I was caught off guard recently when a potential customer asked if Fujitsu provided “Industry Templates” along with the BPM platform (branded now Fujitsu Digital Transformation Platform). Industry Templates is a term that refer to a package of all the processes normally found in an industry that one might need as a starting place for building out that companies processes. This question is a problem: industry templates simply don’t work. IT is tough to explain to a potential customer that they are asking for something they don’t need and shouldn’t want.
BPM 2019 – Vienna
I am attending this week the 17th International BPM conference located in Vienna Austria this week which is the prime place in the world where the leading academic researchers get together to share their latest findings and to explore future directions together. I have attended this conference about 6 times, once invited to give a keynote, and I always find this conference an interesting and stimulating chance to see what the latest deep thinkers are thinking.
The conference started with a keynote by Kalle Lyytinen a professor at Case Western Reserve University. (See summary of talk at Column 2) He has been studying business above the technical level: how businesses structure processes and how they change across time and space. They compared how the same process varied across an organization and between different organizations. Unsurprisingly, they found that processes vary greatly across different departments within a single enterprise. They also found that the variation between enterprises to be even greater even for the same process from the same industry.
Wil van der Aalst asked a question after the talk, and he mentioned that researches are University of Eindhoven have found that while studying the fairly basic “Quote to Cash” processes, they are finding hundreds of different variants of the quote-to-cash process within a single organization. This is not because the organization is failing to implement a robust process, but that there really are that many different ways that the organization needs to take different products into different markets.
Templates are a Mistake
This calls into question the entire idea that an industry template would be useful at any level. It has been my experience with customers that such templates are worse than just useless — they actually waste time. It is well known that starting with an existing program that nobody knows can take longer to change to fit the purpose, than it is to write the program from scratch. The effort for a new programmer to understanding an existing program can easily be greater than writing a new program from scratch.
When an organization decides whether to use Java or C# or any other programming language, who asks if there are “templates” for programs in their industry? When purchasing a database server, again no requirement for industry templates for the data base structure for different industries. Why is it that for a BPM system the templates are desired? It seems there is an intuitive feeling that such “standard” processes should exist — maybe because processes are supposed to be simple and all the same, whereas writing a program or a database is complex and unique?
I am reminded of Tom Malone who started the Process Handbook project at MIT in the mid 1990’s. He got funding from the government to map out all of the processes that all industries would require. The idea was that any company would take the book, look through the varieties of processes, pick the right one for them, and their process would be instantly automated. This concept was naive because it underestimates the need for variation because of specific organizational location, specific local laws and customs, specific product differences, specific customer differences, specific people who are in the organization, specific history of that company, etc. All of these differences overwhelm the commonality of an industry.
To give a specific example, both Ford and BMW make cars, but there is no reason to suspect that their processes will be anything like each other. Different countries, different materials, different supply chain, different people, different culture, difference customers, etc. Why would we think that there would be a small set of processes that would be the same? Or even similar?
BPM Industry is not Helping
Customers ask for templates, and so BPM companies are happy to sell them. Even though there is no evidence that they actually help. Academics have studied this and we know that processes are do different that copying another company’s processes is likely to be more of a hindrance than a help. I am sure there are individual cases that worked out, but I am not seeing a lot of reports of people claiming that the templates that they bought were helpful.
- If you are considering purchasing industry templates, consider carefully whether this is realistic. Why do you want them? Are you sure you will get value from them when research says that it is unlikely?
Maybe you are better of planning to write the right process from scratch that fits your specific organization and use case.