Originally published on Intellyx.com
I was mesmerized.
I was sitting in a training class, learning how to use a business process modeling tool. The instructor had walked us through the relationship between the tool and business process model and notation (BPMN) standard, and now he was showing us how we could use the modeler to do process simulations to play out what-if scenarios.
The ability to see the impact of changes to a process and its respective efficiency gains or losses was mesmerizing.
I loved the power that business process management (BPM) offered to efficiency and optimization-driven organizations — which, of course, was all of them.
Even then, almost twenty years ago, however, I could see the high level of overhead that it involved.
But I remember thinking to myself that the benefits outweighed the costs, “As long as organizations create value by improving efficiency, BPM will reign supreme.”
Little did I know just how right I was and that it would ironically lead BPM efforts to fall from grace as the nature of value creation shifted.
Nor did I see that the same forces that would lead to its downfall would also lead it to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes and enter into a period of renaissance. Well, maybe.
The Rise and Fall of BPM
In this era, it was all about mass producing products for a mass market. That paradigm meant that the more efficiently you could source raw materials and then produce, distribute, market, and sell the resulting goods, the more money you would make.
Efficiency begat value.
And if you could not model, monitor, and manage a process, you would never improve its efficiency.
Therefore, enterprises invested vast sums of money and human hours to define, model, and document the operational business processes that organizations used to function.
Some of these efforts, particularly the earliest of them, yielded precisely what was promised — massive gains in efficiency and optimization.
But over time, and as organizations grew to be more complex and diverse, many BPM efforts became exercises in creative writing in which no one actually did the work in the ways the models depicted. In other cases, they became the modern-day equivalent of cave drawings: accurate representations of how things looked at some point in the past, but of little relevance to current operational functions.
It was a tale of diminishing returns.
Increased complexity and a more rapid pace of change meant that the cost of building and maintaining detailed business process models grew exponentially higher. At the same time, the efficiency and optimization gains the efforts delivered became incrementally smaller.
Eventually, many organizations began to sideline their broad-based efforts and leveraged them only sparingly. The big wins had been won.
BPM, they felt, had become too expensive and too bureaucratic to be worth the effort, most of the time.
And then, the world changed.
Digital Transformation Transforms the Discipline
This may be hard to fathom, but so-called digital transformation has only been a thing for the last six or seven years.
Once enterprise leaders got past its buzziness, they realized that it was about more than just doing another technology project. Instead, it was about executing fundamental business transformation.
More to the point, organizations figured out that they needed to transform their business and operating models to deliver a differentiated customer experience if they were to avoid becoming a victim of digital disruption — and, hopefully, to become disrupters themselves.
There was just one problem.
To execute a meaningful business transformation, you must first have a deep understanding of your current as-is state. Without this essential knowledge, organizations were blindly running transformation efforts, risking disruption far worse than anything an erstwhile competitor could have hoisted upon them.
As enterprise leaders have recognized the considerable risks associated with these sorts of blind transformation efforts (which is most of them), the BPM discipline has suddenly found new, strategic relevance.
After all, you cannot begin to transform that which you do not understand.
And as organizations undertake significant business transformation efforts, they are finding that years of ever-growing procedural, organizational, and technological complexity have created a business environment that is anything but clear.
The core practices that have long been the foundation of the BPM discipline are proving to offer just the cross-functional visibility and transparency that enterprise leaders need as they seek to execute their now-imperative transformational efforts.
Achieving this aim, however, will demand that BPM practitioners and tool vendors embrace this new mandate and adapt to the business needs of this future.
The Intellyx Take: A Renaissance in the Making
None of this is to say that the traditional role of BPM is of no value.
It is not that organizations no longer require efficiency and optimization. Instead, these qualities have become table stakes. Every organization must operate at world-class levels of productivity, or it will not survive.
But having a more efficient supply chain no longer provides a competitive advantage.
Therefore, organizations will continue to leverage traditional approaches to BPM to deliver and maintain operational efficiency
— but that’s not what will drive its renewed strategic relevance.
Instead, those organizations that leverage the BPM discipline and its supporting tools as a transformational enabler will be those that usher in the BPM renaissance.
This revitalization, however, will only occur if the BPM sector understands it for what it is and abandons the same old storylines.
This BPM renaissance will not be about enterprise executives finally “seeing the light” or coming to realize the unsung benefits of process management. While the benefits of BPM may, in fact, be under-appreciated, the key to its newfound relevance will be its ability to increase the success rate and impact of business and digital transformation efforts.
The BPM community must embrace this newfound role and reorient its practices, messaging, and technologies to support it.
But is the discipline so firmly bound to its roots to make this transition impossible?
Many BPM practitioners have tied their identity to the dogmatic application of the discipline. They seem more interested in lamenting a lack of recognition than in embracing this renaissance of strategic applicability.
I hope I’m wrong.
The stakes for the enterprise are too high.
Enterprise leaders need a reality-based view of how their organizations operate and the complex interrelationships between processes, organizational functions, and the technologies that support them. They need the ability to dynamically monitor their organizational and process state as they transform. And they need the ability to explore what-if scenarios as they adapt to rapidly changing market pressures.
Without these capabilities, organizations will be flying blind — and the results will not be pretty. The good news is that there is no discipline better suited than BPM to deliver them to the enterprise — as long as its community will accept and embrace its coming renaissance.
© 2020, Intellyx, LLC. Intellyx publishes the weekly Cortex and Brain Candy newsletters, and advises business leaders and technology vendors on their digital transformation strategies. Intellyx retains editorial control over the content of this document. At the time of writing, no parties mentioned in this story are Intellyx customers.