Posted in General Technology

Process management blurs the line between IT and business

March 29, 2011 - 9:00 am

Business process management (BPM) and more specifically business process optimization (BPO) is about fully understanding existing business processes and then applying agreed-upon improved approaches to support market goals. Rather than exploring BPO from the viewpoint of the business, here I’ll briefly explore some of the motivations and benefits from an IT perspective.

Almost every business change has a technology impact

There are very few IT systems today that exist in isolation within an organization. Systems interact because they often require data from each other and they are interdependent in terms of sequential steps in a business and technology process. As a result, a change in one system invariably has a downstream impact on one or more other systems or processes. Often, the consequences of these changes are poorly understood by both IT and business stakeholders. Put another way: in interdependent complex systems and processes, there is seldom the notion of a small change.

Once both IT and business stakeholders recognize this, there is an opportunity to turn it into a highly positive outcome.

IT must be perpetual teachers and learners

As is the case in achieving many of the objectives of an IT strategy, it begins with communications. Every contact between IT and the business is an opportunity to teach and to learn. This is a reciprocal interaction. When I hear or read a sentence that begins, “Could you make a small change for me…” I know we’re already starting from a bad place. Unless the requester fully understands the internal complexity of all the interdependent systems and the potential impacts (which is rare), it’s presumptuous for him or her to estimate the scale of the change. Conversely, any IT person who minimizes the impact of a change without fully understanding the potential impact does a disservice in setting expectations that may not be met.

For IT requests, it’s best and safe to assume that a change will have impact, but the scale of that change will not be known until reasonable diligence is performed. That’s a much better starting point.

Let’s now assume that the change is not inconsequential. Two opportunities present themselves.

IT is an important business facilitator

First, stakeholders that are impacted by the change should be brought together to discuss the impact. I’m always surprised how these meetings reveal gaps in everyone’s understanding of business processes between departments. To me, this is where IT can shine as the connective tissue within an organization. More than ever, technology forces organizations to better understand and agree on processes — and that’s often well before the subject of supporting technology is even relevant to the conversation.

Use this opportunity to surface the entire process and for everyone to understand the impacts of any change. Improvements to the process very often emerge. IT has suddenly motivated business process optimization.

There is no such thing as too much process documentation

Second, assuming no documentation exists, this is the right time to map the process. If you’re like many organizations, your IT systems grew organically with little emphasis placed on business process design. My guess is that comprehensive, high-quality, current process documentation is uncommon. It’s never too late to start. If you have business stakeholders in a room discussing and agreeing on the current and future process, this is the time to document it. There is a burgeoning market for tools and support to help enable and simplify this work.

Ultimately, documented processes make it easier to build the right software and to make changes with less overhead activities in the future.

The essential roles of business analyst and solutions architect

It’s this emphasis and attendant benefits of understanding and documenting business processes that supports the expanded roles of both the business analyst and solutions architect. These two roles, and having the right amount of capacity for your organization’s demand, will be essential to succeeding with your IT strategy and in growing the business. In many organizations, the business analyst for this work may or may not be in IT, thus further blurring the lines between where IT starts and ends and where business responsibilities start and end.

Perhaps it’s possible that in the not too distant future we’ll look at IT as part of the business and not as a separate entity in the manner it is today. It just might be the increased emphasis on business process management that acts as the catalyst.

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