How To Buy The Right Process Tool

iStock_000022235512MediumSo, you’re buying a process tool.  Not a workflow or automation system. Just a plain old process tool to serve as an enterprise-wide standard for process capture, design and deployment.

Your functional heads have agreed that cross-silo perspectives matter, and that there’s no sense in everyone using their own tools and standards.  In a corporate ‘Aha!’ moment, it’s now understood that to improve, to innovate, to become more agile – and to manage risk and compliance at pace – the organization needs visibility and ownership of its end-to-end processes, and within an integrated and holistic operating model.

So now it’s time to procure the right tool. How difficult can that be??

In practice, it’s fiendish. Frequently the whole exercise fails. The strategic choice may never get fully or properly implemented. Often the pain of adopting the chosen tool means that the procurement exercise is revisited within two or three years.  And sometimes the decision just gets stalled for years as the stakeholders can’t agree.

It’s easy to get heads nodding at the idea that there’s huge benefits in adopting visual process as the universal business language across an enterprise. And that there’s exponentially more value when process management provides a common operational platform, a backbone for the business, a collaborative space where process owners and stakeholders collaborate on improvement and innovation within a single unified governance framework. [Which needs far more than a tool, of course. It’s about a creating a culture of learning and collaboration at pace. But still, adopting the right tool is a critical part of it…]

The first challenge though is often to get the business to engage and to articulate its requirements. Selection of a process tool can be seen as nerdy or trivial. But if it’s going to be an enterprise platform – that can meet the needs of operations, IT, sales, quality, customer service, finance, HR, risk and compliance, and for initiatives as diverse as multi-sourcing, shared services and customer journey mapping – then everyone needs to contribute.

It may seem expensive to invest time and executive sponsorship in a consultative process to create a shared vision and requirements for a common operational platform. But each silo has to be convinced of the benefits (to the silo) of a single process platform, and so be prepared to compromise on its own requirements if necessary.  Without this consultative process, the odds stack up against a decision ever being made or successfully implemented.

Adopting the mantra that it’s best to fail fast, there’s another easy credibility test at this stage. There has to be an early recognition that sustainable success will require ongoing investment in some kind of ‘Centre of Excellence’ (CoE) which owns execution of the vision and has a mandate to develop capabilities to leverage (and, ultimately, to police) any enterprise platform. It’s easy for senior stakeholders to agree ‘in principle’ on the basis that it will be someone else’s problem.  The way to make this real is to ask where the CoE will fit. If the answer is “IT” then that’s almost certainly a red flag.  It needs to be anchored in some kind of ‘business excellence’ function.

With a shared vision, agreed requirements, solid support from the leadership team, and a nascent CoE orchestrating the selection process on behalf of the business, it’s possible to avoid the two most common pitfalls: that the selection exercise defaults to being driven by IT or by Procurement.

It was challenging anyway. Three developments are making it even more difficult to define the right process tool:

The reassessment of BPMN’s importance. Once hailed as the universal process language, the limitations of BPMN are becoming apparent (see, for instance, Neil Ward-Dutton’s comments here, or Sandy Kemsley’s comments on ‘the myth of zero-code BPM’ here). BPMN was once a trump card for IT.  BPMN will continue to be important within IT. But how important should it be in the wider business perspective? Does the rigour of BPMN notation, and its insistence on swimlanes and pools, switch off non-IT users?

New tools – cloud-based, collaborative and with wider perspectives. Industry veterans are becoming increasingly cloud-based, and shifting their focus along the way. There’s a swathe of new players – all cloud-based – emerging too.

The user experience. Once a process tool’s UI was critically important. Which made sense – it’s where a user would typically spend significant time. Increasingly though, process-related content is just one element in a user’s rich information landscape. So the ability to intelligently integrate with other tools and systems, so that the user is provided, at the point of need, with the right information in the right context, and as simply as possible, is now far more critical.

What’s the answer? For the foreseeable future, it will all depend. One process platform may too ambitious a goal for some organizations (though clearly you’d want to understand how integration would work if there’s to be more than one).  Some organizations may need to develop their level of process maturity first. Others may develop a strategic vision but plot a tactical route to achieving it over 3-5 years, perhaps because vendors’ current offerings in areas critical to their operations – such as multi-lingual support or collaborative features or the management of process variants – are insufficiently developed to justify a strategic decision at this stage.

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