Wednesday, June 23, 2004
If you walked into the conference I’ve been attending for the last two days cold, you would not have a clue what people were talking about or why you would want any part of it. You might think you’d stepped into a revival for geeks. I’ll bear witness to what transpired.
Speakers fervently describe a Second Coming for IT, an entirely new and hyper-productive way of doing business. In the Promised Land, managers and workers no longer need to turn to IT to get their jobs done. Bankers run the banks and merchants run the stores without relying on CIO’s to satisfy their customers. Silos fall. Everyone makes informed decisions. Converts are on the edge of their pews.
The prophets envision the profits, but
their belief system lacks a name. Some call it Business Process Management.
Other say it’s Web Services. Yet others talk of Service-Oriented Architecture. They
describe the wonders of SOAP and UML, seek blessings from W3C and OASIS, and
tell parables of independent
angels agents doing what’s right. They speak in tongues.
Non-believers sense a sham. The masses have long prayed at the altar of IT for better, faster, cheaper ways of creating value and making the world a better place. The vengeful IT god inevitably punishes the populace with plagues of non-functionality, cost overruns, missed deadlines, administrative catastrophe, scaring away customers, frustration, and demoralization. To every FUD there is a season.
Are those who herald the new order today’s false prophets or are they messengers trumpeting true change? Business people are skeptical. Fool me once, shame on thee. Fool me twice, shame on me.
What does business gain from going to this church? Less lag time between strategy and execution. Faster response time to customers. More agility amid changing conditions. Faster cycles, less lead time, less lag time. Richer innovation and more of it. Focus on core strengths. Everyone singing from the same hymnal. This is not IT; this is business.
Twenty years ago, few executives touched a keyboard. Today, few business people change the process they employ to do their jobs. Tomorrow, workers will contribute to helping their organizations improve the way work is performed. Continuous performance improvement will become everyone’s job.
is lame, religion without
science is blind.”
Epiphany: If you climb up the ladder of abstraction several rungs, you can begin to divine what the prophets are talking about. The patterns we couldn’t see because we were too close begin to come into focus. The grand design becomes obvious.
The day-to-day world of commerce is so far below that the cubicles, silos, firewalls, and boundaries fade away. From up here, people and politics are impossible to discern. We’re looking at the broad flows of value across the global marketplace.
Just as the first image of the earth from space raised our consciousness of living on a tiny sphere in space, looking at the flows of knowledge and value from above brings what’s really important in commerce into sharp relief.
From up above, all business consists of flows of value across networks. As on the Internet, all nodes are connected. Sometimes the route from one node to another is circuitous and inefficient, but somehow it all works together. When synapses in the human brain traverse a meaningful route, the result is a memory. When value flows through an organization, the result is a pattern. When patterns are repeated and refined, they become a process.
Processes can be modeled and mapped. In fact, evangelists recommend that business organizations map current processes simply to get a handle on what they are really doing. Disconnects and gross inefficiencies will become immediately apparent.
A map of a process is a picture of how an organization works. The map tracks a common reality, not a view from within a silo. The map divorces descriptions of how things work from personalities and turf issues. A process map is the logic of business laid bare. No fluff. No politics. Just “Here's how it happens.”
Like a mural interpreting a meeting, a process map enables people to talk about what works and what doesn't without getting personal about it. The map is agnostic. Everyone's goal is to make it better. Furthermore, thanks to smart software, the value of choosing this option instead of that is automatically generated and explicitly stated.
For example, when HP was merging with Compaq, the combined organization had many redundant processes. The staff modeled each HP and Compaq supply chain process whenever they overlapped. They chose whichever process promised the best profit potential. Instead of presenting a list of software apps to debate, the supply chain guys presented a blueprint and financials for an optimal mix of interoperable processes. Now HP has taken this to marketing, sales, and manufacturing. Why shouldn’t all businesses be evaluating the way they do business all the time?
The electronic spreadsheet enthralled business managers with the power of what-if analysis. Process models take what-if analysis to the level of organizational change. In lieu of a spreadsheet’s rows and columns, process maps blueprint the value circuitry underpinning the business. Instead of seeing the effect of a 3% up-tick in sales, management can assess the impact of streamlining a process or outsourcing an entire function.
Time for a miracle. I want to move a few walls in my house to make a leisure room out of two small bedrooms. What if I could tear down the walls and build the new room by doing nothing more than changing the architect’s sketch of my house? Well, of course I can’t do that; I’m going to have to hire a construction crew. However, a process model can accomplish changes. Unlike my house, business is mostly virtual. Software runs the show. Change the process map on the screen, and the system automatically generates and installs revised code!
The seers prophesy a new category of asset: Process Capital. An organization that has its processes rigorously refined should be able to swap entire corporate functions in and out like Lego® blocks. The what-if model shows the bottom-line impact of handing off payroll and benefits administration and applying the resources thus freed up to a core business area. Sufficient Process Capital will enable an organization to focus on what it can do best and to shift that focus as conditions change.
What laid the groundwork for these audacious claims at the altar of process? Like a voice out of the wilderness, the Internet gave us the sign.
In 1991, CERN released the World Wide Web. A year later, the Internet had 1,000,000 hosts. Two years after that, Netscape went public and the Vatican went online. Assisted by Moore’s Law of the loaves and fishes, the Internet becomes the biggest force in the history of commerce, communication, and culture change.
The miracle of the Net gave us faith and guided us in the right direction.
From Babel to interoperability. In Old Testament days, IBM computers did not talk to UNIVAC computers; GE machines did not talk to Honeywells; NCRs did not talk with Burroughs; and RCA tried to talk with IBM but died prematurely. Commercial computing relied on proprietary software to handcuff customers who couldn’t afford to change horses. Software companies upheld the tradition. But the Net provided a lingua franca. TCP/IP succeeded where Esperanto had failed. Open standards enabled any compliant browser to understand anything on the Net. The value of joining the party soon outweighed the rewards of locking in customers, and before you knew it, IBM was spray-painting Linux penguins on the sidewalks of Chicago. Now in-house and commercial systems are adopting Web Standards, and eventually the world will transubstantiate into a single, immense network.
Don’t play God. The Net is a web without a weaver. No master programmer hides behind the curtain. Like Nature herself, the web organizes itself. Start with simple rules; clear the way; don’t get in the way; let it grow. Great and unexpected things arise from complexity if you let them. In IT, this letting-go takes the form of delegating interactions to bots, personas, and software agents.
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