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The Next Frontier Of Operational Excellence

By Jacob Ukelson, D.Sc., chief technology officer of ActionBaseUnstructured, ad-hoc business processes are a bit of an oxymoron -- how can a process be unstructured and still be a process?

Unstructured, ad-hoc business processes are starting to get a lot of press lately, but are also a bit of an oxymoron -- how can a process be unstructured and still be a process?  Well it turns out that most human-centric business processes are exactly that.

As opposed to a manufacturing process which must be completely defined end-to-end to be viable -- or even business processes like CRM or ERP which are well understood enough to be considered structured -- it turns out that an increasingly large proportion of work within organizations of all sizes is actually unstructured and human-centric.

These human processes consist of people interacting through loosely defined, tacit and dynamic processes to get their work done, usually through meetings, email and documents (e.g. spreadsheets).

So what defines a human process? It isn’t just any back and forth email exchange between two colleagues, but rather recurring work that has a more or less a standard framework for the work that needs to get done.

The main difference between a structured process and a human process is that a human process can change every time it is executed based on the environment, the needs of the business, and the involved parties decisions and expertise. Sort of like a structured process where almost every instance is an exception.  Human processes are by their very essence:

•Unstructured -- There is a standard framework for the process and how to achieve the intended result, but each case is handled separately and requires human understanding (for both decisions and flow) as part of the process. There is not enough standardization between instances of the process that allows for a formal, complete and rigorous description of the process end-to-end.

•Dynamic -- The flow of the process changes on a case-by-case basis, based on available information and human decisions. A flow can also change while the process is being executed based on new information, or a changing environment.

•Interdependent -- The activities of the humans in the process are interdependent and cannot be done completely in parallel.

•Extended -- Require more than a single interaction between humans to be completed.

•Borderless -- Can involve anyone that is relevant -- whether it’s within or outside the group/team/project or even organizational borders.

These human processes are found everywhere in the manufacturing industry. For example safety audits and investigations are typically handled through a combination of human expertise, meetings, spreadsheet checklists and email. This makes end-to-end tracking of the process a nightmare, effectively killing any hope of systematically deriving lessons learned.

Another example is orchestrating the complex set of interconnected tasks needed to successfully open a new plant. Since this requires compliance with internal guidelines, as well as external regulations and agencies, once again the “standard” tools used to run the process are spreadsheets, documents and email -- effectively making process management a completely manual and labor intensive activity with no IT support.

If you don’t think these ad-hoc human processes are actually how work gets done in your organization, just shut down the email system for a day and see how much work gets stalled (and if you find it really doesn’t impact your business, leave it off).  Your aim should not be to try and rigorously define and automate these processes (an impossible task), but rather to allow these processes to continue as usual while providing  just enough structure to monitor and manage them, making sure not to overdo it and strangle them.

Managing these human processes has clear benefits for the business. It provides visibility where none existed before -- Can you easily find the current status of a critical request for proposal (RFP)? Is everything humming along smoothly or is there a roadblock that you need to handle before it is too late? 

Managing these processes properly will also allow your company to prosper in the increasingly regulated age that is upon us.  For example, if asked, could you find out, right now, where the execution of your last board meeting decisions stand?  Is there an important decision not being acted upon because it is stuck in the pipeline? If so, where?

Another benefit of human process management is that exception handling can become much more efficient and turned into a learning experience for the organization. Even the most rigorously defined structured process has exceptions, and needs to involve people to handle those exceptions.

For example, one Microsoft survey looked at B2B Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) purchase order transactions at a small business and found that though there was one standard process, there were 65 (!) different variations depending on the nature of the order. These exceptions are handled outside the system, usually via email, which make them difficult to manage, monitor and track -- and any organizational learning that could have taken place from a better understanding of how exceptions are handled, is lost.

The key to managing human processes is to provide a best practice-based tool that is:

•familiar to users and lets them remain in their standard email and document environments
•flexible and easily modified by the people involved in the process
•able to provide the status of the process at any time
•able to retrieve historical information about process execution and outcomes

These requirements are the basis of the emerging technology of Human Process Management (HPM).  HPM systems are complementary to BPM (Business Process Model), CRM (Customer Relationship Management), SFA (Sales Force Automation) and other out-of-the-box or bespoke process management tools which focus on managing structured business processes.

Rather than requiring that the IT department build an explicit end-to-end model of the process to be managed (like for BPM), HPM systems focus on the tracking, monitoring and management of unstructured, extremely dynamic human-to-human interactions in their natural environment. They also provide an organizational system-of-record for the unstructured, ad-hoc, human processes that make the business run.

ActionBase provides Human Process Management Solutions that enable businesses to manage their business critical processes. For more information, please visit