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More Value than Complexity!

I have a post-it note stuck to the wall behind my desk with these words scrawled across it: “More value than complexity!” I’m not sure where I saw this phrase, and I barely remember writing it on the post-it note, but every day there it is, floating in my peripheral vision. It’s a powerful idea; one that I think should guide our approach to developing and improving HR programs and processes. Too often, processes become overly complicated and bureaucratic, and attempts to improve them may focus on making things easier for the process administrators, rather than employees, managers or candidates.

I am so attracted to this concept- the idea of instilling elegance and logic in processes and programs, that a few years ago I signed up for a course at a local university focused on business process analysis and management, with mixed results.

Business Process Management

Business Process Management, or BPM, is not new, although its move to create a formalized body of knowledge (like Project Management’s PMBOK) is. The discipline grew out of an 80’s love affair between corporate management and ‘business process re-engineering”, an approach to optimizing business processes with historical roots in Japanese approaches to quality management and continuous improvement.

On my first day in class, our professor spoke about BPM’s ability to unearth unnecessary process steps, dead ends and inefficiencies, to get to the heart of a organization’s value chain….at some point in this first lecture he contrasted BPM practitioners with HR “We just can’t really figure out what it is they do all day, can we?”, before sheepishly asking “Hope there isn’t anyone from HR in here?”. I gave a brief and joyless wave, and experienced 45 sets of eyes slowly rotating to look at the strange creature among them…

BPM…You Complete Me

The thing is, that instant was a perfect illustration of a primary criticism of BPM as a discipline, but it also highlights the way that HR and BPM can complement one another. A key criticism of BPM has been that it focuses entirely on optimizing processes that align with a business’s goals and customer needs, but is blind to other issues that may be impacting organizational effectiveness. And that is where HR can add to the picture. Because BPM’s focus is exclusively on “value-add” processes that meet customer needs like billing, inventory management, shipping, procurement, it can overlook less tangible, but often equally important processes that support an organization’s performance.

While inventory, supply-chain, and billing can all be incredibly complex processes, especially in large organizations, they are still quite linear and black and white. BPM’s focus on inputs and outputs and the steps in between lacks any real acknowledgement of the intangible impacts on process performance: employee knowledge, preference, ambiguity, collaboration, social learning, networks, innovation, imagination, reflection, problem solving, negotiation and creativity.

Unless you are a robot or a zombie, these are likely to play a major role in how you perform processes associated with your job (okay, clearly zombies have ‘preferences’ …brains…but you get my point). Even in a linear process, the degree of non-linear problem-solving, ‘work-arounds’ and informal information sharing that contribute to its completion are difficult to map and quantify.

Making the Invisible, Visible

I took that BPM course because I wanted a systematic way of mapping recruitment, online training, performance appraisal and employee on-boarding processes, so that they could be made visible, rethought, and rebuilt as automated online processes. And it’s given me a number of tools to help me do those things. But it only paints half the picture. By combining these tools and techniques with an acknowledgment that organizational effectiveness and value are not only produced through linear, customer-focused processed, but also indirectly through less visible transmissions of informal knowledge, imagination and workforce capacity-building, we can take the best that BPM has to offer, and build upon it.

What HR Can Learn From BPM

  1. Analysis:  Too often, organizations simply don’t take the time or make the effort to consider the way in which changes will impact important day-to-day processes and the people who do them, because these processes are mostly invisible, especially when they are working well. Mapping processes makes them visible, often with surprising results, and HR should do more of this, rather than rely on outdated or incomplete job descriptions when advising on the potential HR implications of reorganizations or changes to business functions and processes.
  2. Efficiency: Approaching processes with the goal of reducing unnecessary, non value-add steps, can and should be part of what HR does. Step into the shoes of a job applicant, an employee, or a busy manager, and look at the steps in their “swim lane“. What can be combined, removed, reduced? This is part of focusing on candidate and user experience, but it can also reduce the bureaucracy and road-blocks that employees experience in doing their jobs. These obstacles are engagement and productivity killers, and we should make it our business to identify and remove them to support and enable our people.
  3.  A Focus on Root-Cause: You know that little problem that keeps rearing its ugly head, making everyone roll their eyes? Maybe your new hires keep falling through the cracks when it comes to enrolling them in a training program, or a certain report is always late, or turnover in a particular department is perpetually high. Otherwise brilliant people often come to accept circumstances like these- we even stop really seeing them, assuming they are just “the way things work around here”, part of the scenery. But switching gears to focus on finding and fixing the root-cause of a problem can unearth surprising contributors and levers to address or at least allay a seemingly intractable problem. HR professionals- get out your fishbone diagrams!

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