Evolving Process Excellence (Part 5): Get your hands off my process, IT!

Like it or not, Information Technology underlies just about everything we do. But often process professionals prefer to focus on improving processes rather than the technology. Is that too limiting an approach? Part 5 of 7 in our ongoing series on Next Generation Process Excellence.

Machines answer phones for us, process our banking transactions, and let us communicate in real time with people halfway around the world.

Whether we like it or not, Information Technology has infiltrated all aspects of our enterprises. Virtually nothing we do has been left untouched by the relentless push for technology to create better, faster, and cheaper workplaces.

Is IT giving you a headache?

It also means that changing or improving processes usually involves changes to underlying technologies. And that can create headaches for process professionals who might prefer to do what they can to improve a process without getting IT involved.

But is focusing on the process at the expense of technology too limiting an approach? Do process professionals today require greater understanding of IT?

In the fifth of a 7 part series on PEXNetwork.com looking at the next generation of process excellence, senior quality and business transformation professionals debate the role of technology in continuous improvement and what process professionals really need to know about IT.

The following transcript has been excerpted from a roundtable discussion recorded last year. For a full transcript of the debate, download this whitepaper: Quality and Continuous Improvement in an Age of Transformation.

The following transcript has been edited for readability.

Question: What role does, or should, Information Technology play in enabling your continuous improvement initiatives? Do you require more than a baseline understanding of technology?

Vince Pierce, Senior Vice President Global Business Transformation, Office Depot: In some areas, I’d say that you do require more than a baseline understanding. In others areas, though, I’d say not necessarily. The role I play, quite often, is one of the village idiot. Disclosing that I don’t have a ton of domain expertise gives me a license to ask questions that challenge assumptions sometimes.

Other times, knowledge of the area is very helpful, so it really is, at least, in my opinion, situational - it depends on the context and on what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you there to understand? Are you there to influence? Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish there are different approaches you can take. The amount of domain knowledge you need will depend on a lot of those factors.

Gregory North, Vice President Lean Six Sigma, Xerox: Our Chief Information Officer, Carol Zierhoffer, and I work very closely together, to make sure we understand how process and technology go hand in hand. IT is often looking for an angle into the business to truly understand what the expectation is from the strategy and the business process design standpoint.

Sometimes major technology change programs are gated by a lack of sufficient understanding in those areas. They feel like they’re trying to, if you will, drive it from an IT center, versus a business center and we -in our world of business process management of quality and continuous improvement - have been, swimming in that sea forever of trying to make sure processes are well-defined and then later coming to technology.

By bringing those two worlds together upfront, there’s a tremendous amount of power. Right now, we’re looking at global process design, global process ownership and then global IT enablement. The sequencing is very important there, in that if you don’t have a global sense of who owns it and how to design it, it’s very, very difficult later, to think about what the appropriate technology enablement is. So, we see this as being extraordinarily important to see it as a partnership.

Vince Pierce, Senior Vice President Global Business Transformation, Office Depot: I think Greg brings up a really good point and I’d like to revise my earlier response. In a lot of IT projects - from ERP implementation down to minor enhancements - a common challenge I hear from IT is, we don’t have the right level of investment on the side of the business. They don’t invest the time in understanding requirements, they don’t take the time to describe exactly what they need and the engagement is less than they desire.

We have to do more of that role on behalf of the business. Folks in our profession have the ability to serve as a facilitator between the two sides, to make sure we’ve got all the bits and pieces in the right spot. It is less about one’s ability to understand and explain the value of the service oriented architecture, an agile, versus waterfall SDLC, as it is influencing both sides to understand each other and to talk about things like process ownership, roles and responsibilities, the value of spending time, understanding requirements, doing the right functional design. Those are more interpersonal influencing skills than they are technology acumen or domain expertise related skills.

Estelle Clark, Business Assurance Director at Lloyd’s Register Firstly, I also feel joined at the hip with the IS director and if I thought back five years ago, I don't think that was the case. Now, there’s hardly a conversation that either of us has, that doesn’t involve the other one.

I think, in terms of speaking their language, yes, you need to, to a degree, although I like the idea of being a village idiot; I think of myself, sometimes, as Forrest Gump for the same reason.

But, IS also need to have our language and sometimes, I feel that they could do more in making efforts towards that.

I used to worry quite a lot about the IS tail "wagging the process dog." There’s the risk that people thinks that all we need to do is to find an IS solution, without fully understanding the business requirements and process needs first.

However, increasingly, I find myself changing my mind. As much as there’s a concern about the IS tail wagging the process dog, there are times when we shouldn’t have the process tail wagging the IS dog, in the sense that the opportunities that IS can now provide to fundamentally transform businesses – transform with a big T – is such, that you really need their input about the art of the possible, fairly early on before you go to do too much process work. Otherwise, you’ll find that you might be missing something significant.