Process Versus Networks
Not sure how many people remember the days before branded process engineering like Lean/BPM/SCM. It was the early/mid eighties. Today, in 2011, people still seem to believe wholesale process engineering is a default business activity. It is not.
Before the quality revolution in the 1980s, most large organizations organization were vertically integrated and organized functionally. If you mentioned 'cross-functional' teams, fishbones, quality circles, or value chains,’ you were derided and run-out-of-town. There was no use of the Greek alphabet, six or otherwise, or kung fu terms like black belt. If you read every page of Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance by Michael Porter, you may have been labeled a troublemaker…
That was then, this is now. There’s been a lot of water over the dam. Today, the process management archetype is not only winding down, it is plainly not good for a lot of 21st century business.
Note: Competitive Advantage is still strongly recommended. Among the best business books of the last 50 years. Be prepared, its 592 pages!
The current clinical, overbearing preoccupation with process originated in the 20th Century w/Taylorism and later Fordism. Remember, process is great for industrial activities, chemical engineering, supply chains and natural resource refining, for example. It gained steam with the quality movement and the new found fluency in information technology for business.
Clinical preoccupation with process is a classic organizational anti-pattern.
For today’s modern knowledge-based organizations and complex, network-based businesses, process engineering is not only useless, it is harmful. It is because these organizations are no longer ordered, mechanical systems. Transaction cost economics (TCE) has given way to the knowledge-based view (KBV) of the enterprise. Innovation, growth and cash flow inhabit complex networks, not flowcharts.
In many settings today, just forget about process, wall it off, if possible. This may be tantamount to blasphemy, but it is critical to moving forward in the 21st Century.
We are fast entering the network age. The social reorientation of work and wealth is in full swing. Systems thinking, network analysis, social media and complexity science is critical to master today’s business ecosystems. Often, process is not.
BTW, did you ever notice what happens when a process, like a supply chain, goes awry, fails? PEOPLE always (re)organize around the process activity, avoiding it. They mobilize their normal and dependable networks. They do what is intuitive and natural? Gasp! They embrace their complex social networks. Of course, it is how all the work REALLY gets done, of course.
The network perspective is a great ‘a-ha!’ moment for people. See: Apollo 8 or When Sally Met Networks.
Just because process is a good way to turn crude oil into gasoline, it is not a good way to lead customer support activities.
Finally, let’s also sound the alarm around the utter farce of ‘change management.’ Avoid this specious notion at all cost. In complex adaptive organizations change cannot be managed, only served. Develop conditions that embrace mutation, emergence and self-organization. Focus on people and outcome. Let go of rigid mandates, edicts, inquisitions, mechanics and foolish consequences.
Retire command and control (management). Rather coordinate and cultivate (leadership).
20th Century process engineering and change management have a place – they belong in business history books and museums. They do not belong in modern, knowledge-based, network-centric, future-focused 21st Century business.