What are Unstructured Business Processes?

Written by Ian James, Sep 25, 2013

When considering a business process redesign it is necessary to identify and take unstructured business processes into consideration.

A process diagram  that has a branches in many directions with a question mark in each one.

Process is how we get things done.

A process is a set of tasks we perform to achieve a goal. But when you start to look closely at a lot of processes you start to see that they are not all the same. They belong in different categories. Some we do over and over with little or no variation in what we need to do. The flow of the work follows a set pattern. We call these structured processes. This kind of process is what people generally mean when they talk about business process.

Opening a new bank account is a structured process. So is issuing a replacement credit card. This kind of process is the obvious target of improvement efforts. Why would you not want to improve a process that you use over and over?

Business Process Management (BPM) is the right tool to design and manage processes like these. The theory behind BPM has its origins in manufacturing, particularly on the assembly line. The closer your process looks like something you could imagine on an “information assembly line”, the more likely it is to be a suitable candidate for this approach.

Not all business processes are predictable.

Sometimes there is no pattern. These kinds of process are easy to spot:

  • The path of the process depends on outcomes along the way
  • The activities needed to complete them cannot be predicted
  • They happen infrequently, sometimes only once

We never really think of these as processes at all, it is just “work”. Nevertheless, even though we could not design a process in advance, it does follow one. We can look back after is completed and trace the path of the process. But we could not have planned it out beforehand.

Some people refer to these as informal processes, ad hoc processes, or complex processes. But the generally agreed term is unstructured processes. Deciding if you should enter a new market is an unstructured business process. So is creating a website. In fact, it turns out that a lot of creative and important work in organizations is unstructured.

Why BPM does not help with unstructured processes

BPM needs a pattern to work with. The whole idea behind BPM is to plan what happens. But you can’t plan something that you can’t anticipate. You can’t design a workflow for a process that will follow an unknown path. BPM is no help with unstructured business processes. Nor is classic project management. That too, relies on the ability to plan an outcome. We need a different approach.

Unstructured processes create value

Unstructured processes are too important to ignore. We use them to innovate and imagine. They solve problems. They take the form of conversations that inspire new products, new markets and new solutions. We use them to make tricky decisions. This is how we create value.

More work is unstructured than we realize

We employ people to use their intellect rather than their hands. We want them to use their skills and experience to create value. Creative work like this is mostly unstructured.

More time that we realize is spent this way. People can spend more than half their time working on unstructured processes. It is often the fact that the more highly paid and skillful our employees are, the more they are involved in unstructured processes. If they handled only routine tasks, we would not want them to be so highly skilled and expensive.
What can we do about unstructured business processes?

We know they are important and we know that BPM does not help. What can we do to make things more efficient?

Some organizations find ways to manage and improve unstructured business processes. At root, the solution lies in process discipline and behavior. Process discipline because it takes excellent teamwork to manage something you have not come across before. Behavior because it takes a very special kind of organizational culture to be flexible enough to deal with the unexpected.

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