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Above all
Friday, July 23, 2004
To work with the big picture, you've got to rise above the day-to-day to the process level.

Remember Charles and Ray Eames’ famous documentary, Powers of Ten? Starting from a top-down photograph of a couple on a blanket next to Chicago’s Lake Michigan, subsequent photos take you up and out. You see the scene from 10 meters, then 100 meters, then 1,000, and so forth, until finally you’re looking at a fuzzy dot in the sky a billion light-years from earth. You can also journey in the other direction, getting under the skin, into the capillaries, through the DNA, down to atoms, and finally into a proton that fills the entire page.

Similarly, as we back away from our organizations and as business evolves, our vision of the territory broadens. Our frame expands from the individual worker (e.g., the clerk) to the team (e.g., accounts receivable) to the department (e.g., finance) to the business unit (e.g., light-bulb manufacturing) to the corporation (e.g., General Electric). As we back away, we see that the functional silos of finance, marketing, sales, personnel, etc., are all part of one big operation. We see raw materials going in one door and finished goods coming out the other, with everyone touching it along the way, a process of adding value we call workflow.

Business Process Reengineering sought to tighten things up at this level. BPR claims to make end-to-end improvements. BPR often failed. On the one hand, BPR oversimplified how organizations really work; you can’t do without the grapevine, workarounds, the shadow organization, social networks, and other intangibles. On the other, BPR mistook the old wall surrounding the corporation for the limits of the value creation process. The wall is an artificial barrier. That’s why Jack Welch told GE to be a “boundaryless organization.” Why mess with only the inside stuff when you can leverage the assets of the entire world?

As we backed away, a bigger picture came into focus, a “Value Chain.” We recognized that our organization is but a link in a chain that stretches from digging raw materials out of the ground to putting a smile on a customer’s face. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If the company that supplies our raw materials is an inefficient, high-cost producer, our customer is eventually going to pay for it. Hence, it’s in our interest to select, train, inform, and motivate every link in our chain. A majority of the people who work for Cisco don’t draw a Cisco paycheck. They are suppliers, assemblers, shippers, channel partners, consultants, and integrators.

Stepping back once more, the frame captures immense ecosystems interacting on myriad levels. Organizations don’t have a relationship with their partners and customers; they have thousands upon thousands of them. I’ll never forget my surprise, when I popped open the console cover of the first mainframe computer I sold, an NCR 315. There in the heart of the beast was an IBM typewriter mechanism. It was better for NCR to sell the competition’s typewriter than to make their own. We’re all in this together.

Zoom out one more time, and you see a globe where everything is connected to everything else, and the outcome of interaction is unpredictable. Large investments sometimes yield nothing but frustration; tiny actions sometimes yield immense results. A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and a hurricane forms in the Caribbean. A worker talks with a customer on the phone and a entire new industry pops up in Abu Dhabi. The photograph is getting fuzzy. In Powers of Ten, images turn into random spots at a trillion kilometers from earth. We’ve zoomed out of focus; we don’t understand what we see.

The boxes model the evolution of a business organization as time passes and we see the entity is a larger context.

  • The worker doesn’t look beyond the boundaries of the department.

  • Functional silos/departments generally do their own thing.

  • Customers and suppliers want to deal with a single entity.

  • Enterprise Application Integration ties the business into one entity. Sort of. It’s hard-wired and sluggish.

  • Web Services brings on the hyper-organization. Rich connections make for a portfolio of flexible relationships. It’s loosely-coupled and responsive.

  • The business uses operational leverage to focus on what it does best.

  • The network effect rewards the swift, adaptive, and reputable businesses with a global market.

What you see depends on where you stand. Companies in the vanguard are forever deciding how to optimize a bigger picture. This process view is at the heart of Workflow Learning. This is Business Process, melded directly into work. "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth."

Marcel Proust ate a cookie, and three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past spewed out of his pen. I read a piece by Esther Dyson this morning, and what you've just read came out of my keyboard. Esther wrote,

    Getting control of business processes, not business data

    Indeed, data is relatively easy, and we have good tools for it: the calculator, the spreadsheet, and the giant financial number-crunching application. The spreadsheet gave users a tool not just to calculate, but to build complex models and, in fact, to do many things that previously could be done only by IT high priests. Better yet, the spreadsheet allowed them to build models that were intelligible to normal people. So-called power users could build the models, while other users could reuse or modify them, plugging in their own data and coefficients. Complementary graphing and other tools made the data more visible and meaningful to ordinary people who could not pick trends out of a sea of numbers. We also have the database, which acts as a back-end to those corporate applications and to the spreadsheets, allowing for easier sharing of data across applications and even among enterprises.

    The first successful spreadsheet was called VisiCalc; where is VisiProcess?"

Connecting workers to the work is what Workflow Learning is all about.

This is the first of what I expect to grow into a collection of personal reflections on the workflow learning revolution that will be stashed in the Workflow Institute's Vault.


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