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Putting your business into social gear for process improvement

Why BPM is better with friends

Mihnea_GaleteanuMihnea Galeteanu, Toronto, Canada

Chief Storyteller -IBM Blueworks Live, IBM Software Group

Soon after we moved into our new house and out of a one-bedroom apartment, my 3 1/2-year-old proud owner of an entire brand-spanking new room informed me that he’ll be having his daycare friends over to show them his “property.” This was not about “sharing,” but rather about the fact that everything is experienced much more intensely when friends are around – even, or maybe especially, at that age. This is the primal desire that social networking has tapped into and, I like to believe, one of the basic tenets of a social business.

While the concept of social business is still in its infancy and often misunderstood for Social Media++, IBM has been trying to understand what it means to be one for quite some time (link resides outside of Without claiming to have all the answers, we’ve taken a stab at defining a social business as one that embraces networks of people (employees, customers, partners) to create business value by accelerating decision making, strengthening business processes, and increasing innovation that matters*. The emphasis here is on creating value, and that is an important distinction because simply adopting a piece of technology that allows a group of employees to update their status or share links does not a social business make.

Social practitioner Laurie Buczek put it best (link resides outside of when she commented that, “The big failure of social business is a lack of integration of social tools into the collaborative workflow.” It is indeed the workflow, the set of activities in which you and I are engaged on a daily basis, that creates business value. Socializing outside of the workflow is simply inviting your daycare friends over to show them your new room. Fun, perhaps, but of little value (especially if you’re stuck cleaning up the mess afterwards).

Which brings us full circle to why talk social business in an IBM WebSphere® software context. WebSphere knows workflow. Our clients are using the language of the business process and our Business Process Management (BPM) technologies day in and day out to create lasting business value. With the rise of social business technologies we have the opportunity to engage and empower employees across the organization to participate in exercises in process improvement. Sandy Kemsley, a BPM practitioner and industry analyst, highlights four areas where synergies between social networking and BPM stand the best chance at improving the process of process improvement:

With so many organizations being at different BPM maturity levels, the common denominator among all of them and the area that’s probably most ripe for social innovation is process discovery and documentation, with the process event stream being tucked underneath it as probably the best incarnation of “social meets BPM.” Going back to the early days of process discovery, we can all think of sessions during which we were stuck in a room for what seemed like forever with what seemed like the entire organization capturing one process with sticky notes on a whiteboard. Collaboration in this context is instinctual and it doesn’t have to be learned.

What has changed is that the one room has become seven offices spread around the globe, and the one process is now thousands involving customers, partners, suppliers and countless channels and systems. There’s not enough whiteboard, sticky notes or hours in a day to do this endeavor justice. Many organizations are still giving the team consisting of a handful or so of process analysts a crack at solving this by traveling the world over and over again interviewing and capturing the insights from all the stakeholders, only to discover that by the time they finished documenting the processes, they’ve already changed. Take it from me: they are tired! They’re more than tired; they’re fed up!

As Sandy Kemsley puts it, a social business benefits from “distributing co-creation across the value chain” when it engages in collaborative process discovery. The direct consequence of making process discovery a social exercise is that we’re giving everyone, regardless of role or background, a voice in improving the processes impacting their daily work. However, as with most things social, it is the indirect consequences that are far-reaching.

First, after diverse input is captured on a centralized platform, the organizational brain starts taking shape to the point where every major decision about the direction of the organization goes through a vetting process, or what I call a “process jamming” session. All of a sudden, after socializing process discovery, change stops happening in a vacuum. It is put to the test of hundreds of pairs of eyes. People feel empowered and, more importantly, responsible to speak up, or rather type. For the freedom fighters, this is the equivalent of democratizing process work. For the rest of us in the software industry, this is applying the learning and best practices of the open source movement to process improvement.

The second indirect consequence is the power of planned serendipity. If you ever stumbled upon a job or an old lost friend just because you were following the right people in the right social network, you’ll know what I mean.

I’ve come to realize that the velocity of change is far greater than any innovation or improvement strategy can ever capture. We have to admit that as business leaders we are often caught with our backs against the wall in the face of the speed with which customers and more nimble competitors are adopting technological advancements. We know we have to change, we know we have to follow through on new opportunities, but too often by the time we’ve come up with the right strategy we’re too late. By empowering employees at every level to roll out change, we’re in fact giving them, as one client, Elevations Credit Union, put it, the “keys to the kingdom.”

But, and this is where the process activity stream comes into play, we’re also creating the grounds on which serendipity can take hold, and process innovations from far corners of the organization can spread just by happenstance. Take, for example, when someone in human resources rolls out a process change to an employee on-boarding process, the process activity stream allows for that best practice to flow serendipitously throughout the entire organization until perhaps it reaches someone in procurement who recognizes that change as a valuable improvement that could greatly streamline the vendor on-boarding process. Et–voila. Without HR and procurement having to ever meet, a best practice was born, applied and now lives to one day be re-born again in another department, in another process.

What convinces me that we’re more than “onto something” is that we see organizations taking advantage of the alignment between social and BPM in an industry begging to be transformed: healthcare. Using a tool like IBM Blueworks Live™ that’s built around engaging a diverse set of process stakeholders on an ongoing basis in identifying, communicating and acting on areas of improvement, Presbyterian Healthcare Services was able to build a culture around process innovation in a very short period of time.

In just 2 months, 120 processes from across the hospital have been mapped out, analyzed and improved just because, all of a sudden, through simple and collaborative tools, everyone had a chance to provide their input. I don’t know about you, but if one of those processes had to do with ensuring that I got the right medication, I’d be pretty pleased to see this type of speed, breadth and depth in process improvement. Here we see a great example of what happens when we put the onus to change in the hands of the employees with the best capacity to understand where change is needed and how to carry it out. Socially enabled process improvement has fundamentally transformed the way this healthcare institution thinks about innovation.

In an era in which we’re moving from creative genius to the creative commons, from knowledge workers to insight workers, when Twitter is, as someone more clever than I expressed at a recent conference, “the API to society,” we have to start thinking about social business in the context of the workflows in which we are engaged on a daily basis. With the holidays right around the corner, there’s no better time to come together with your friends and improve the way you work, because even BPM is better with friends.

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BPM, SOA and WebSphere

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