With most business either having already gone through or currently undergoing transformation and the last of the latecomers taking their places on the starting grid, it may seem a strange time to be questioning the principle of processisation that most transformations are built on. However, there’s a whole movement congregating around the thought that, in the digital age, maybe processes are the last thing we need.

Those who have read my stuff in the past will be familiar with the idea of “adaptive management” promoted by Ronald Heifetz at Harvard. Although it’s not its core principle, it raises the notion that because, in the emerging business paradigm, momentum will be so rapid and challenges increasingly unique, the focus of any manager will be solving previously unencountered problems. There is no formulae for this, simply because these issues will be entirely new and peculiar to the digital paradigm and the unique circumstances of the business at that moment in time. Tomorrow’s managers will have to invent solutions as they go, which demands a different mind-set and maybe even different character traits to those we have traditionally valued in our managers.

However, transformation is fuelled by, above all, the pursuit of efficiency. Every business will, in the future, have to achieve increasingly more with ever-diminishing resource. The pinnacle of this being global businesses with no more than a handful of employees. Disintermediated digital solutions are the focus of today’s transformations, but, at least until AI matures, such solutions will rely on defined processes. The question is, if tomorrow’s business challenges have no pre-defined solutions, is a process-driven digital business the answer? Maybe we are careering off in entirely the wrong direction?

John Hagel, co-Chairman of Deltoite’s Centre for the Edge has for some years, been exploring the idea of fast learning. As he is quick to note, this isn’t about training, but, in my interpretation, something more akin to hyper-fast processing of situation-specific data to determine a response that will deliver the required outcome. If you think this sounds like AI again you may be right, but, until AI is up to the task, we need to see how far along the route we can get with human brain-power?

Having been involved in recent months in developing disintermediated services in the inflexible and highly traditional world of financial services it has become clear to me that within the sector many apparently automated solutions are, behind the digital façade, powered by the same old historical, hands-on processes. Far from delivering the efficiencies today’s businesses need this approach does nothing more than improve distribution of a traditional product or service and does very little indeed to reduce the cost of providing the solution. In fact, it adds an additional obstacle to the business’s attempts to transform.

John Hagel himself has undertaken research that reveals on average 60-70% of employees are currently involved in “exception handling” ie. Resolving issues for which the business’s process repertoire offers no solution and that’s before the business gets involved in the significantly higher-volume world of on-line engagement. In these circumstances businesses revert to intuitive solutions something similar, but insufficiently refined, to those which tomorrow’s businesses are going to need. Surely, what we should be doing is identifying what makes managers who gravitate to this kind of role tick and work out how to replicate and up-scale it?

What it seems we don’t know is whether this is about traits or training. If the requirement is for management candidates defined by character traits, maybe we need to take a very different approach to education. We all know that, despite their claims, the education system in all countries tend to remain conventional and predictable. Educators tend to prepare workforces for what they can see or visualise. They have never been very good at imagining the kind of paradigm shift we are going to encounter and I doubt that will change any day soon.

Regardless of what the educators do, it seems business will have to work with what we have. That probably means using very different criteria to those we have previously used to identify management candidates and develop training and mentoring that devines, re-invigorates and leverages the traits the education process will have ignored or, worse still, smothered.

I think we do need proceses, but like everything else in the new business environment, they will be in a constant state of flux. The programming that drives them will hold the secret to maintaining their relevance, providing the prompts for changes or additions that will be the precursor to much more rapidly-evolving AI. It’s all just another example of how we all need to get used to the constant state of change that is the new business paradigm.

First published on LinkedIn August 2017

Phil Darby
August 3, 2018

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