Intentional Business Process Management

Scott Francis
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Forrester has put out a new report on Accelerating BPM Velocity with the Right Service Provider.

The Challenge

It is a good read. Clay and the other authors start out by pointing out three basic problems with BPM programs at companies they’ve interviewed.

  • If you do BPM badly, you get increasing complexity over time rather than decreasing complexity.  In a sense, this is no different than any other IT investment over time. This is largely a problem of not understanding and managing technical debt, or as it relates to processes, process debt.   While BPM methods and tooling should make it easier to manage technical debt, if you’re going to have a successful BPM program you have to be intentional.  If you’re going to run a successful BPM services practice, you also have to be intentional.  You have to make deliberate decisions and investments in skills and technology.  Don’t take on that debt without realizing what you’re doing and how difficult it will be to pay off later.  And then you have to have the discipline to follow through.
  • Some companies launched BPM projects with faith, but without a plan and strategy – limiting the resulting business value and impact.  Again, success requires not only planting the seeds, but also planning where to plant, and how to nurture seeds to fruition.
  • Companies were challenged to expand adoption – and experienced a great deal of pressure there is for the first project to be a big success – a symptom of BPM hype and the internal selling efforts that went into acquiring BPM technology in the first place.  This is another area where an expert in business process management can guide companies toward their most impactful and profitable outcomes with BPM.

These three challenges outline an overall obstacle to BPM initiatives: technical and business skills within the organization.  Of course, these skills aren’t just in short supply for BPM initiatives – they’re generally in short supply because the majority of a business’ resources are focused squarely on executing and transacting business, rather than planning and improving business.  The same goes for investing in technology.  Forrester’s T-shaped skills matrix is a good way to visualize the skills required and the challenge it presents.  But don’t kid your self that these challenges only exist for BPM projects.

We Follow a Different Path

So far so good.

Where our opinion diverges from Forrester is much the same as where our opinion diverged from Gartner.  Forrester divides up vendors into three categories, and then lists the vendors in each category in a table.  There are a few problems with the table. First, I’d correct some of the vendor placements, not that it really matters that much.  Second, the categories are named and described in misleading terms.  What do I mean by misleading?  The descriptions would imply or advise a company implementing BPM to do exactly the opposite of what they should do.

So let’s break it down:

  • Full Service Provider – “Multi-practice approach, strong focus on linking management consulting aspects of business transformation with BPM suites implementation”
  • Implementation-focused provider – “Primary focus on BPM suite implementation, systems integration, center of excellence enablement, and staff augmentation. Support for multiple BPM suite vendors”
  • Specialist provider – “Niche players that tend to specialize in strategy, solution architecture, or focus on a single BPM suite.  Limited staff augmentation and offshore capabilities.”

Reading this table, I’d think that I should use a full-service provider if I’m just getting started with a BPM program, an implementation-focused provider if I have my strategy and improvement definition covered but don’t know the tooling – and maybe a “specialist” if I really get stuck on something.

This is exactly the opposite of what companies should be doing.  They should start with the specialists.  

When you need brain surgery, you don’t ask a general practitioner to step up and do that work.  Nor an Ear-Nose-Throat (ENT) doctor.  You want a brain surgeon.  Each type of doctor has their place in your healthcare, but you get the right one for the job.  And processes are the vital systems within an organization.  When you need BPM done right, you call the BPM specialists, not the generalists… This is just basic common sense.

Our take on the vendor categories follows…

Providers of Warm Bodies

First off, “Full Service Providers”, are generally like a thin layer of butter spread over a very large piece of toast.  Full Service is not a complement, it means they don’t know who they are and what their mission is, other than to spend their customers’ money.

There is no evidence that their background in multiple practices is a benefit to customers, rather than a complexity of doing business with competing parts of their organizations.  And there is even less evidence that they connect management consulting with business process management and BPM suite implementation.  A better name would be “Warm Body Providers”.  They do have a lot of warm bodies, but even their very best people aren’t motivated to become the best at BPM they can be.  The way to get ahead in these organizations isn’t by being the best at BPM, it is by billing and selling a lot of hours of work for a lot of consultants.

Warm Body Providers don’t even follow industry best practices for software and IT projects, let alone for BPM – there’s no iterative approach, no Agile, no flexibility.  When we see projects by these vendors that have been running for 18 months and the customers haven’t seen a single process end-to-end yet you have to wonder what methodology the Warm Body Providers are running. When we see 9 months of work without working system integrations, we have to wonder why they have a reputation for being good at integrations.  So what is the value of their vaunted methodology expertise if it doesn’t translate into more successful projects? The report doesn’t answer that question.

Worse, Warm Body Providers don’t put BPM experts on your project.  They largely don’t have BPM experts.  They close contracts with clients, and then go about rampaging through LinkedIn attempting to hire or contract the individuals they would need to meet their commitments of numbers to their clients.  They aren’t bringing you the team that has deployed other projects successfully – they’re assembling teams out of groups of people they’ve never worked with before into a largely dysfunctional cost-sink.  Our people get calls all the time from these vendors.  And we get calls as a business all the time too, asking us to help them on projects.

If we believe we can actually impact the way they deliver to the customer, and the cost structure works, we’ll happily help.  But I have to admit that typically, they aren’t culturally capable of handing over the keys on a project.

Lack of Vision Defines Us

The “Implementation-focused providers” are next. They’re guilty of many of the “just-in-time staffing” practices of the Warm Bodies Providers, and at least they don’t try to sell you on strategy and business analysis that they’re not capable of doing any more effectively than the “Full Service” providers.  But this category is really the “Lack of vision” category.  They do implementation, but they can’t take responsibility for success because they don’t develop and informed opinion on how the customer can best leverage BPM.  They’re just there to write the code you told them to write, and you have to take responsibility for the results.  In many cases the customers have to provide the project management and manage down to individual task assignments because the consultants can’t plan on their own.

Lack of Vision providers don’t make intentional investments in BPM skills or technology.  Like the bigger firms, they’re too busy chasing the next quarterly number, for the most part. No time for investing. And unlike Forrester, I don’t see evidence of their center of excellence enablement (other than being a source of relatively affordable consulting bodies for companies’ COE to utilize).

Moreover, they are splintering their focus by taking on several BPM suites for their customers.  They’re not truly experts in any of the products, and all of their products and customers suffer as a result.  Large or small, these firms aren’t growing any faster than the Warm Body Providers, from what we see in the market, and from what we can see from publicly available numbers.  Meanwhile, it is the specialists that are putting up impressive growth numbers.

The Heroes of BPM

Finally, we get to what Forrester refers to as “Specialist” or “Niche” providers.  Niche is the kind of word that Warm Body Providers use to signal to customers and analysts that these are small fly-by-night companies that can’t possibly rise to the occasion for Fortune 500 firms.  But these firms are the heroes of the BPM universe – and they’re the only firms that are worth the consulting rates you pay them.  Specialist should imply the opposite of what niche seems to indicate. Specialist because they are of higher value than the other categories in expertise and impact.  These specialists are likely the only companies that actually assign people to your projects that know what they’re doing – they don’t assign lots of people to your projects that aren’t BPM experts – because they don’t employ people who aren’t BPM experts. New employees have only one goal to aspire to – to join the pantheon of BPM heroes already employed at this firms.

These Hero providers become deep experts on the product or products they support.  They often have consultants or developers on their team that formerly developed the software products and methodologies that their consulting practices depend upon.  For example, at BP3, half of our staff are former employees of Lombardi – one of the premier innovative BPM firms of the 2000’s and purchased by IBM in 2010 to become the crown jewel of IBM BPM in the 2010’s.

The Intentional Hero

In our opinion, what these Hero providers have the opportunity to do is to be intentional.  They have already chosen to focus, which may be the hardest decision for consulting firms to make.  The next step for Hero providers is to intentionally choose their technology investments, for themselves and for their customers.

Only a specialist provider like BP3 would actually invest in the skills and technology to support strategy, solution architecture, and BPM suite implementation under one roof. And it is mastering the T-chart of skills that Forrester outlines, in addition to thoughtful technology investment, that leads to managing complexity effectively.

Which firm would you rather employ for your IBM BPM project-  the consulting firm that wrote the best User Interface framework for IBM BPM on the planet (that also happens to be mobile?) or the consulting firm that has never contributed any technology at all to the IBM BPM ecosystem?  The firm that develops solution assessment tools that put the software vendor’s to shame? Or the firm that doesn’t even know that IBM BPM has a REST API?   Do you want the brain surgeons of BPM, or the general practitioners of IT consulting?

It would be easy to think that BP3 is just lucky.  We happened to write things that turned out to be useful.  But investing in technology is a deliberate process.  We couldn’t afford to invest in technology when we were a motley band of 5 people.  And we couldn’t fund software development efforts without the loyalty of our customers.  We focused on building our business and building our capability – getting ready for the day when we really could make those investments.

BP3 doesn’t just invest money in technology.  We look at how to reduce technical and process debt for projects we’ll undertake in the future.  How to eliminate potholes we’ve experienced in the recent past.  We look at how to make BPM implementation more accessible to our customers.  When we built Brazos 1.0, we resolved major roadblocks for IBM BPM deployments – making it much easier to build great-looking UIs that are also great HTML5 mobile apps.  But we also recognized that we could better integrate Brazos with the Process Designer, reducing friction from the authoring process – and Brazos 2.0 was born.

The Next Generation of Heroes

BP3 might be the only services firm that hires college graduates and teaches them the art of BPM. But we don’t hire very many – we’re very selective for the people with the technical and business acumen to succeed.  We have what you would call an inverted pyramid for experience at BP3.  A lot of really experienced and capable consultants, with just a few folks that are new to BPM, or freshly out of school.  As we grew, we started investing in college recruiting, starting with internships.  It has been a great way to grow new BPM experts, and to share the great institutional memory of BP3 with new BPM converts.

But this isn’t a short-cut to growth.  We first started thinking about college recruiting 3 years ago.  2 years ago we had our first intern.  Last year our first college hire.  This summer was our third round of internships – with college students who won’t enter the workforce for 1-2 more years.  This is a long-term game we’re in, but we’re approaching it with intent to succeed in the long-run, and to manage risk in the long-run.

Intentional Strategy for Creating Value

BP3 also takes a stand on creating business value.  We founded the company with one of the best in the business at unlocking business value with BPM and process improvement techniques – Lance Gibbs.  And our early hires were all consultants who had a foot in the world of process improvement -value stream analysis, six sigma, lean – but also firmly rooted in the world of technology – Java, javascript, HTML, BPMN, WSS, Databases, etc. As we grew the firm, we sought out and hired some of the best people in the business for building value.  These are executives who built great value with BPM in previous jobs, and wanted to come to BP3 and share what they know more widely.

For customers that don’t have a plan and a strategy – they can expect us to challenge them on the subject.  If we don’t believe their first project can be the kind of success that drives BPM adoption, they’ll hear from us about it.  We’re not just here to collect the hourly fee, we’re here to make BPM happen for our customers – and that means paying attention to value, strategy, and planning – as well as execution.

We’re not afraid to call it like we see it because we don’t believe that we have anything to lose by being forthright and taking a stand when we have the data and the values to back us up.  Our customers have told us over and over again, that they prefer us this way.

So when you’re looking for help accelerating your BPM program with service partners – start with the heroes – that’s what I do when staff a project.  There’s no reason to start with the farm teams, when what you really need is a successful outcome.  Don’t just let BPM happen to you and your company. Be intentional. Choose your partners and programs well.