Agile BPM – What’s that?

- Markus Wolf

Spontaneously, it seems like coming out of a marketing book for beginners: Combine a couple of buzz words and you create a new hype. Or is there more behind it, which really offers a way out of a common dilemma most of us are likely to know?

In order to prosper businesses have to keep control over their processes thus ensuring consistency and repeatability as corner stones for operational excellence and customer satisfaction. At the same time, even industries famous for their stability and predictability, feel the pressure to adjust business processes to constantly changing market conditions, customer demands, and supply chain and service networks.

How BPM helps to cope with the challenges managing agile process development?

Most articles and whitepapers on agile concepts you will find on the internet are about agile process development for technical processes. These are processes, which are mostly workflow oriented and thus well susceptible to automation. The preferred way of technical implementation in these situations is via so called Business Process Management Systems (BPMS). In this context agile methods work best for building solutions for processes, which are rather distinct regarding their process flow and integration is primarily related to data exchange. In contrast, business processes that do not require the highest level of reproducibility but a short implementation time instead represent a separate use case.

How to become agile without jeopardizing sustainability?

Many business processes are not standalone but highly interwoven with others. Changing one particular process will impact the performance of many others. In my last post, I demonstrated the benefits of applying agile principles in the context of developing ERP processes. In this blog I will expand the concept introduced by Hall and Johnson (March 2009, Harward Business Review) for differentiating processes susceptible to automation from those that aren’t.

Generally, BPM experts apply a rational, if you like “scientific”, approach to identifying best practices and process standards. All in order to eliminate weaknesses and achieve transparency and predictability, routine, comparability, reproducibility, scalability, and where reasonable automation.

Artistic work, on the other hand, seeks effectiveness rather than efficiency. The ability of achieving an outstanding individual result enjoys the highest priority. Hall and Johnson suggest in their framework to identify artistic work by conditions of either variable individual input or customer specific output. 

A third group might be any kind of research driven or creative work with a lot of ambiguity involved. The goal or promised deliverable can be defined more as an intention rather than a clearly defined service or product. A BPM answer to this challenge is developing a conceptual framework that promotes foreseeable interactions rather than focusing on a particular flow of process instances. Creativity and flexibility are enabled but sensibly controlled whenever it comes to required handovers between departments or when a process deliverable needs to be passed on to the next stage. Keeping the touch points stable in an otherwise agile environment reduces the burden agility can put on complex organizations.

Where to loosen control?

Notably, there still is value in maintaining an enterprise wide process repository. It is not required to deal all process the same, though. By adding the dimension of process integration complexity the Hall and Johnson quadrants and thus forming a three dimensional matrix, businesses are now able to classify their business processes regarding the permissible degree of agility. An accordingly designed repository with a differentiated view on your process landscape will provide the necessary guidance on how to deal best with each cluster of business process and where to establish agile frameworks, where to foster process automation or fast process development, and where to strive for repeatability and sustainability.

Based on a pragmatic approach processes in the remaining clusters should be reviewed individually.