The question is addressed to prospective sponsors of BPM projects, i.e. top managers and/or business owners. Unfortunately I don’t expect there are many of them reading this blog so we’ll hardly get the answer.
The question arose after another meeting with a prospect customer led by young, ambitious and most importantly, knowledgeable manager. Isn’t it great? I’m happy to meet an educated top manager who doesn’t need a story about business processes and BPM.
Yet there is a problem: the leaders of this type tend to specify a solution rather than a business issue. We expect to be called to deal with a problem and propose a solution, but it turns out that they consider us as “programmers”.
What we’d like to hear from a prospect and what we have:
|We would like to hear||We are hearing|
|As the result of poorly regulated cross-functional interactions during presale we either miss a price offer deadline or suffer from low margins. Sales, engineering and manufacturing have conflicting goals and this negatively affects the team spirit of the company. I can and should help in promoting the most important deals but I can’t participate in every one neither I have an understanding of which one needs to be backed up.||We need a docflow system for contracts tracking.|
|We need an infrastructure granting a new insurance product to be released in two months instead of current six. It will lead to the advantage over competitors and significant increase of market share.||Can you develop software to manage contracts insuring risk of real estate deals?|
|I want to minimize the need for the customers of our service center to phone call a manager. They should be able to enroll for regular maintenance via the internet as well as track the work status, obtain the invoice and pay by a credit card. We expect to attract the most advanced, influencing and paying customers this way.||We need web-based software for managers processing customer’s request for regular maintenance.|
|In accordance with the Theory of Constraints the performance of our company is determined by the performance of the weakest link which is the production line. Hence we must develop the planning and scheduling system which will maximize the production line load and exclude delivery dates failures. A combination of MRP-II and APS algorithms should be implemented.||Please develop an integration bridge between our accounting system and the software calculating production schedules, and also a piece of software importing weekly plans from Excel.|
It seems that customers need our hands rather than our brains.
Interestingly, the same leaders agree that there is lack of understanding between business and IT which is bad and should be eliminitated. This is actually a cornerstone of BPM: “bridging the gap” (or recently “closing the gap”) between business and IT. But look - it should be bridged from both sides! Not only IT should go beyond the “iron” and embrace business objectives and business processes but also business should stop considering anyone knowledgeable in corporate systems as a “programmer” writing whatever software a customer wishes.
A top manager expecting nothing from a consultant because he has never led a similar company (preferably exactly the same). A banker trusting only other bankers’ opinions and considering IT as pure service function. A business owner stressed by applying to a consultant like Tony Soprano applying to a psychoanalyst: God save from business partners or competitors to know - they would consider it a weakness.
It’s up to you gentlemen but that’s wrong view of a specialist’s role. (Of course there are incompetent and unscrupulous consultants but this is a separate subject.) Final decision (and responsibility for it!), surely must be yours. But often you take the problem down to execution and do not share root problems with analysts and consultants and you are not ready to hear their opinions and consider their suggestions.
One may ask: what’s the right approach to a specialist? Let’s consider the analogy: I’m going to build a house. I have a vision - I know what it should be in terms of functionality. I know the style I want (modern Greek Mykonos style, if anyone cares). I have some ideas on planning and decoration. I am able to make some drawings in Archicad. Yet I do not go further than sketches aimed solely to explain my ideas to the architect.
Why do I appeal to the architect? Because he’s a professional - yes, but it’s too abstract. Firstly because I know for sure: from ten of my great ideas there will be one or two awful ones. Professional would not miss them because, thanks to education and experience gained, he developed the ability to anticipate the final result while looking at the early sketch. Secondly, because he has a systematic knowledge not only of design and space planning, but also of modern materials and construction technologies. Therefore he is able to generate an idea that would never come into my mind simply because I’m not aware it’s possible.
I do not always agree with what the architect proposes. Sometimes he does not agree with my choice. But I always listen to him with due respect and if insisting on my point I explicitly accept full responsibility for the decision. Because if I do not he would consider me a stupid client and this is what I want the least.
Returning to BPM matters: it’s absolutely the same! Here too a creative individual is vulnerable. Here too not arguing with the customer means giving him a bad service. One can only rely on what resists! If pressed too much, a consultant will shrug in his mind and continue working “as you wish.” I personally would rather get out of the project, but are there many who can afford it?
BPM is a tricky thing. For comparison, when it comes to implementing ERP, it’s easier for supplier or consultant to make the customer accept his point of view: “This system can do this but can’t do that; if you want a customization it will cost that money. We know better how to implement our system and our implementation methodology was verified by hundreds of companies around the world.” BPM means bringing business processes to desired state without compromises and this produces customer’s illusion that everything is under his control - doesn’t he knows his business best after all? Hence he can dictate how and what to do.
Of course he knows the business. But he doesn’t know “modern construction technologies.” As an example, a potential customer requested a proposal for a “turnkey BPM system” from us at the meeting last week. Let me stress out: he is an intelligent and educated man. He simply isn’t aware that there are other ways of development and implementation rather than turnkey, i.e. good old “waterfall”. We had to explain him that there is more advanced development methodology called “agile” and that the project carried out in accordance with requirements that do are not changing during the project is anything but BPM. And that having gone down this path, it is guaranteed to come the same destination others came before, that is, the automation of not fully understood or far from being optimal business processes. He listened to us with visible unbelief. He wrote down the word “agile” - let’s see how it will go for him.
The leader may also lack the view distance and systematic approach. He may be fully busy with a single business process which is the major trouble at the moment. I am not a supporter of many-months efforts aimed at documenting business processes six levels deep, resulting in “analysis paralysis.” But not spending at least a week to systematically analyze company’s value chain and to identify existing bottlenecks and potential improvements (so-called gap analysis) means falling into another extreme. Sometimes the root of the problem is not in the process under consideration but in the one it launches or which launches this one.
We had a brief exchange with Gary Comeford at his blog: “Who’s running your process project - The Chicken or the Pig?” Gary stated that without senior management involvement a BPM project has no chances. This is very true indeed. Further he distinguishes between 1) an involvement, when a leader is acting as sponsor - makes a decision to allocate the budget and accepts the results, and 2) active participation - when a leader is focused on the project and is committed to it. According to Gary, the first option is more common but the second is preferable. May be, but not when you’re dealing with a leader who tends to dictate a solution rather specify a problem to be solved. If such individual is involved as a sponsor the project has a chance; if he actively participates then I’m afraid not. Gary made a valuable point on the matter: responsibility and expertise aren’t the same.
A paradoxical situation occurs: if the consultant is less competent than the sponsor then he is not needed. But let’s assume a consultant is more qualified than the customer. Is it easy for the latter to accept a decision from someone else on a condition that he himself is deeply involved into the problem? So at the end of the day a weak consultant is of no value but a great consultant is not needed either!
The problem of gaining the confidence of a top manager and the dilemma - to argue with him or do what he says - are known to any business consultant. In this regard, what flavor of consulting are we talking about? I would suggest three levels:
- IT consulting. A consultant should understand what business customers say in their language and retell it to the developer in his (IT) language with minimal distortion. The understanding of business language at this level is minimal - it can be compared to some CVs statements of foreign language knowledge: “Russian, can read with a help of dictionary.”
- Managerial consulting. A consultant working at this level must not only understand but also talk to business in his own language to express ideas and give suggestions. This is consistent with “Russian, fluent.” But these experts are usually weak in IT and therefore they are almost the same “foreigners” for a programmer as business users.
- Business consulting. This assumes talking as equal to equal with business owners and top managers to be able to get to the root of problems and propose innovative solutions. Business language is indeed a native language for a business consultant but it’s exceptionally rare for him to have IT language skills. Probably it’d be an exception similar to Nabokov who was recognized as a writer both in Russian and English.
A business analysts’ role usually assumes operating on the first level, see the article on the subject: Paul Harmon, “Are You a Business Analyst?“.
BPM consultant armed with appropriate methodology and tools feels free both at first and second levels. On one hand, he discusses a process diagram with business users, suggests improvements, discovers and corrects mistakes. On the other hand, he gives appropriate comments on the process diagram to developers, in particular on the process interaction with corporate systems.
That is why using a BPM consultant as a “programmer” (for the first level tasks) is using only half of his abilities.
Managerial consulting answers the question how to “do things right”, business consulting is about “doing the right things.” It’s probably too much to expect a BPM consultant being fully professional on the third level yet he should be able to perceive the information coming from this level. It assumes that business is willing to share such information, i.e. it needs not only our hands but also brains.