How new software applications are trying to tame unstructured processes

Automation used to be synonymous with getting rid of people as machines took over the work. But a new breed of software is trying to help support and automate those collaborative, unstructured processes that lurk in the corners of every company - by helping people do their jobs better.

In the 1990’s, controversial economist and author Jeremy Rifkin wrote The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. The book predicts the demise of jobs in farming, manufacturing and service industries as machines automated people out of work.

"Transnational corporations are entering a new era of fast communications, lean-production practices, and "just-in-time" marketing and distribution operations relying increasingly on a new generation of robotic workers," he wrote in an essay for The Case Against the Global Economy and For a Turn Towards the Local. "Much of the human workforce is being left behind and will likely never cross over into the new high-tech global economy."

Thankfully, you can’t automate everything

Rifkin’s 1990’s vision of a cold world dominated by jobless masses and robotic enterprises has thankfully, not (yet) come to pass.

While companies have indeed made great in-roads towards process automation, most of these efforts have focused on processes that are highly repetitive, structured and frequent. These are processes – such as those found on a manufacturing line or processing banking transactions - that would bore most people to tears anyway.

Ian Gotts, VP of TIBCO software, estimates that the majority of processes in our organizations today are not automated, with greater than 80% of activities taking place outside of enterprise application and BPM solutions through e-mail and other software, such as MS Excel.

His point is illustrated in the following graphic:

Image courtesy: Ian Gotts, TIBCO

Activities in any organization typically flow between these automated and manual components, as illustrated by the yellow line in the above diagram.

Additionally, organizations have many processes that require human interaction, intervention or decision-making – these could be considered the collaborative, unstructured processes that lurk in the corners of our companies.

It would be impossible and undesirable to automate every process in a company. Not only does automation make it slower to adapt your processes as your business needs change, but automating certain processes can actually lead to a less desirable result, such as the robotic call answering service that insipidly announces "your call is important to us" while doing its best to convince your customers otherwise.

Outspoken blogger and consultant Max Pucher says that automation is not in itself the nirvana of achievement when it comes to designing effective processes. He writes in an eBizQ forum: "Time savings, productivity and direct cost savings are all just efficiency perspectives. Does 'not automated' mean poor or inefficient processes? That’s what BPM experts claim."

He goes on to say that "there is no substance to that. Efficiency is secondary to effectiveness (goal-achievement), potential, opportunity and redundancy. Standard, automated processes fail at all these other business criteria. A less efficient process that makes a customer happy is very effective and thus very efficient in the long run."

But new breeds of software applications are trying to address the "effectiveness" quotient. Offered by many BPM Software vendors (especially given consolidation in the industry over the past few years) these tools try to make the people doing the work more effective and efficient rather than trying to remove people from the equation.

Dynamic Case Management, for instance, has long been an approach that companies have used.

The idea with Dynamic Case Management is to organize work in such a way that it’s easy for an intelligent person to make appropriate decisions. This can be achieved, for instance, by having all related communications or documents centralized in one area, with the ability to get status updates, progress overviews and reporting on what is, in essence, a digitally pimped up file folder. The focus is on the outcome of an individual case, such as in the mortgage approvals process of a bank.

Meanwhile, a new - and almost imperceptibly - different category of software is emerging, which Forrester Research has termed "smart process applications".

Writing on KMWorld, Forrester Analysts Connie Moore and Andrew Bartels explain that Smart Process Applications "are created for people and built for change. They fill the gap between customer-oriented systems of engagement and systems of record by automating both the structured and unstructured activities and information involved in a collaborative process."

(Forrester’s Andrew Bartels will be presenting in greater detail just what smart process applications are and how they apply to today’s world of work in a free webinar aired on next week. You can register to attend by clicking here.)

Smart Process Applications seem to be an evolution of dynamic case management with some additional functionality added in. Forrester says that Smart Process Applications include the following capabilities: Business Process Management to handle the steps of an activity, capture and output relevant documents and forms, support for people to collaborate on creating content, and contextual data and information (i.e. right [and intelligible] information at the right time).

The sceptics view is that these capabilities are not new. As Max Pucher writes on his blog: "Let’s call a ‘spade’ a ‘spade:’ ‘With SPA [smart process applications] we package a whole bunch of old software and sell it to you as innovation.’"

But, vendors are placing bets that the thoughtful combination of software capabilities that can provide greater support for both structured and unstructured processes is what businesses today are looking for.

If you want to find out more about Smart Process Applications, one of the brains behind it - Forrester's VP and Principal Analyst Andrew Bartels - wlil be featured in a free webinar aired on July 17th, 2013 (after this date you’ll be able to view it right away on demand). You can also hear well-known BPM expert Nathaniel Palmer's take on them and how they can be used in Financial Services in a recent webinar available here. (Available on demand).

But what do you think? What’s the best way to tackle unstructured, ad hoc processes? Do software applications based on Dynamic Case Management or Smart Process Applications have the potential to dramatically transform how workers – especially knowledge workers - get things done?