Why are there so few tools for managing unstructured processes?

Written by Ian James, Nov 27, 2012

Given the importance of managing unstructured processes, there is a surprising dearth of support tools like software applications to help us do so.

A toolbox marked structured and a toolbox with tools marked as structured

Managing unstructured processes is a large part of everyday business management. Why then are there so few support tools to help us do so? In fact, we still seem to rely on email and standard office document tools.

One reason is historical. The classic approach to BPM grew out of the discipline of production engineering in manufacturing. This fact casts a long and unhelpful shadow on current practice.

The dominant model in manufacturing is the assembly line. You have a set of activities carried out in a predefined sequence of steps. How does this translate to the kind of work that produces knowledge products as opposed to physical goods?

Well, it works well for highly repetitive processes with very low variability of outcome. Take for example, the job of a clerk in a court processing parking offenses. There are probably few variations in the outcome, as I can personally attest. There is certainly a high volume of such instances of the process. It could just be that I have a downer on parking ticket-processing clerks, but I cannot imagine that there is a whole lot of decision-making and creativity required in the job description.

This kind of process forms only the minority of most people’s work. Yet the software tools for supporting and managing process, unless we count email, are suited only for dealing with repetitive processes. It constantly amazes me how it is that all the effort and investment in process support tools goes into the wrong area.

Support Applications Needed for Managing Unstructured Processes

To some extent this reflects the more general problem we have in shedding the compliance model of management. It is a model that persists despite having outlived its usefulness long ago. Value creation is more and more based on intellectual activity rather than manual dexterity or brute strength. But we continue to use the management and organizational structures that worked for the factory and the field. Here success was determined by standardization and efficiency. These in turn demanded adherence to a set procedure. We used people as cogs in a machine when we could not devise a machine to do the job.

Nowadays the nature of work is very different, at least in the service sectors of developed nations. Managers have an instinct for control and compliance; it is built into their DNA. They want these kinds of software products and that fuels the demand. Thankfully, there are now signs of this changing but I suspect that the industry will be slow to respond. Not only does it have a big investment in existing BPM software but also a genuine belief in the efficacy of its solutions. Thoughtful managers will have to push hard for the solutions they need.

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