology seems to be able to overcome: human nature.

In my experience, those challenges deemed most problematic in the past - namely vendor selection, systems integration and data migration - are quickly evaporating as the line between IT and business blurs and point and click design interfaces relegate previously difficult implementation steps to the domain of the generalist. What does this mean? You no longer need a PhD in computer science to design a viable process management environment; common sense will do.

The Real Dilemma in Process Improvement is change management. Want to improve your processes? Start by mastering your understanding of human nature.