Tuesday, October 19, 2004

On Process

I am very interested in process, a word that means different things to different people, but seems to permeate everything.

The word process is from the Latin words meaning "to go forward", or proceed. The whole point of process is to get something done, or to get somewhere.

Who better to think about and implement process than a computer programmer? That's what programmers do all day long. There is no other profession that thinks even half as much about process at both the micro and macro level. Everything a computer does, every instruction it executes, has been lined up in advance by a programmer. Every contingency must be thought through. Every error condition, every likely or unlikely scenario, every conceivable thing a user might want to do.

When I think of business process I think at the micro level. What are the actual steps that must be taken to accomplish a task? Which ones of them require thought ("which folder should I put this in?"), which require mechanical effort (stapling several sheets together), which ones involve tagging with information (labeling the folder), which involve communication ("I'd better tell my boss that I've put the non-disclosure agreement in the file entitled Agreements").

The macro level of process, is of course, what drives it all, and is often overlooked. Do you really need to keep a paper copy of something that originated electronically? In the case of a non-disclosure agreement, the answer is "yes" since it has a signature on it. In most other cases, the answer is "no" because it is redundant at best and out of date and incorrect at worst. Forget about the trees: a paperless office is just more efficient in terms of process.

What fascinates me most about process is the way it involves people. Or not. If you look at most business process, either in textbooks, embodied in enterprise software, etc, it is set up from the point of view of the business itself, not from the point of view of the people who have to follow it. The life of an invoice through a chain of approvers. But not a day in the life of the Controller who may have to approve countless invoices and fit it into her busy day.

Business process is something that involves people. This is why much of it never happens the way it was intended. File servers don't get used, files are out of date, people move from group to group, and everything falls back to a blizzard of email. That's not process. Or, more to the point, email is to process as shouting and waving arms is to the British Parliament.

In my view, in order for a process to work, it starts with buy-in from the people who actually have to follow it. Without that, only police states like large multi-national banks can truly institute process.

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