Top-down business process design is getting a bit of a bad rap at the moment, and deservedly so, say some. There’s a new meme in town called social business that says we should design enterprise systems around the people that use them, rather than trying to make the people work to the constraints of the systems they’ve been saddled with. A couple of blog posts this past week caught my eye particularly, and in turn led to a wealth of other writing in the groove of this line of thinking. Here’s a quick tour.
I’ll start with a discovery I made near the end of my researches, a superbly thought-provoking essay by David Gray entitled the The Connected Company. Obviously that’s a title that’s going to resonate with the writer of a blog called The Connected Web. It was my fellow Enterprise Irregular Dion Hinchcliffe who pointed me in Gray’s direction, and who succinctly sums up his “viewpoint that businesses can’t be treated as machines, as much as some try to, but are more like living organisms and we need to treat them that way.” In Gray’s own words:
“You have to put your strategy into people if you want to get results. And today, thanks to social technologies, we finally have the tools to manage companies like the complex organisms they are. Social Business Design is design for companies that are made out of people … It’s not about design for control so much as design for emergence. You can’t control a complex system, but you can manage its growth, and there are a lot of things you can do that will position it for success.”
Hinchcliffe concludes his comments on Gray with another swipe at those top-down process designers: “I fully expect that management theory in the next 5 years will look a lot more like his thinking and less about hierarchy, org charts, and out-dated, mechanistic business process ‘optimization’.”
There’s plenty more food for thought in Hinchcliffe’s post, which reports from sessions of the Social Business Summit 2011, which his (and Gray’s) consultancy Dachis Group runs. A resonant line from Salesforce.com’s JP Rangaswami, for example, that “we have meticulously engineered the act of being social, out of business.” Also a couple of key ideas in the application of social business from leading thinker John Hagel (as reported by Hinchcliffe):
“1) ‘Exceptions are the shadow economies of firms today’ and [provide] fertile ground for social business solutions, which thrive in an exception-driven environment, and 2) his advice to start social business ‘on the edge. The core of businesses have antibodies that are effective at throwing off and resisting change’.”
That advice chimes with the findings of a recent Deloitte report, Social Software for Business Performance, which I came across thanks to a blog post by another Enterprise Irregular member and Dachis Group consultant, Susan Scrupski.
The Deloitte report highlights exception handling as the main area where social business initiatives deliver quick payback: “Employees need tools that enable them to navigate organizational boundaries, connect to the right people and accelerate exception resolution … Social software, applied against the problem of exception handling, can directly and measurably impact operating metrics and improve business performance.”
Deloitte recommends placing the focus of efforts on these pain points in order to achieve demonstrable results, rather than trying to achieve widespread adoption right out of the gate. Or as Scrupski puts it in her own blog post on the findings:
“… the adoption story is much less about the technology than it is about the organizational dynamics required to rewire the culture.” It’s more than just cat-herding, she reports one member said at an Adoption 2.0 Council event: “These are not cats we’re herding; they’re Tigers, and they bite!”
There was another sideswipe against prescriptional process design to relish, too: “the folks who are critical of the adoption effort required are not particularly proficient in working socially in the first place,” she wrote, “and cling to the world they know which is process-oriented and rooted in the industrialization (machining) of the enterprise.”
Instead of designing from the top down, these consultants are arguing for rebuilding enterprises from the bottom up — starting with the people who actually get things done on the ground.