Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The end of process

Processes in general and Business Processes in particular are very popular notions today. Popularized by writers like Hammel and heavily marketed by all sorts of software, systems and consultancy firms, process now seems to have conquered the vocabulary of business and government alike. If anything goes wrong the usual response is "we need to look closely at our processes" and (ofcourse) Process Improvement projects flourish abundantly.

All this process-thinking and focus started to annoy me lately, but I couldn't tell why. Until I saw this slide by Dave Snowden:


In it he explains three waves of management practice. The first, scientific management, led to the industrial revolution, where - inspired by military forms of organization - the organization was managed and optimized by function: purchasing, production, sales, marketing, service, HR, etc. Life was simpel then, processes were siloed and controlled by function. The ability to mass-produce was the result of this new form of functional organization.
This lasted until the '60s when it turned out it had become a bit more complicated. No longer mass but mass-customized production became the norm. To achieve that one had to look at the organization as system that turned customer demands (multiple) into targetted delivery. All this based on information such as demand expectation, strategic planning, scenarios, production planning, etc. So there was a clear need to exchange information between the silos. Many organizations "tumbled over" to become process oriented (often disguised as becoming customer focussed). ICT became a very important factor as information in general and process information in particular became prime suspect as a source for optimization. The ability to control information became the key to business succes.
In todays world information is still seen as key, but is it really? If we listen to the process-addicts it is. It is all there is. How to make sense of the very high variety found in todays consumers and citizens. And can we separate those. 9 to 5 has gone. We can be a citizen for 3 minutes, a consumer for the next 3 and go on as an employee for a while after that. Mass collaboration creates Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter influences the way small organizations and individual critters lead their productive/commercial lives. Social is back on the agenda, not just in computing but everywhere: eco, care, gov, the list is endless. Why? Well, because it is no longer key to control the information, but key to get things moving. In Dave's words: it is key to situate a network, the ability to create a group of followers and actually do someting with it.
What is all means? Time will tell, but I'm glad that we can forget process. Things aren't neat anymore. Networks dissipate, they don't process. They are resilient, not designed.

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