Last week, Ross Mayfield posted an interesting essay called The End of Process. In it, he argues that software-mediated social networks will tend to render formal business processes obsolete by reducing the costs of communication and coordination. “I do believe,” he says, “the arguments for engineering organizations are being trumped by new practices and simple tools. The first organizations bringing [processes] to an end will have a decided competitive advantage.” He goes on to claim that even today “some staid corporations are abandoning process all together.”
While provocative, the argument is much too broad, and it floats on a raft of dubious assumptions. “Organizations,” Mayfield writes, “are trapped in a spiral of declining innovation led by the false promise of efficiency. Workers are given firm guidelines and are trained to only draw within them. Managers have the false belief engineered process and hoarding information is a substitute for good leadership.” Actually, over the past 50 years or so, businesses have become steadily more flexible, more innovative, less bureaucratic, less hierarchical, and less characterized by rigid work flows and fragmented and hoarded information. They aren’t free from these problems, of course, but in general they’ve been getting better rather than worse. There’s no “spiral of declining innovation led by the false promise of efficiency.”
In fact, meticulously defined and managed processes continue to be a powerful source of competitive advantage for many companies. Look at Toyota, for instance. Its highly engineered manufacturing processes not only give it superior productivity but also provide a platform for constant learning and improvement. The formal structure, which is anything but democratic, spurs both efficiency and innovation – productive innovation – simultaneously. Structured, well-thought-out processes are also essential to most knowledge work, from product development to financial analysis to software engineering to sales and marketing. And the more complex the effort, the greater the need for clear processes. Far from making business less effective and agile, the increasing attention to process has increased effectiveness and agility.
In a response to Mayfield’s post, IBM’s Irving Wladawsky-Berger says that “an innovative business looks for the proper balance between process – covering those aspects of the business that can be designed, standardized, and increasingly automated – and people – who bring their creativity and adaptability to handle everything else.” I see what he’s getting at, but I don’t agree that there’s necessarily a tension between process and people. Bad processes can destroy individual initiative, but well-designed processes, even very formal ones, can encourage individual initiative and, importantly, guide personal and group creativity toward commercially productive ends. I’m not sure you need to balance process and people so much as harmonize them.
If Mayfield had narrowed his argument, focusing on the way knowledge workers collaborate in certain situations, rather than on business processes in general, he would have been much more compelling. The simple group-forming and information-sharing software tools now being introduced and refined will often provide greater flexibility and effectiveness than more complex “knowledge management” systems. But even in these cases, processes aren’t going away; they’re just changing. There can’t be organization without process.