Let’s face it – we’re all responsible for business processes that could be considerably improved. If you’re looking to try something new, in my experience, the following five changes in perspective and approach help organisations establish processes that are more agile, better governed, and deliver quicker results.
From System-Centric to Participant-Centric
The most important change is to think first about the participants, and then about the back-end systems. As an SAP consultant my natural instinct is to think in terms of fields and transactions. Unfortunately, a focus on the back-end systems dramatically complicates the front-end experience. An SAP consultant’s goal would be to collect all the data from the business to eliminate manual effort by current users. This results in the selection of technology closely aligned to the target system, and input forms that are unfamiliar and complex for line-managers to complete. Due to the high-level of integration, these processes are costly to develop, difficult to teach, and hard to enforce. The value from the process automation is gained by the current system users by reducing their workload, and not by the primary business participants.
Alternatively, a participant-centric process recognises that successful process automation solutions are designed for the bulk of participants and are based around their knowledge and process requirements to make it quicker and easier to perform their process responsibilities. With a participant-centric paradigm, automation and integration are provided with the primary purpose of making it easier for the users to provide the correct input more accurately, more easily and to get the desired results sooner. This means not requiring input of technical elements with which the users are unfamiliar. This means not forcing users to adopt the ERP-provided process automation platform, but providing users with the best experience in their ‘natural’ context, including Microsoft Office and mobile devices. This means structuring input based on business scenarios and not target transactions. This means users love the new process automation, use it and derive business value. It also means that, in the first phase, back-end system integration may only be semi-automated and rely on specialist back-office support. But by delivering on the business expectations in the initial phase, subsequent funding becomes easier to access to complete the ultimate end-to-end process automation.
From Forms to Apps
Most complex manual processes (such as Capital Expenditure requests, Customer pricing and rebate contracts, Incident and Corrective Action Management) rely on a combination of manual forms and Word or Excel document templates for data collection. The primary benefit of electronic ‘forms’ is the ability to ensure data completeness and validate all inputs. A natural step in the process automation journey is to consider form-style technologies such as InfoPath or Adobe forms. In my experience, this is a misstep as what users really expect today are Apps. Apps that fulfil a clear purpose, and operate intuitively on both desktop and mobile devices. Apps that are easy to access, and easy to use. Not that Apps are simple to build – hiding complexity takes effort, but typically complex paper forms CAN be simplified as the App is integrated to your systems. It knows who you are, who your boss is, what cost centre you are assigned to, and the available budget capacity. Anything that can be derived (e.g. from the supplier, the materials or the location) is derived, eliminating all unnecessary inputs. As your request is processed, based on your selections, only relevant input is requested. Apps look, feel and behave just like the other apps on your mobile device, with no training required.
From Workflow to Collaboration
Traditional ERP workflows are structured as: request, approve, do. This is not the way it works in real life. In the real world, high value critical business processes involve significant collaboration with a broad range of stakeholders. Nothing beats face to face communication, but where this is not practical due to geographic constraints, your process automation solution should facilitate the free and timely exchange of information. This includes consistently categorised and presented structured data and supporting documentation as well as process history and commentary. It should be possible to dynamically include relevant stakeholders, or for stakeholders to ‘subscribe’ to processes of interest. The objective of all processes is to achieve the optimal outcome for the organisation: without the flexibility of in-process collaboration, this will either continue to occur ‘offline’ or in the worst case, not at all.
From Workflow Administration to Process Ownership
In my experience too often the responsibility for Workflow administration is assigned to the IT department. If a request becomes blocked, a Techie re-assigns the task. If business rules or processes change, Techies are required to tinker inside the black-box. And between the business and IT there is an inevitable communication gap and delay. Consequently the workflow lags the evolving demands of the business, and it becomes a process strait-jacket: under control but severely constrained. To make process automation your jet-pack, it is imperative to put the process owner at the controls. That means providing the process owner with transparency of the process definition, allowing the owner to directly administer business rule definitions, and to access effective process monitoring analytics. Because like any evolving business, processes are not static, but need to evolve for continuous process improvement. And this responsibility best lies with the business, with effective support from IT.
From Approvals to Decision Support
Invariably the most obvious bottleneck in any process, whether automated or manual, is the executive input. Where is that Request? It’s with the Manager for approval. So we implement technology to expedite the approval process, and we fire off ever more emails. Reminders and escalations. Instructing the responsible Manager to access the various back-end systems to complete their assigned approval tasks. With little effect. Because guess what: senior Managers are bombarded with emails, ignore all workflow spam and are not intentionally dragging their heels. The issue is that key business decisions are never trivial. Having all the details of the request at hand is not sufficient. Effective decision support requires context – including supporting business case documentation, alternative proposals, budget capacity, strategy alignment, and participant commentary. It is only when Executives are empowered to make effective decisions on the basis of comprehensive information packages, and are provided with an effective mechanism for actioning requests in the office and in-transit, that dramatic process acceleration can result.
At IQX Business Solutions, our entire focus is on accelerating and securing critical business processes. Our solution platform encompasses web and mobile Apps, workflow automation and decision support, and seamless SAP and document management system integration. We’d be delighted to provide you with a cost-effective proposal for your next process improvement initiative.