Fogbeam Labs The FogBlog

On Solving The Social Aspect Of BPM

by Phillip Rhodes

Posted on Thursday February 06, 2014 at 01:51PM in Technology

Over at forums Peter Schooff has posed a very interesting question: "What Is the Key to Solving the Social Aspect of BPM?" This is a topic we've thought a lot about, and "social BPM" is very core to use here at Fogbeam Labs, so I wanted to take a moment and share some thoughts on this very important topic.

The discussion here is focused around this factoid from a recent Aberdeen survey:

Thirty-four percent (34%) of respondents in Aberdeen’s Solving Collaboration Challenges with Social ERP indicated that they have difficulty converting collaborative data into business execution. This is unnerving because, for many processes, the ability for people working together collaboratively is essential for process effectiveness.

To really understand this, you have to consider what exactly the collaborative aspects of a BPM process are. And, in truth, many processes (perhaps most) are inherently collaborative, even if the collaborative aspect is not explicitly encoded into a BPMN2 diagram. Think of any time you've been involved in a process of some sort (whether BPM software or workflow engines were involved or not) and you have to make a decision or take some action... and you needed information or input from someone else first. If you picked up a telephone and made a call, or sent an email or an IM, then you are doing "social BPM" whether you use the term or not.

The first factors then, in really taking advantage of collaboration in BPM, are the exact same things involved in fostering collaboration in any fashion. It's not really a technology issue, it's an issue of culture, organization design, and incentives. Do people in your organization fundamentally trust each other? Is information shared widely or hoarded? Does the DNA of your firm encourage intra-firm competition between staff members, or widespread collaboration which puts the good of the firm first? Sadly, in too many firms the culture is simply inherently not collaborative, and nothing you do in terms of BPM process design, or deploying of "enterprise social software" or BPM technology is going to fix your broken culture.

Next, we have to look at these question: Does your firm actually empower individual employees to make decisions and use their judgment? Can an employee deviate from the process? No? Well what if the process is broken? Can your staff "route around" badly designed process steps, involve other people as necessary, inject new information, reroute tasks and otherwise take initiative? If the answers to most or all of these questions are "no" then you aren't going to have collaborative processes. If your organization is a rigid, top-down hierarchy that embraces a strict "command and control" philosophy, you're never going to get optimal effect from encouraging people to collaborate on BPM processes - or anything else.

It's only once you have the cultural and structural issues taken care of that technology even comes into play. Can some BPM software do more than others to encourage and facilitate social collaboration? Absolutely. That's why we are developing our Social BPM offering with specific capabilities that help cultivate knowledge sharing and collaboration. Using semantic web technology to tie context to tasks and content (where "context" includes things like "Bob in France is the expert on this topic and here's his contact info"), and exploiting "weak ties" and Social Network Analysis to provide suggested sources for consultation, are crucial technical capabilities for making BPM more "social". Additionally, if you have the cultural and structural alignment in place to really foster collaboration and knowledge sharing, then enterprise social software are amazingly powerful tools for cultivating knowledge transfer, fostering engagement, and driving alignment throughout your organization.

Done well, combining social software and BPM can provide tremendous benefits. But no technology is going to help if your culture is wrong. If you're having trouble with collaboration, I strongly encourage you to examine the "soft" issues before you spend a dime on additional technological tooling.

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