While I was at IBM’s IMPACT conference in the spring, I participated in a panel with Sandy Kemsley and Bruce Silver, and also Pierre Haren and Eric Herness of IBM. The theme was about the future of BPM and, among other things, we were asked to talk about the impact of the ‘big 4′ technology trends that everyone talks about—Social, Mobile, Cloud Computing and Big Data Analytics—on BPM discipline, business cases and results over the coming years.
Like all keen panellists, I did a bit of prep on these topics before we actually got onto the stage—making sure I’d thought through various angles and thought of ways to explain them plainly to what looked like it would be quite a mixed audience. As we got towards the end of the panel session I was glad I’d done that prep. We were all asked to provide some closing thoughts to the audience, and something struck me in the moment. We’d all been talking about the impact of social, mobile, cloud computing and big data as isolated concerns in the context of business processes; but really, they’re all very much connected together.
All of these things are different expressions of digital transformation, and bring increased openness as a result. Cloud-based services express the digital transformation of technology procurement and ownership, delivered through open interfaces; mobile computing, the transformation and integration of consumer/personal technologies and their open connection to information and communication services; social software, the transformation and integration of interpersonal communications using open, inclusive paradigms. Because all these changes represent things ‘opening up’, they all mean that technology use creates richer and richer digital footprints. Big Data and analytics technologies are really valuable if you’re trying to find out ways to help customers on their journeys.
We already know from our research that BPM is becoming a mainstream proposition and, as it does so, it’s taking mainstream adopters beyond managing processes in the abstract to also encompass the management of work as it actually gets done by people and technology. When I have to explain BPM in just a few words, I often say “it’s a discipline that organisations can use to design and deliver the sophisticated co-ordination of work.” Combining BPM with these ‘big 4′ technology trends means that the nature of work in all its six dimensions (who’s doing the work, what are they doing, when are they doing it, where are they doing it, how are they doing it and why are they doing it) is up for grabs. BPM is making work more manageable at scale; digital transformation is making the working environment more open and transparent.
The ways that work gets done (who, what, when, where, how and why) in any organisation is normally constrained, in part, by historical environmental limitations or conventions. Some of what determines how a process unfolds is down to intentional design that’s linked in some way to strategy; however much of what determines how things happen is down to assumptions about ‘how things have to be done’, because that’s how we’re used to doing them. Some of this might be about who has to do a particular job, or where they do it; the order in which things need to be done, or the degree to which they can work with others to do them.
To provide just one quick illustration: historically, the limitations of communications technologies and the cost of machinery have meant that in banking, cheques (in places they’re still used quite a lot, like the US) have always been scanned and processed in centralised facilities. With the advent of near-ubiquitous wideband communications and smartphones, however, some banks have re-thought the ‘who’—they allow customers to take photos of cheques (when below a certain $ threshold) using their smartphone cameras and send the images direct to the bank. The bank is no longer scanning these cheques—customers are.
As digital transformation of work, of workplaces, of supply chains and networks, of consumption and governance continues to unfold, the structures and certainties that used to hold established patterns of work together are dissolving, just as a sugar cube dissolves when you dip it into a mug of coffee. Without some kind of flexible yet persistent operational framework in place that can help you co-ordinate work and knowledge-sharing at scale, life is going to get really tricky. BPM technology is a core component of this framework.
I’ll be expanding on these ideas more in an upcoming report tentatively titled Towards the Digital Enterprise—which should hopefully be published later this summer. It’ll be free to all our members. Keep an eye open for it!