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Chicken, Egg, Process, Tool

A question often asked is how to sequence business process improvement initiatives relative to selection of a supporting application. General consensus from the customer’s perspective seems to be that process design should be undertaken first, followed by selecting the tool that best aligns to the resulting processes. The logic: We don’t want processes to be dictated to us by an application.

As a chicken that has been on both sides of the road, so to speak, I certainly have a deep appreciation for that viewpoint — no one wants to find their business needs compromised by software limitations. But, I have also laid a few eggs in the past by being a stubborn and myopic do-it-yourself customer, and my stance has been further tempered by implementation experience and best practice R&D the last eight years.

Certainly, in a perfect world, in-house staff would develop highly tailored processes specific to your unique objectives and the maturity level of your organization. Then, you would select an application, which would be seamlessly integrated into your processes at the touch of a button, and without a hint of compromise. But, to borrow from one of our customer tag lines, we don’t live in a perfect world, and that’s why you have vendors.

It’s also important to recognize that in today’s heavily automated business environments, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the tool and the process when all is said and done. With all that as a starting point, let me share a vendor perspective on the question, and make a case for why process development and tool configuration should be approached as an iterative, partnered effort.

Take stock of your process expertise

When embarking on any process improvement initiative, you should begin by analyzing the depth and breadth of organic process design experience that you can bring to bear on the given subject area. While I don’t want to infer that organizations aren’t competent in process improvement, you only know what you know, and you need to be realistic about the depth and availability of in-house expertise.

You are better off than most if you have a process architect in your company that has personal experience developing a particular process two or three times in a few different organizations. More likely, this level exceeds the collective experience of the entire process improvement team. While you can read and research and go to conferences for a more educated perspective on the situation, it will do little to bolster actual experience. The question is; is this enough? If you choose to just go with whatever limited experience you have, it may not get you what you really need, and could cost you plenty if it ends up simply propagating past process design issues that you need to alleviate.

Standards, alignment, and when compromise is your friend

The need for significant compromise is most common in organizations that choose to rely exclusively on internal expertise to redesign their processes. That usually indicates they have been self-reliant about a lot of things for a long time, which can have consequences.

When vendors design products, they do so to accommodate the widest possible interpretations of the most popular and successful methods of doing business that their target customers employ. This means that the majority of our customers do not have to make compromises of a magnitude that jeopardizes their success or objectives. There will always be matters of preference, technical considerations and differences in how to go about it, but vendors cannot stay on top for long by repeatedly failing to support the critical requirements of the customer base.

The reason this is important for customers to recognize is that if you find yourself routinely asking products to do things that the leading vendors can’t accommodate, it could be an indicator that you are trying to accomplish something that is out where the buses don’t run compared to accepted best practice. This should constitute a big red flag to the selection committee and process design team.

You could be that rare organization that is so unique or complex, compared to the rest of the modern business world, that your requirements have not yet been addressed. More often it is an indicator of what I call the Galapagos Effect — a condition where the organization becomes isolated because it lacks participation in industry forums and does not consider other sources of outside ideas. The result is that processes tend to evolve into strange animals over an extended period of time.

By not using outside support when the time comes for redesign, you risk continued divergence from industry standards. Even if these processes are working for you, when it comes to finding a supporting application, you may be constantly forced to either heavily customize off-the-shelf applications, build your own, or do without — all of which are expensive and frustrating propositions. Like a carnival sideshow figure, a peculiar process can have great personality and be loved by its mother, but it will still draw concerned stares from the town folk and be difficult to dress off the rack.

Independent process consultants

If you are determined to develop you processes independent of a tool, and realize you need assistance, you will most likely go to a business consulting service to obtain more experience. Many of these are highly respected and very good at what they do — but most of them cannot maintain the needed depth and range of contemporary tool expertise on all the latest releases of leading software applications.

We are in such a cycle of innovation and competition these days that tool design completely turns over about every two years, so an independent consultant’s past application experience becomes quickly outdated. Besides, you haven’t settled on any one product yet, anyway.

Bottom line, application-agnostic processes inherently limit the level of detail you can initially develop. Configuration and workflow automation details of the selected tool will likely surface a lot of considerations that haven’t been addressed, and they may force some adjustment of the original process design.

I’m not saying using a third-party consultant is a bad approach to take — just be aware that process development will most likely be a two-phase effort, and you will still have to employ the services of the application vendor to provide technology expertise. Make sure you factor that into your budget and time line.

The case for parallel development with a full service solution provider

A good solution provider will be able to supply a flexible and full featured software product, as well as provide broad industry experience and a significant amount of product-specific process development and adoption expertise. For example, at the company I work for, most of our business consultants have likely been through where you are today at some corporation, in addition to personally leading numerous product deployments, including process design. They are bona fide Crouching Chicken, Hidden Process Ninjas.

Finally, the most compelling consideration that isn’t often recognized is the degree of process innovation inherent in today’s product design and support. While customers fret over concerns that they will have to compromise too much, they may fail to appreciate that application vendors have the greatest exposure to latest approaches on process design and efficiency — specifically, what works and what doesn’t.

This means we can suggest new approaches and insights into how best to accomplish process improvement and integration that were probably never even on the radar of the in-house team. Best of all, they are in tool-specific context, so there is less potential for friction between process and technology. This asset often far outweighs any perceived liability of tool compromises.

Recognize that processes and tools are interdependent. An iterative approach to process design, tool configuration and joint validation often results in the best balance between leveraging latest innovations and highly functional processes. It also allows you to perform these steps in parallel rather than in series, shortening the overall project.

No one knows your business and its needs better than you do, but a good vendor adds specialized competencies that few independent consultants or in-house staff can provide. By combining the two, there is greater potential for quicker, lower risk, and more cost effective results.

So, the next time you are evaluating how to approach a process improvement initiative, consider looking for a full service vendor that can provide not only software and technical expertise but also be a trusted process design and integration partner. Take as much time and care looking at these capabilities as you do software functionality, and insist that they come from a single source. This will ensure alignment and avoid your being caught in the middle between the consulting group and software provider, pointing fingers at each other if conflicts arise.

Hey, if this sounds self-serving, it’s because I know we do this right and I’ve seen it done poorly a lot. Besides, if your Mom and Dad had told you this stuff, as you were growing up, you wouldn’t have to hear it off the virtual street from the likes of me!

Terry Doerscher has more than 24 years experience in practical process development, project management, PMO, business strategy, and work and resource management in construction, nuclear and IT fields. Mr. Doerscher is the Chief Solution Architect for Planview, an Austin-based software company dedicated to creating project portfolio management solutions. Mr. Doerscher also writes a blog, Enterprise Navigator, where he frequently discusses issues pertaining to portfolio management and IT,


Mike Morton

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