For effective business process design, focus on user experience first

Clay Richardson, contributor

In the movie "Fight Club," the main character makes a new friend and the two team up to form a network of brawlers that meet regularly for unorganized street fights. Toward the end of the movie, it’s revealed that the main character has schizophrenia, that he invented the new friend as his alter ego and that he was essentially fighting with that alter ego throughout the movie.

The "Fight Club" story line reminds me of the dysfunction within the business process management industry today. When I work with customers on launching and growing their BPM programs, I see many teams struggling to reconcile the multiple personalities and approaches for driving process improvement and business transformation.

On one hand, teams are being pushed to focus their BPM efforts on driving back-office productivity. On the other hand, the same teams are being pushed to focus their efforts on driving front-office engagement, often partnering with mobile and customer-experience initiatives.

From process re-engineering to process improvement

Over the past 20 years, the BPM discipline has grown out of business process re-engineering concepts that focus on analyzing and optimizing end-to-end processes to automate humans out of the equation. When management author Michael Hammer first introduced the concept of business process re-engineering in a 1990 Harvard Business Review article, he pointed out that managers should focus on eliminating and automating non-value-adding tasks that are done by humans. In similar fashion, Six Sigma practices were brought to prominence by General Electric, with a focus on removing variability from business processes and standardizing business processes across operating units.

All too often, BPM teams are applying outdated approaches to new challenges that require a different way of thinking about process design and process transformation.

Arguably, Six Sigma, business process re-engineering and other traditional process-improvement practices in use today have yielded impressive efficiency and productivity gains in the back office. A recent Forrester Research study found that 63% of BPM initiatives reported overall improvement in productivity metrics as a result of applying BPM practices. However, this same study also indicated that only 44% of BPM initiatives reported overall improvement in customer-experience metrics from applying BPM practices.

What's the reason for the gap in success rates for improving productivity versus improving customer experience? Put simply, BPM methods and practices haven't kept pace with new disruptive drivers -- for instance, customer experience, mobile and social -- that are changing the very definition of business processes.

All too often, BPM teams are applying outdated approaches to new challenges that require a different way of thinking about process design and process transformation. The traditional definition of business process focuses on modeling, analyzing and improving the end-to-end sequence of activities. But the emerging definition of business process emphasizes optimizing individual tasks for convenience and rapid completion (that is, faster decision-making).

In other words, the new definition of business process places greater emphasis on the experience that users -- employees, customers, partners -- should have when completing a given task in the process. This change represents a major shift in how to approach business process design. Currently, no widely adopted business process methods or practices exist to help teams embrace this "user-centric" approach to process design.

Moving toward the 'experience-first approach'

Earlier this year, I published research with my Forrester colleague Simon Yates that outlined an emerging set of best practices for applying an "experience-first" approach to business process design. Based on customer interviews and case studies, we documented how leading BPM teams are reinventing key business processes for mobile engagement.

During the customer interviews, I began to get a sense that most teams had ditched business process re-engineering practices in favor of practices that put key tasks under the microscope and focused on how best to design them around a desired outcome.

In our report, "Mobile Engagement Demands Process Transformation," we outline a three-step process for putting user experience first when designing business processes. Although the report primarily focuses on how to optimize business processes for mobile use, I've also seen a small handful of teams using the same approach for applying BPM to drive customer-experience transformation. The three steps we outlined in the report are as follows:

  • Step 1: Prioritize key processes that can benefit from optimized experiences. The key here is understanding that not all processes will benefit equally from experience optimization. Our research determined that teams needed to look at business processes along two dimensions to identify the best opportunities for improving engagement and outcomes.

The first dimension focused on the "convenience" factor, evaluating whether the process could have greater impact if it were convenient and could be completed quickly. The second focused on the "contextual" factor, evaluating whether the process could have greater impact if additional physical and historical context were used to help guide users towards faster completion.

  • Step 2: Connect customer journey to process maps to surface critical touch points. Just as all processes won't benefit equally from experience optimization, not all tasks will benefit from experience optimization. Similar to the lens applied in the first step, we found that successful teams identified the most critical steps -- that is, touch points -- in the customer journey that required deeper focus on improved user experience. These teams then traced these touch points back to back-end operational business processes to identify which tasks in the core business process needed to be redesigned.

  • Step 3: Redesign business processes to skip or accelerate tasks. Using context to allow users to quickly complete tasks means breaking down the back-end processes into discrete components, which Forrester calls "atomized processes." To create great process experiences that accelerate task completion, teams need to redesign tasks at this atomic level and bring in historical data and analytics to help simplify decision-making.

Looking ahead

At the end of "Fight Club," the movie’s hero ultimately kills off his alter-ego. As BPM increasingly shifts to focus on front-office and customer-experience challenges, I expect a similar storyline to emerge around the usefulness of business process re-engineering and Six Sigma practices.

In the next three to five years, expect to see traditional BPM methods and practices to decrease in adoption, with new "experience-first" approaches emerging to play a greater role in driving business process improvement and business transformation.

About the author:
Clay Richardson, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, specializes in business process management and enterprise architecture. Contact him at crichardson@forrester.com.

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