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An Information Perspective on Process Reengineering

by Duane Degler
Originally a client briefing paper from 1994

Information is often confused with data, and so in recent years with computers. Computers are only one of a wide range of communication mechanisms, and they are often only dedicated to strict, formal patterns of communication. However, communication is not necessarily formal. The information upon which key decisions are based may be collected verbally, say at the coffee machine first thing in the morning! This makes the information no less valid or valuable, but much harder to quantify when defining the impact of any new processes, working practice, staffing or organizational structure.

Because of this, organizations could potentially lose important aspects of themselves through the process of introducing change, simply because elements of value (information and knowledge) are overlooked when introducing a new way of working.

Understanding the flow of information, and its "lifecycle" from creation to destruction, helps reduce the risk when undertaking any redesign or reengineering activity, in the following ways:

  • Before an initiative begins, to understand the impact of required information on critical business needs, from long-term strategy through the spectrum to daily operational performance
  • During the initiative, to ensure the right information is available to measure, tune and modify the initiative as it progresses
  • After the initiative has ended, to leave procedures and tools in place that monitor the quality of on-going activity and provide indicators for further improvement

 

Pitfalls to Avoid

1. Disrupting informal communication

Consolidating and clarifying formal channels of communication is a key BPR activity. However, unless all channels of critical information flow are identified ahead of time, it is all too easy to disrupt informal communication which has an impact on available organizational knowledge. Two contrasting examples of this:

  • An open plan environment with sales people and team managers all working in the same area. Changes in structure reduced the number of managers, and gave them the added comfort and facilities of offices. However, in the open plan environment they had been able to overhear conversations, thus they could be pro-active in asking questions and offering support. The change disrupted a critical information-gathering process and informal "mentoring" roles in the department.
  • A manager started out with a separate office, which was then removed as part of an open plan arrangement intended to improve communication. What hadn't been identified as part of the formal task identification activities was people’s ability to walk into his office for a quiet chat in order to get support and discuss sensitive issues. The change reduced informal communication and conversational "open-ness."

Informal communication is a fundamental part of the culture of an organization, and the information and communication can be affected by changes which seem unrelated. This has knock-on effects on knowledge transfer, peer support and opportunities for individual continuous learning.

2. Removing an important information source

If wide-scale change is implemented too quickly, without identifying the implications and feedback mechanisms, vital supply routes for critical information may be irretrievable. It's important to identify information issues at the start, then to observe continuously the availability (supply) and requirement (demand) for critical information.

Imagine the nightmare of giving someone early retirement, only to find that the most important information about a particular process is locked in his or her head and was only communicated verbally. Discovering this too late creates a new, more urgent impetus for reactive change!

3. Making the "translator" redundant

Reduced management layers could unintentionally cut a key message-passing or translating function which previously improved the intelligence value of information. Middle management, if functioning properly, serves not only a message passing function, but a filtering and interpreting function. Before changes are made to this aspect of the organization, clear decisions should be made about how these activities are to be carried out. This can only be done when clear measurements have been made of what those translation activities are.

Filtering, which may include summarising, reduces the amount of raw data which needs to be digested by executive management, creating quality information. The more responsibility executive management have, the more they need information communicated in a clear, simple form for action to be taken. The filtering process cannot always be systematized, as many bad experiences with Executive Information Systems (EIS) and data warehouses have shown. The nature of the filtering required probably changes constantly. Also, only some of the information (and little of the interpretation) will come from formal sources.

Alternatively, an Information Management overview identifies whether methods of automating and synthesizing data can be created that allow subjective data to be translated into more objective intelligence.

4. Losing mid-term performance focus

One effect of reducing management "layers" is the possibility of creating an attentiveness gap in the monitoring and guidance of the direction an organization is taking. The executive emphasis on business strategy paints a longer-term, 2+ year vision (though this appears to be shortening with each passing day). There is an increasing operational emphasis on transactional processes, which might be seen to look in the immediate-to-two month timeframe. Middle management formerly had the role of looking at mid-length timeframes between operations and strategy, and ensuring that there was continuity between them.

By focusing processes and staffing on "doing," reporting/informing may not have an adequately-timed view of the effect of short-term performance on the ability to remain aligned with long-term strategic direction. The nature of the critical success factors to be put in place, and the requirements for monitoring them, need to help inform the organization in relation to those timeframes.

An alternative perspective on this is the role of middle managers as guardians of continuity, making sure that underlying operational/functional efficiencies are not lost as a result of short-term change initiatives brought about by external (stock market and investor-driven) motivations.

5. Buying new concrete boots

There’s an old saying that people often get things done in spite of "the system" rather than because of it. How flexible does the organization need to be to meet the changing demands of the external and/or internal customer?

One potential outcome of the drive to redefine internal processes is the establishment of new, fixed processes. It is not unlikely that once a new process has been defined, people begin to work within that process without built-in measurement and testing of whether the process continues to fit the changing external environment over time.

The keys to overcoming this pitfall lie in identifying that "dynamic" processes exist, setting objective measurement criteria to assess regularly the effectiveness of certain processes, and designing information capture techniques that highlight these problems.

6. Increased requirement for "common knowledge"

There often seem to be two likely outcomes of BPR activities:

  • A re-focusing of staff activities externally to provide a more effective service to the "customer"
  • A reduction of people as the more efficient processes streamline operations

With both of these outcomes comes the requirement for a wider knowledge base for every member of front-line and operational staff. Correspondingly, a greater quantity and quality of information is required by more people. This creates supply issues for the information infrastructure, increased skills training requirements, and a greater need to monitor the quality and security of the information.

The technologists have been racing to the fore to exploit the power of networks and intranets in providing information to front-line staff. But it is not primarily a technological issue! Only a small part of a person’s job performance is related to the information at their fingertips. Quite a bit is related to how well they understand the available information and can apply it constructively when required, even when their activities have no involvement with computers. Their performance is affected by what information is actually available, how it was defined as being relevant for their use, and the ability of the system interfaces and support tools to provide adequate guidance and direction within the job setting.

7. Empowerment decreasing visibility

"Empowerment" is a positive, encouraging buzz word, as are its cousins "devolving responsibility" and "local decision-making." One of the important elements in improving efficiency is the promotion of autonomy and decision-making power down to the lowest levels of the organization, the "coal-face" roles. The managerial danger is that if more people have decision-making autonomy, there is a greater potential for unmanaged drift from a standard orbest practices.

This has been highlighted in customer service organizations where more staff have a direct role with customers, each person offering a wider range of services. Increasing the autonomy and initiative of line employees, without careful management of information, can reduce management visibility and eventually overall business control.

To avoid this, organizations must build into the initial planning adequate techniques for alerting and measuring what is being done at the coal-face, in order to assess the impact of any empowered decisions on the organization as a whole. The results of these measurements must be able to be synthesised quickly and directed to responsible management. In this way management is able to maintain an alignment between strategic direction and immediate experience.

 

Copyright, Reuse and Citation

The content of this article may be referenced with the appropriate citation information (see below). The entirety of the article must not be reproduced without written approval of the author (Duane Degler: ddegler@ipgems.com).   Also, I would appreciate your notifying me if you use these concepts in any other way, as I am curious to know where they prove valuable.

To cite the material, please include the following information. I recommend the format: 

Degler, Duane (1994). An Information Perspective on Process Reengineering. Online. Internet. 1994-2000. Available www.ipgems.com/writing/bprarticle.htm.

 


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Duane Degler 1999-2008