As part of the research for the last keynote I gave, I wanted to see how well known management gurus recommend supporting knowledge workers to be more effective. What I found was surprising and well understood at the same time.
The purpose of “Business Process Management” is to improve the business capability of an organization. We don’t create processes simply because we like being organized. You can measure the success of BPM by whether or not the business output (profit) increases. To increase the effectiveness of a business you have two options: automate the process to eliminate people from the process, or facilitate the human work in some way. In general, it is routine work that can be automated, and knowledge work can only be facilitated.
I was interested in this latter option: how do you get people to perform better? This has been the purpose of management for hundreds of years to do exactly this, and there is probably some well understood approaches in the practice of management. I found the following quotes.
Mastery without originality becomes rote. The master who never tries to think in novel ways … will produce the same kind of resolution even if the context demands something different. Mastery without originality becomes a cul-de-sac.
Roger Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. What I find interesting is that he does not say to eliminate variation. He does not say to find the one best way to do something, and get everyone to do that. He clearly does not believe that mastery implies that things are perfectly repeatable.
Imagine a BPM expert suggesting that you process was run differently every time, and suggesting that if it did actually repeat itself it would be a dead end! That is the difference between facilitation of knowledge work, and automation of routine work.
The true genius of a great manager is his or her ability to individualize.
A great manager is one who understands how to trip each person’s trigger.
Your strongest life is built through a continuous practice of designing moment by moment.
Marcus Buckingham is the author of “First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.” Notice that he does not say fine the one best way, and try to get everyone to do the same thing. Mature managers know that people with expertice have unique things to offer, and their value is in that uniqueness, so don’t try to treat them like interchangeable parts. He does not say to design the plan once. He does not even say plan what you are going to do ahead of time. Instead he jump with both feet right to the adaptive idea that you should plan your actions as you are doing them, moment to moment.
I don’t know where we should take this company, but I do know that if I start with the right people, ask them the right questions, and engage them in vigorous debate, we will find a way to make this company great.
Jim Collins is most famous for his books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last.” He is one of the most trusted authorities on how to lead an organization to success. What is interesting is his flat out rejection of the idea that plans can be created centrally and delivered to the workers. He does not see a separate of the brains from the brawn, but instead recognizes that the real smarts are out there distributed in the team. Don’t kill that ability by telling them what to do. Instead, ask the team what the team should do, and help to guide the best ideas that come from that. Imagine a BPM analyst suggesting that instead of defining the process, we are going to have all the workers get into a vigorous debate? Again, this is the difference between routine work and knowledge work.
Michael E. Porter
Companies have to be very schizophrenic. On one hand, they have to maintain continuity of strategy. But they also have to be good at continuously improving. Change brings Opportunities.
Michael E. Porter is a professor at Harvard Business School. He is a leading authority on company strategy and the competitiveness of nations and regions. Once again we are not trying to find the one best process and enforce it, but instead to focus on continuous change.
If a majority of the people on a team already know each other, the team can become stale and predictable. It’s often through the unexpected insights of new colleagues that innovation is sparked.
Lynda Gratton for the London Business School seems to look down on the idea of predictability as being stale and undesirable. Clearly she does not recommend doing things the same way every time. Imagine a BPM analyst suggesting that a BPM process will be stale and predictable. She suggests going out of your way to throw people together in unexpected ways in order to spark innovation.
Most of you have been around the block a few times, and are not surprised at the wisdom of these quotes. Of course human workers bring creativity and innovation, but only if you give them the space to develop it. There is very little about forcing workers to take any particular path, and these gurus uniformly do not imply that there even in a single best path to be found. Experienced managers know these things.
Consider this article from the American Management Association called “The Six Principles of the Psychology of Growth” which encourages organizations to convert knowledge into growth, engage the critical mass of the organization,” and engage the “Whole Brain.”
What is only surprising is how stark in contrast these quotes are to the idea of the cycle of “define, implement, execute, measure, and improve” which is the mantra of the BPM domain. Organizations are not machines, and we should not treat knowledge workers as interchangeable parts in a machine. This is not happy-speak about some sort of worker utopia, but instead well understood principles of leading organizations.
What we see here, is a clear difference between the goals of automating routine work, and the goals of facilitating knowledge work. They are different.