Most IT-businesses and their IT-management are looking into ways to Industrialize. They aim for less cost, higher productivity , meaning that less people can achieve a certain amount of throughput and ensuring the quality of the work performed is independent of the people and ideally enable an untrained person to perform the work needed. But honestly this is not only the aim of IT its also the aim for the business aren’t we not all looking for a way to improve the revenue / cost ratio?
So we analyze to dead the processes, decision points and try to formalize and order the activities in such way that parts can be automated and for the remaining tasks ensure that the people follow the process (the famous process police). So we modeled development processes (waterfall SDM, RUP), business process (BPEL) and introduced even tools for it to automate tasks and guide us (or enforce) for example Rational tooling (or Jazz) and Business Process Engines (Oracle Fusion, BEA Aqualogic, IBM Process Server, Tibco, Cordys, etc.).
In fact what we do is separating the people (users, developers) from the business when they are actually really the business. People are in fact put last, and that creates the problem for both business and IT. Putting people first (employees, customers, developers) would make a world of difference.
Somewhere I have read (forgive me not being able to make a reference) ”a business process is a series of steps designed to produce a product or service for a customer.” To me this is oversimplification and I believe more in the statement “Not the individual task or process is important but only the outcome.” that Hammer made in his book "Reengineering the Corporation" (yes, I knew this one). To me it makes a lot more sense and leads to the question: “Is it even possible to analyze rigid processes to achieve a certain business goal?” I doubt it.
Industrialization means loss of "Agility" which in some cases is not bad at all. Most Workflow processes are in fact simple business / manufacturing processes that misses the dynamics of true business processes which are much more complex and dynamic and cannot be modeled without simplification. Did you read the previous sentence with full attention? Henry Ford’s "assembly line" is the best known form of a moving assembly line and everyone knows it from his limitation to produce only cars in BLACK. Modeling it in one of the common BPM tools is not a problem and we can even simulate and monitor.
Processes are much more complex and full of dynamics and they demand another approach that respect & handle the influence of the people on it. As an analogy I introduce the concept of the Car Navigation. You are at a certain point, you have a goal to reach a destination and parameterize how you want to reach it (fast, shortest, highway). The Navigation system needs a context (the proper map), needs to know the traffic rules and get constantly input like current position, traffic jams, road blocks (events) that change its state and triggers recalculation of the route. Me as a user often neglect the instruction and the Navigation system adapts to me by recalculating and showing me the consequences in time. Isn’t this how (automated) processes should work. Not pre-defined and ordered steps with conditions but goal oriented (as Hammer said) and constantly assessing the current state and react on events.
This brings me to the subject of "agility". We need agility to serve as good as it gets the business goals but we will never get agility from tools that rely on modeling of the real world. Agility is a capability of a living being that a computer infrastructure can never poses. Agile manager and employees create agile processes with or without tools and not the other way around.
To conclude, don’t let processes and tools put our people last! It’s them that allow us to be agile and to achieve our business goals while improving the revenue / cost ratio. Use your common sense and don’t get blown away by all those vendors that want to sell their Tools by simplifying the business processes so that they become Workflow.