Is it the end of the road for BPM?

Although the technology that's enabled the current wave of interest in business process management (BPM) has been around since the late 1990s, it's only over the past couple of years that BPM has become a real mainstream industry concern. Initially, BPM was really the preserve of a small number of very switched-on enterprises with senior executives that "got process religion".

Now though, just as BPM hits that tipping point, could it be that its days are numbered? A new kid on the block – case management, or more specifically a new group of variants of case management (at its heart, case management has been around for even longer than BPM technology) – is being promoted in some quarters as being a successor to BPM technology, which is itself positioned by some as being overly inflexible and unsuited to today's complex work environments.

Process – both blessing and curse

To explain why this might be the case, it's worth revisiting what the idea of 'process' is about and why it's useful. The concept of 'process' was first explored by people like F.W. Taylor in the early to mid-20th century: they popularised the idea that designing and formalising a set of procedures, based on scientific observation of day-to-day work, and then managing workers by monitoring their performance against those procedures, could help an enterprise improve efficiency and quality in what it produced. Thus, process – and management by process – was born. Management concepts like Six Sigma, Lean and Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) followed in the late 20th century – all focusing primarily on the idea of 'process' as a management construct and as a template for work which could be studied and optimised.

BPM introduces some really important technology-enabled innovations to these ideas, because it creates a platform for different groups to share ideas about processes and work and take those ideas into production, and also creates a platform for creating visibility of work performance – which can then be used to more quickly and easily uncover opportunities for further improvement. BPM technology and practice innovations have massively improved enterprises' process management agility: but there is a separate issue that isn't necessarily addressed through these innovations, and that's to do with enabling flexibility in how work gets done on the front line.

Is BPM just hype, or a window of opportunity?

If you look at the kinds of work where the idea of 'process' first became popular – first, industrial manufacturing work; and then, rote administrative work – then it's clear that having a structured template for work makes sense. In this kind of activity, it is possible to specify what quality looks like; and delivering a quality result means executing a well engineered detailed plan repeatedly.

However the business improvement focus for many companies now goes well beyond these scenarios, into more 'value adding' types of administrative and knowledge work. Let's consider something like complaint handling. Here, quality is not as easy to define as it might immediately appear. A simplistic view would suggest that delivering high quality is about resolving all complaints to the full satisfaction of every customer; but the reality is that from the point of view of the enterprise, not every complaint can be or should be treated equally. In this context, delivering quality is actually about dynamically trading off the effort and cost of dealing with any individual complaint against the enterprise's market and customer management strategy. Delivering quality might mean doing something very different from one complaint to the next.

It should be clear that in a scenario like this, constraining work patterns according to rigid process definitions can be very counter-productive.

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