When Larry met Ernie – how Web 2.0 powers business process improvement

Visualize the following scenario: BigMachine Corp. – a machine spare parts supplier – sees its performance slip drastically due to inefficient business processes.

Larry Shutter – the overworked, underpaid employee who “owns” the parts supply process – is ordered by his manager to correct the situation…or else.

Faced with the dim prospect of losing face – and his bonus – Larry consults Ernie, a business process expert (BPX). The two start confabulating on how existing business processes can be enhanced so the KPI issue is resolved, and Larry gets his bonus.

Over the weeks, several others join their conversation – including Dale, the SAP technical architect (as the company uses SAP software to manage its supply chain), Bert, a junior BPX – and other stakeholders.

Now imagine the interaction between these key players occurs via social networking tools – such as wikis, blogs, podcasts and gliffys.

BigMachine Corp. is a fictitious company. But the scenario outlined above is actually being played out as part of a unique initiative dubbed The BPX Community Project.

Those spearheading this initiative say it exemplifies the tremendous power of “community collaboration” – via Web 2.0 tools – in fostering business process improvement.

“Community involvement in business process improvement represents an entirely new level of collaboration,” says Richard Hirsch, senior consultant, Siemens IT Solutions and Services.

Hirsch was a speaker at a seminar organized by the Americas SAP User Group or ASUG at its conference being held concurrently with Sapphire 2008, SAP AG’s annual conference in Orlando, Fla.

ASUG is the world’s largest customer-run community of SAP professionals.

An SAP mentor himself, Hirsch has first-hand experience in the use of social networking tools to communicate to people in a very tangible way what business process transformation is all about.

Around a year-and-a-half ago, he – along with a few colleagues – spearheaded the The BPX Community Project.

The power of a story

While based on events in a fictitious company – BigMachine Corp. – Hirsch said the scenario depicted is completely true to life.

“We decided to create an illuminating story of a business process improvement project, complete with a cast of characters.”

The idea, he said, was to follow this project over its entire lifecycle, from analysis to implementation.”

In doing this, Hirsch and his colleagues sought to capture – not just specific project deliverables – but also interaction between participants.

This was crucial, he said, as the soft skills inherent in these interactions are critical to the success of any business process improvement project.

The critical importance of the human factor was also emphasized by Ranjan Baghel, principal SAP NetWeaver consultant at Fujitsu Consulting Inc., who was also a speaker at the session.

“At the end of the day, technology is just technology,” said Baghel, who is an active blogger on BPX issues.

“It’s the way people influence and interact with technology that determines a project’s success or failure; that’s why we focused on real life experiences and roles.”

Initially there were just two characters in the story – Larry, the business process owner and Ernie, the BPX.

However, over time, other characters were added representing 11 discrete roles (such as SAP developer, quality manager and so on) to make the scenario more realistic.

Adopting a scenario-based approach had many advantages, Hirsch noted. “We wanted this project to be repeatable, so others could take up the idea and run with it.” A scenario helps achieve this goal as it can be duplicated, he said.

The scenario also provided a degree of focus, as it put the spotlight on a single process (depicted by the scenario) “from beginning to end, from analysis to implementation.”

Interaction between diverse roles in the scenario was captured in scripts – which Hirsch defines as conversations between two or more roles (for instance, a BPX talking to an SAP solutions architect).

These conversations – conducted via instant messaging (IM) – were then posted on to the Community Project wiki on the SAP Developer Network (SDN).

A wiki for your thoughts

The wiki, it was discovered, was eminently suited to fluid nature of the interaction, enabling changes and modifications to be made by the community through the progress of the project.

After the IM conversation was captured and placed in the wiki, others in the community would come in and change the script based on their ideas and needs.

“We wanted people to be able to bring in their real life experiences and relate these to an imaginary setting. And the wiki was perfect for this,” Hirsch said.

So twenty-two scripts were created – each an hour long – covering a gamut of issues a BPX would encounter.

“We discussed everything,” Hirsch said, “pain points, process roles, solution maps, KPIs to measure process projects. As every script is about an hour long that’s a whack of content.”

While the scripts were fluid and free-flowing, each was related to a context, which was a business decision that needed to be made – such as the selection of a KPI, for instance.

Role shift

Role shift was another technique used to give participants a holistic view – enabling them to “see” issues from perspectives other than those relevant to their own roles.

So someone who is a BPX in real life, for the purposes of the script would take on the role of a process owner or an architect.

“We gave participants the ability to jump out of their skins – to gain understanding of where others were coming from,” Hirsch said.

The goods on gliffys

Besides the wiki on the SDN, other Web 2.0 channels were harnessed.

For instance several key participants, including Baghel, blogged on the project to promote it, as well as to share learnings, best practices and pitfalls.

Podcasts were also used as a way of publicizing the project, with scripts serving as the basis for podcasts. “We would turn the script into a podcast, so people could listen to it offline,” Hirsch said.

Gliffy – an online tool that enables the creation and editing of images, and diagrams – also tremendously boosted collaboration levels among participants.

Process work involves a lot of graphic material and initially PowerPoint graphics were placed in the wiki, Hirsch noted.

The drawback, however, was the participants could view those images and graphics, but couldn’t edit them.

That ran contrary to project strategy founded on collaboration.

So eventually PowerPoint material was replaced with the “gliffy” – used as a wiki plug-in.

The Gliffy tool took sharing to a whole new level, Hirsch said, providing the ability to create, edit and collaborate on the various types of graphics a BPX tends to use – such as flow charts, schemas, site layousts, swim lanes and more.

He said the ability provided by the gliffy to edit – not just text, but graphic information as well – makes interaction between participants deeper and more meaningful.

Cartoons, he said, are another effective way of promoting the Community Project and educating community members about its progress.

Not by collaboration alone

The tremendous potential of Web 2.0 technology in fuelling the success of process improvement initiatives was demonstrated by the BPX Community Project.

Participants also experienced the usefulness of community involvement in process improvement projects.

However, Hirsch had a caveat to add.

“It’s difficult to use Web 2.0 through the entire process lifecycle – all the way from analysis to implementation.

There’s often a break between existing tools of a technically-oriented business process change project and Web 2.0 technology, he noted.

“For instance, when you document something in a wiki it’s difficult to move to it to a different [software] platform.” He urged technology vendors – such as SAP – to respond to this issue.

Also, he said, for a project to gain acceptance – a solid foundation is a pre-requisite. Items such as defining tasks, milestones and so on are critical – pure collaboration alone won’t cut it.

That said, however, he reiterated that vital importance of Web 2.0 tools and channels – such as blogs, forums wikis, gliffys, podcasts and more – in fostering community acceptance.

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