Process Duality

I was reading Sandy Kemsley’s post on “The Great Case Management Debate” from the 2011 Gartner conference. One of her comments was that Gartner saw process as a continuum from structured to unstructured.

To me there are two reasons to try and classify business processes this way – one is to help people to understand where their process is on the continuum, and use that understanding to choose the right tools for the task. Another is to use that understanding to create an ultimate process tool that can handle the complete continuum. The problem is that in the real world that just like with wave particle duality  – there is a duality of process. Every real world process is a mix of both structured and unstructured activities and tasks – it is just a matter of degree, and you’ll tend to see what you are looking for – which means that for real world processes you won’t be able to categorize them in neat silos within the continuum. Real world end-to-end processes are both structured and unstructured at the same time!

Personally I also think that there is distinction between what works for the structured part of a process, and what works for the unstructured part – both from a technology and methodology perspective.  Not that underlying technologies from structured processes can’t be applied to the unstructured processes – but not in a simplistic way.

At ActionBase we made the conscious decision to focus only on unstructured processes, which led us down a path complementary to, yet very different from the BPMS path taken by structured process vendors. We often get dinged for our lack of traditional support for structured processes – which is understandable if you look at business process from a structured process perspective. For example, we don’t enforce a workflow or do straight through processing.

But if you look at the world from a unstructured business process perspective – then you understand that structured process tools as they currently exist just can’t do unstructured, unpredictable ad-hoc human intensive processes (at least not in a way that anyone would use), but an unstructured tool can be used to execute structured process (though not without losing a benefits that a structured process tool can provide).

At ActionBase we feel we have taken the first step to bridge that duality –not by claiming that people should use our tool for structured process, but rather by enabling structured process tools a way to truly support unstructured processes in a usable way. We do that not by enforcing a structure on unstructured processes, but rather giving users a tool based on email and documents that provides manageability, monitoring and tracking that can use in conjunction with a structured process tool; without enforcing an inappropriate structure on the process and its participants.

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