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Tue 31 Oct 2006 04:00 PM

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Checking it out

A panacea to business process ills does not lie in some technology solution or consultant's checklist writes Gerry Cryer, partner, Nextera Consulting. It is a people issue, though he admits the odd checklist and a bit of technology do not go amiss.

There are two reasons why we tend to be slaves to best practice and management consultancy. The first is we want to fast track through others' experiences; secondly we are looking for that elusive, all-embracing panacea ‘checklist to success’.

Sometimes the reasoning behind business process management suites (BPMS) look a little like that. The gloss and the glitz, and the prize of rapid business improvement are powerful aphrodisiacs.

I have been involved with different companies looking to make the changes promised through BPMS and, although the technology has advanced beyond all recognition, in recent years, the fundamental issues that determine a successful implementation remain the same: successful process re-engineering is about people doing something differently which adds more value than before.

One of my more challenging business process change projects entailed helping the board of a large financial services company through a change process that was designed to make the business more 'customer focused'.

The goal at this company was to make the whole customer experience more fulfilling while, also improving internal processes to reduce cost.

A programme within this project entailed the major re-write of the home loans processing system, which, because most of the process was driven by the IT department and systems, become one of IT’s main projects.

The project was big. It had a big budget both in terms of man-hours and money. The timescale was also extended and ended up being around five months.

As the project was coming to a conclusion I asked for a demonstration of the new system. Undoubtedly it was an improvement on the old system: it was easier for the operators who were now equipped with newly designed screens.

However, when we dug a little deeper into the new system, we discovered a new truth: the time to process a home loan had not changed for either the customer or the company.

As we reviewed the history of the project a truth began to emerge which is, sadly, universal. The project had become the purpose and the business rationale had all but become forgotten. The project had become the 'rewrite the home loan processing system' and had stopped being the 'reduce the time and cost (for both the customer and us) of offering a loan project'.

BPMS could be seen as the culprit in this case - though that is not so in every case and in fact I have been heavily involved in a major implementation in Dubai over the past 18 months where BPMS has played a big role.

Back when we embarked on this project, this company, which was heavily dependent on database and portal technologies, was almost a process-free zone.

We discovered that there was little consistency in processes and this led to regular and significant data errors that absorbed senior man-hours in review and correction. There was a loyal and hardworking work force brought up to deliver to the CEO's latest request for data. This was the root cause of the lack of process.

The cost of reworking data was becoming prohibitive on senior management time. New manual processes could only be a stopgap and we needed to change the way things were done by imposing technology led change.

We looked to a workflow and knowledge management solution to impose the discipline required to ensure data integrity, but we never lost sight of the overall purpose. This was to reduce the impact on the senior staff of data handling and correction leading to data accuracy, which is seen as one of the key drivers of this business' success. We took another innovative approach when it came to the workflow solution. Often it is sold as a 'product' in its own right and users install the workflow application and make the workflow highly visible to the users. We took another approach to ensure user acceptance.We 'workflow-enabled' existing applications.

The difference in this approach is that users have a familiar feeling when they go into their applications. They find they can use the same reports they had in the past and keep the same 'favourites' (these are web-based systems). The only difference they see is that they are now requested to undertake tasks, which, of course, are driven by the workflow sequencing.

And yes, in the overall design we did look carefully on the task sequencing and the best new process, to maximise efficiency. The whole project was a success. The change has happened and the users have been taken through a simple transition from one way of working to another.

Data input times have reduced, there is increased data accuracy and senior management has been freed to use the data for business advantage and is no longer locked into data management.

The tools offered by BPMS, in whatever guise they might be marekted to businesses in the region, provide a new, powerful and integrated approach to both reengineering and delivering more efficient and effective processes to the business. But at their core they are tools being used in a business change process - in a process that is all about implementing the strategy.

I believe this to be so fundamentally important that it should be re-emphasised. All internal (as opposed to client) projects are ways to implement the plan or direction of the business.

Many companies have become excellent at agreeing on the direction and, as US based research has shown, implementation has really become the Achilles heel of a successful outcome.

Now consider a company. It has three main elements. These are:

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