Dehumanising BPM: a strategic mistake

Why empathy for front-line staff and customers is essential in process improvement efforts.

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Business process management (BPM) is looked on by many organisations as the most effective way to gain control of bloated legacy processes, to realise dollar efficiencies, and as a way to innovate and even disrupt.

This can all be true. But like most other efficiency efforts it can and does frequently fail before it begins, through bad planning. Planning should be recognised as a creative, intellectual exercise. If it is only technique and method, even stellar performance in business analysis, project management, and execution can be an uphill battle.

Looking at dehumanisation from this perspective, ICT executives and professional can help themselves become more aware of the potential for failure in three parallel dimensions:

  • lacking skills in critical analysis that transcends mere application of formulaic models and techniques;
  • myopia in removing organisational expertise and memory when shedding staff in the name of efficiency; and
  • projecting a potentially sociopathic lack of empathy for end users and customers by focusing exclusively on process.

Examining these in turn, it may be a confronting experience to critique one’s own credentials and performance, but self-examination is a crucial component of critical analysis and iterative self-improvement.

I can discern a trend in education and training for accountants, executives, and IT professionals: a trend towards a techno-scientific rationality that eclipses an ability to think outside formulaic, prescriptive models.

How does this occur? Two contemporary tendencies drive the devaluation of critical thinking. Short-term thinking, and the displacement of education by vocational training.

The first often takes shape as an overriding preoccupation with short-term efficiency or productivity gains, realised as increased profit or reduced costs. But not as a sustainable advantage. Short-term thinking may align with immediate remuneration incentives, but can leave many organisations badly placed over the longer term as competitors consolidate long-run strategies for sustainable benefits.

The second tendency is the displacement of what used to be regarded as a prerequisite of a university degree: a well-rounded liberal education that fosters critical analytical and thinking skills, and the capacity to function as a self-directed, civically engaged citizen.

That kind of education has been all but eliminated from degree courses for professionals, including accountancy, business, law, medicine, and the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) fields. Instead, undergraduate and post-graduate students are being taught how to apply models and techniques based on mathematical logics, and engineering principles. But at the cost of blanking out consideration of human concerns or values. This displacement of the humanities by a techno-scientific rationality reduces our collective consciousness about empathy for, and alignment with, human needs and wants.

What the humanities offered in education, and what seems in decline today, is an insight into the history of human societies and thought, which fostered not just critical thinking, but an awareness of human reactions to closed systems, to change, and to disenfranchisement. That awareness makes those who possess it less likely to treat staff and customers just as the abstract numbers embodied in in terminology like ‘full time equivalent’ (FTE), or percentage increases in productivity, sales, and profits.

Ironically, techno-scientific rationality is more closely aligned with the economies of command that characterise old-style communist dictatorships than it is with our nominally free market systems. Limiting choice with one-size-fits-all solutions, and eliminating the human contact necessary for meaningful feedback, is closer to arbitrary control of what we can buy, where, and for how much than it is to free competition guaranteeing choice and downward pressures on price.

Unlike economies of command, however, our system is not just limiting competition and choice now. It is also pursuing a relentless obsession with making people unemployed in the name of and efficiency and cost-cutting that never quite seems to deliver more efficient, lower-cost products and services.

Gartner’s digital humanism

The Gartner Group’s Brian Prentice explicitly recognised an exclusive focus on removing people from processes as ‘digital machinism’, and argued that organisations have more to gain from harnessing the talent and insights of ‘high-impact’ employees than from automated processes. Prentice called this approach ‘digital humanism’ in two research notes published by Gartner in January 2015.

He advocated that responsibility for a system or service should be broadened to include not just a line manager or service owner, but at least one other sub-management employee with insight into the frontline execution of the associated processes. This will enhance the opportunity for embedding operational serendipity and tinkering in continuous improvement cycles.

Prentice’s focus was on an organisational humanism, identifying and leveraging ‘high-impact’ operational staff by empowering them to break out of a traditionally deterministic ICT systems improvement mind-set. The mind-set I call techno-scientific rationality. In Prentice’s model, front-line staff are encouraged to embrace an unconstrained creativity in exercising their innovative capacities to improve processes in which they are daily and directly engaged.

There is room, however, to be more harshly self-critical. Creativity seems to be sadly lacking in entire cohorts of techno-scientifically trained executives and professionals. That means my peers. That means me. I think Prentice’s ideas should be expanded beyond operational staff to include executives and IT professionals as organisation-wide engines for creative and innovative thinking. Not as a feel-good exercise, but to allow an organisation’s products and services to become accessible to customers in less depersonalised, de-humanised ways than has been the norm for decades.

I see this as an approach closer to personal relationship-building than forcing customers and clients to squeeze themselves into the sharp-edged and bruising spaces of impersonal processes and automated systems.

A simple case study

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How does this play out in BPM. Let’s take a simple case study. Sally is a customer for internet access services. She has received a bill that includes a period before her service was connected, a charge for renting a modem she never asked for, nor received, and details that reveal she is connected to service type ‘a’ rather service type ‘b’, as she requested, and was led to believe she would receive.

So, she rings the customer help line and is confronted with a voice menu that begins with more than a minute’s worth of messages about using the company’s web pages to do things she is not interested in. Then she navigates as best as she can through the voice menu items, but after three minutes she reaches a dead end, with no more options, and the systems hangs up on her. It is a process designed to exclude her needs.

She rings again, has to listen to the same irrelevant introductory messages again, and this time chooses the option she knows will lead to an actual human contact: bill queries. And after fifteen minutes of badly distorted on-hold muzak, a real person does indeed answer the phone. By this time Sally is annoyed to be treated with what she regards as contempt.

But it gets worse. The helpdesk man is not a native English-speaker, and is obviously wearing a badly adjusted or cheap headset, making it almost impossible to understand what he is saying. Minutes tick by as Sally tries to explain her problems, and the helpdesk guy does not help at all by just reading from a script, repeating himself without thinking about what Sally is telling him, as if repetition alone will clarify matters. Eventually Sally establishes that even if the helpdesk guy wanted to help, the service provider’s internal silo segregation of functions mean he cannot do more than either take a payment, or escalate a complaint.

He does at least put Sally through to a ‘customer service’ contact. Sally wonders why the helpdesk system has made customer service an elusive touch point rather than a standard across all contact. Three more minutes on hold. Another thick foreign accent and bad headset. This time the helpdesk woman types notes, though, promising that she will escalate the problems she can’t resolve immediately to the relevant departments.

But Sally is already frustrated and tired. She’s keen to get on with making dinner rather than discussing what she thought were pretty simple fixes for pretty basic mistakes made by the service provider. And yet she faces one final insult. The helpdesk woman asks her not to hang up until she has answered a simple survey on her customer service experience! The survey allows only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply to a question about whether the last person she spoke to had helped to resolve her problem. Sally realises that channelling her anger would simply reflect badly on the last helpdesk person, but answering positively would mislead the company, creating an impression that their alleged customer service was not as breathtakingly bad and frustrating as it really is. So Sally just hangs up, without answering.

Sally has no idea whether her problems were really fixed, escalated, or likely to return. The internet service provider has no idea how shabbily they treat their customers.

Contextual empathy

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You don’t need to be a specialist to recognise in the case study a top-to-bottom contempt for the customer as a human being. The entire process assumes that the customer is a robot with infinite patience for dogged foolishness, and endless time to loop through deficient sub-processes, like a token traversing a business process model.

This corrosive de-humanisation begins with an executive focus on the cost savings of outsourcing the helpdesk to a third world sweatshop, with no regard to the impact this will have on customers, and probably no capacity or incentive for the helpdesk labourers to provide feedback for process improvements to management.

Then there is really bad work in helpdesk and voice menu process design, assuming a limited number of possible problems and solutions, with too few human ‘cut-outs’, meaning anticipated points of complexity at which direct human contact is offered as an option in the menu hierarchy. Any analyst ought to be able to anticipate points of complexity and plan for them. Not to do so is a carelessly callous absence of empathy for helpdesk operators and customers.

Empathy in the context of process improvement is not the commonly understood kind of emotional sympathy for someone experiencing difficulty or tragedy.

Instead it is the empathy of being able to conceptualise and understand the various perspectives of all the actors connecting with a process. This includes employees executing process activities, and functioning as error correcting controllers, but especially end users or customers.

Empathy means not defaulting to the idea: ‘How would I feel if …’, but recognising a pluralism of perspectives. ‘How would they feel when … .’ Depending on the complexity of the product or service delivered, empathy could demand sophisticated critical thinking about the factors that might influence personal perspectives, and which could sharply divide an assumed homogeneous demographic.

Such factors could include personal aspirations, educational levels, technology preferences. psycho-sexual orientations, and socio-economic factors.

Taking psychological profiles into account makes it easier to recognise the limitations of a professional techno-scientific paradigm and all the assumptions that flow from it. Especially if process improvement agents also work in specialist echo-chambers, with their own self-reinforcing assumptions and habits.

There is an attitude particularly prevalent among programmers who are used to distorting business processes to suit the fixed parameters of software systems that end users, including customers, should just get used to the ‘logic’ of those systems. Such an attitude can appear so arrogant that it is indistinguishable from sociopathy for people who are not STEM professionals. Many people would regard it as rude and contradictory to be forced to serve systems rather than to be served by these systems.

I think that perspective is entirely reasonable: there is no such thing as an IT solution; there are only business solutions. Some of those may use IT services, but never to displace or vandalise value-added customer service.

More pertinently for professionals, in a process improvement project it would be a mistake to dismiss careful consideration of human dynamics as soft-hearted. In environments that offer huge rewards to organisations that perform consistently better in customer service than their competitors, a focus on the human touch is in fact hard-nosed business acumen that might make the difference between success and failure.

End users and customers have an expectation to transact commercially, professionally, and socially in a manner congruent with society-wide values, which include aesthetic, behavioural, and ethical norms embedded in expectations about courtesy, helpfulness, and the indicators of transactional delight or satisfaction. Such norms are absent by default from techno-scientific paradigms. Putting them back into the mix might be challenging for some, but will prove to be a mark of professionalism for others.

A reality check here for process change agents is to consider whether any of the people affected by proposed changes, including customers, know of or care about the difficulties and constraints faced by the change agents themselves. Just as in a film, the acting is superb when you don’t notice that the players are acting, so in process change a project becomes seamlessly successful when those affected by it either don’t notice, or only notice the improvements.

An inability to exercise this kind of critical thinking, or self-awareness, is an unfortunately common failing in professional practice. At senior levels, and depending on scope definitions, it ought to be considered an indicator of incompetence.

Recognising customer disservice

This insistence on removing all human contact for the delusional efficiency of completely automated processes is what Gartner’s Brian Prentice recognised as creating ‘usability problems’ which ‘can become a major impediment to that system meeting its actual purpose’.

That is what appears to have happened to Sally in the case study above. There also appears to have been a failure to plan and provide for an iterative improvement cycle. Certainly the binary survey instrument acts as a shield against genuine customer feedback rather than a conduit. It is tempting to see this as a deliberate strategy by customer service executives to fudge customer service ratings in order to meet KPI or bonus conditions. Either that, or the people who designed the survey instrument were incompetent.

So, internal silo structures, lack of integrated customer service, lack of staff engagement with customer experience, and lack of empathy for the customer all contributed to Sally’s exasperating experience. An experience likely to be replicated thousands of times every day across different industries and organisations, but for similar reasons.

Designing service excellence

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The most immediate and obvious improvement that could be made in situations like the case study above is to scrap the existing process model.

Start again from scratch and apply the business process design principles –

  • What is the strategic purpose?
  • What are the operational touchpoints, such as departments, functionality, and workflows?
  • What is the customer satisfaction goal?
  • How can the touch-points be seamlessly minimised so that organisational demarcations never affectthe customer?

Flight Centre’s managing director, Graham ‘Scroo’ Turner is fond of telling his staff that when they look around to see what everyone else is doing, there’s a good chance they’ve all got it wrong. Turner’s unorthodox approach to staff motivation, strategic planning, and getting bottom-line results suggests he’s onto something.

What should that mean to ICT professionals? Instead of pursuing the vendor-driven orthodoxy of adjusting business processes to meet the limitations of vendor systems and business models, we should demand systems and models and that suit our processes. After all, what is the point in designing a process only to mutilate it in making it fit an unsympathetic system. That method inevitably means forcing end-users into even more unsympathetic interactions with a system never designed to execute a process which is, in turn, crippled by the ill-matched combination.

As ICT professionals we should all dream a little about what a delightful customer experience might look and feel like, and to whom. Process and system should fit the dream, not bring it crashing down to earth.

For example, does Sally, or any other customer, really want to hear a minutes’ worth of messages about things they already know every time they call? Can those messages not be an option for first-timers instead? If voice recognition software is viable, should customers be able to explain upfront what they are calling about?

Maybe, though, this is all the wrong way to go. Maybe we should consider how a completely unrelated industry is delivering outstanding results using entirely different perspectives on customer service.

This is real design. Conceptualising how to disrupt existing industry practices with ideas no one else has considered possible because they are all stuck in the same limited techno-scientific paradigm.

What could we learn from a travel services company about customer service? Online bookings become online support case lodgement. Online selection of travel options becomes online choice between email, SMS or personal contact. Contact with a travel agent becomes vertically and horizontally integrated case management of every customer by a single person or team, with extensive notes about contact history, product or service combinations, billing, and all other customer information. Customer feedback is solicited by the team, and solutions for potential improvements are developed in that team, linked directly to team and individual KPIs. Just some ideas straight off the top of my head.

There are endless other industries and business models to examine and borrow from. Innovation and disruption don’t always have to be unique, just paradigm-shifting within the industry at hand. And they do have to involve creative and critical thinking rather than reliance on fixed models, prescriptive techniques and tools, or any other professional excuse for dehumanising processes and service.

People make or break processes

At the heart of good design are people who value other people. Not just as the empty rhetoric and clichés disingenuously bandied about in management journals or seminars, but as a fundamental approach to professional activities. As a humanism that precedes and exceeds any management or technical expertise.

To find people who have the necessary empathy for others, and the necessary creativity to innovate and even disrupt, project team recruitment decisions may need to become more creative in themselves.

Instead of a slavish focus solely on ‘appropriate’ qualifications and work history, maybe HR people and other recruiters need to look for people with a creative background. A user experience/interface designer might be a better BA than a programmer for being more closely aligned with human concerns rather than the impersonal mathematics of algorithms. Similar cases could be made for people with backgrounds in communication, marketing, after-sales care, and many other areas not traditionally considered as core ICT specialisations.

But even among existing BAs, looking at evidence of vertical and horizontal skills diversification and integration might offer clues about who will be more likely to think creatively and innovatively.

The wider their domain of interests, the more likely it is that people will be able to connect disparate facts and ideas into creative, new ideas and solutions that connect with end users and customers.

It used to be widely acknowledged that voracious readers of literature were exposed to a greater range of human ideas, motivations, and insights than those limited to the narrow horizons of parochial experiences. Exposure to different circles of interest and thought might be evidence of greater capacity for empathy and focus on the human aspects of BPM than could be expected from people whose perceptions are limited by techno-scientific ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers’.

Enterprise architecture

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A personal reflection on making business process management less prone to bad design decisions, and less hostile to people, is to look for a vertical skills integration that ensures BAs are at least aware of the upstream and downstream integration of their work into a wider strategic whole, down to operational workflow, customer interfaces, and after-sales customer care.

For a BA the best way to evidence such awareness is to acquire at least basic skills in the areas of enterprise architecture, project management, systems/software development lifecycle management, and IT infrastructure topologies.

Enterprise architecture is not well or widely understood, but it does offer an integrated service oriented architecture (SOA) model, tracing capabilities and strategy through a high level visualisation right down to executable processes and code. Most important for BAs in understanding enterprise architecture is that its own modelling language, Archi, emphasises service oriented choreography. This is the visualisation of all interactions between people, processes, and technology across organisational silos, external partners, customers, and underlying IT systems. Models designed in Archi emphasise how every activity, function, and systems interaction is a service either directly to a customer, or to another service that is part of the end-user service, whether targeting an internal client, or an external customer.

SOA thinking makes it explicitly obvious that every organisational activity should be about offering a value-added service, or about eliminating activities and functions which do not add value.

Service orientation is not quite as evident in the business process management modelling language, Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN), though it too can be used to map choreographies. But in BPMN a deliberate effort has to be made to highlight value-added services and interactions by applying Six Sigma/Lean or other principles – if the BA knows how to, and why that might be important. In Archi that emphasis is built into the modelling conventions themselves.

Another technique that could be useful for BAs to understand and apply is immersion.

Immersion

Immersion

If an organisation is sincere in pursuing customer service excellence there is no substitute for immersion techniques.

This means immersing the BA (and/or other professionals) in operational environments for observation of how things are really done. There is often a considerable difference between what is actually done, and what is talked about in interviews or workshops designed to elicit that information.

Immersion might also include ‘mystery customer’ testing, to get a feel for what it’s like to interface with the organisation from the outside.

These methods may lie outside the comfort zones of professionals beholden to traditional techno-scientific paradigms, and they can be time-consuming. However, immersion is one of the few techniques that actually offers direct human experience of, and insights into, the processes considered for improvement, and the likely human consequences of various improvement options.

The difference between building a sustainable competitive advantage may well lie in making a commitment to the time, effort, and organisational paradigm shift necessary to serve customers by understanding them better, rather than by expecting customers to adapt to systems that often do not meet their expectations or needs.

Extrapolating this idea further, the difference between building a competitive advantage and being truly innovative and disruptive may well lie in working out how to leverage customer creativity and feedback itself to improve the way an organisation serves their needs and wants.

Simple though that may sound, the reality of many contemporary business practices and processes would make such customer involvement a truly innovative, and potentially disruptive practice.