2015: Disruptive innovation hits process improvement

Although mentioned on the edges of business for years, the word “disruption” really came into its own in 2015, used by everyone from the CEOs of digital businesses, to Quality Managers of manufacturing companies, and even the newly-minted Australian Prime Minister.  But what exactly do these people mean when they talk about “digital disruption”, “creative disruption” or “disruptive innovation”?

When applied to businesses, industries or markets, “disruption” refers to the radical change introduced by new ideas, strategies or products.  In the last few years technology has completely changed the way several markets operate. Satellite TV services disrupted TV networks, and now digital distributors like Netflix are turning that market on its head again.

A significant disruption for organisations across all industries is occurring in the way that business processes are developed, managed, and improved.

Farewell to the encyclopaedia approach to processes

Since the 90’s the standard for sharing process knowledge and know-how hasn’t really shifted – a mixture of text and flow chart documents. New techniques for improvement have come and gone, new terms and notation styles, but process documents survived them all.

Like the volumes of encyclopaedias of old, these documents were at their most useful the moment they were printed.  Thereafter, they rapidly lose currency.  Static in nature, they failed to engage or resonate with teams. After being placed on the g:drive bookshelf, it was likely that only a few looked at them again, and certainly nobody truly owned them.  Over time processes change – but the documents that describe them, not being relevant, remained on the shelf.  Eventually, new change programmes come along to test the currency of this information, and lo and behold, it’s considered obsolete – and the process documents are rebuilt and shared… using a different document.

Process improvement goes online

Since the internet became an everyday part of business life, online tools have forced a rethink of the procedures encyclopaedia.  In fact the cloud, new collaboration tools and mobile technologies have completely disrupted old ways of sharing knowledge. Organisations have introduced company-wide intranets, and deployed dedicated online process management solutions that provide access to staff at any location, across a wide variety of mobile devices.

In terms of the technology adoption lifecycle, process management software has well and truly entered the late majority stage. Innovators and early adopters paved the way for this new approach to process management. Their successes have convinced the early majority and now the late majority to embark upon their own shift. Now, in 2015, online process management tools form the mainstream.

Why care about process knowledge?

Poor process management is a sign that knowledge is not being properly shared within the organisation. There is little collaboration within or between teams, and without a structured knowledge asset, individuals each develop their own approach to solving the same problem, time and again.

Not only is employee engagement and morale lower at organisations like this – it is widely agreed that process management directly impacts customer experience and customer satisfaction. The success or otherwise of process management flows directly through to customer retention and the bottom line.

Perhaps the greatest danger of weak process management lies in the crippling effect on efforts to rectify problems and introduce positive change. The failure rates of technology and process improvement initiatives increase significantly when built upon a shaky platform of process know-how.

How to spot a process encyclopaedia

On the surface, it’s not always immediately clear whether an organisation has embraced disruption to process management, or whether it is a laggard, clinging to old ways.

If you identify with any of the following five signs, there’s a good chance your business is being left behind.

1. You live in hope that teams will one day start reading the process encyclopaedia.

2. You’ve taken your encyclopaedia documents online, but they still seem suspiciously like the same static documents in search of an audience. Refer point (1).

3.  You hope that one or two authors will decide to maintain the encyclopaedia, heroically updating processes, keeping the document alive.

4. Every change project or technology implementation is free to write their own encyclopaedia of know-how in the format they choose.  Their work may not look the same as other process documents within the organisation, but they end up being ignored in the same way.

5.  You know that processes are changing, but none of the changes are reflected in the encyclopaedia.  Teams also know this, and don’t trust the encyclopaedia as a reflection of the way business is actually being done.

Disrupt or be disrupted  

The same disruption cycle has played out in other disciplines – it displaced the spreadsheets of customer information that were used every day by sales teams. Those documents made way for CRM (customer relationship management) solutions that offer significant advantages over the old spreadsheets for creating, sharing and managing customer contact information.

The shift occurred because the new tools are easier to use, easier to manage, and they provide far more powerful analysis. They provide a centralised source of information that protects the organisation’s process knowledge, while making that knowledge accessible and usable for teams.  The tools encourage interaction and foster improvement.

Sound familiar?

Is it any wonder that a recent study by TNS, a global market research company, found that seven in ten organisations plan to maintain or increase their level of investment in business process management over the next 3 years? The same study points to the problems experienced by laggards. Just over four in ten organisations admit that few or none of their processes are accessible or easy to find.

The old ways of managing processes were limiting and therefore ripe for disruption.  In 2015 it’s no longer acceptable to document processes and simply hope that someone will read them, or that they will meaningfully help process improvement.

Ivan Seselj is the CEO of Promapp.

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