Information Overload! – Making a case for Dynamic BPM


Foreword: Have you ever had one of those days where you have been out of the office and returned to an email inbox that is creaking at the seams? I am probably lucky in that I can manage my inbox proactively by using my PDA. Some would argue I have sold my soul to the ‘always-on’  personal time vampire, but that is tale for another day…..

In a world where email is commonly accepted as the primary electronic corporate communication mechanism, employees often find themselves having to filter through huge amounts of irrelevant emails to find those that are really intended for them. Assimilating the various pieces of information we deal with every day, prioritising the results and making decisions as to which to action, is a natural and logical process, one that we all do as a matter of course.
A problem however arises when the occurrence of these pieces of structured and unstructured information exceeds a threshold that is not always manageable by the individual. The resulting information overload can create an unintentional human bottleneck that may impede the normal workings of the organisation. On an individual basis this may seem like a manageable a problem but, consider multiplying this scenario by 50% of employees in an organisation on any given working day of the week.

This problem is validated by research from The Radicati Group into Information Overload and Corporate Email.

“In 2006, the average corporate e-mail user received 126 e-mail messages per day, an increase of 55% since 2003.

If users spend an average of one minute to read and respond to each message, this flood of e-mail traffic will consume more than a quarter of the typical eight hour work day – with no guarantee that users actually read the messages that are most important.

Additionally, if e-mail traffic continues to increase at this rate, the average corporate e-mail user will spend 41% of the workday managing e-mail messages in 2009.”

In most cases this form of internal corporate “spam” is exacerbated due the inclusion of large attachments, while containing a single obscure instruction like “Please review and approve”. The challenge this creates for an already stressed and time constrained information worker includes:

  • They have to try and discern what the email is about and if intended for them directly or someone one else of the many on the recipient list.
  • Once they have determined it is something they have to respond to, they then have to open the attachment to determine what the need to review and comment on. In addition there is usually no indication of when the response is expected to be completed by.
  • Having commented and/or approved the document, they then have to reply but it is not always obvious to who the reply must be sent so the vicious cycle of “corporate spam” is perpetuated.

So how does this relate to BPM you may well ask?
The occurrence of inappropriate and untimely emails, i.e. emails sent out of context but in relation to a specific process task, is often a symptom of an organisation that has broken and inefficient processes or lack of enforcement of existing business processes.

Many organisations believe that if they have well modelled processes (Traditional BPM), they will be well understood and therefore followed rigorously by the average employee. This is flawed logic.

Organisations are continually undergoing change and therefore the aforementioned Traditional BPM concept is not practical. It does not scale and is hardly ever implementable without vast amounts of bureaucracy. In addition, the complexity of the typical cross functional processes (traditionally manual and paper based) force information workers to “reinvent” or “informally optimise” an existing process due to time or resource constraints.

This flawed premise generally manifests and perpetuates itself in the form of the following organisational problems:

  • Management and employees have difficulty in making correct decisions due to not having accurate and timely information.
  • Information is of devoid of business context (not seen in as part of a business process) and therefore may lead inconsistent decisions.
  • Planning is often difficult due to ‘broken’ processes, poor working practices and inconsistent information.
  • IT systems that support the various business processes act as inhibiters rather than enablers as they are typically designed deployed and managed as information islands or stove pipes.
  • Enforcing business rules, policies and procedures is an arduous task due to poor process visibility, accurate real-time information and no integrated or consistent auditing.

In my experience, the dichotomy between Traditional BPM and the failure to move to a Dynamic BPM model is largely due to not adopting a pragmatic approach and solving a high value, high priority business problem.

Dynamic BPM enables dynamic business processes, improved visibility, control and timely information
Ensuring an appropriate environment exists to enable more dynamic processes, improved control and visibility, and timely accurate information requires the implementation of a BPMS technology enabler.

The instantaneous benefit that a BPMS will deliver is the automation of business processes, which in turn results in a structured and governable way of working. This means that information workers will only need to interact with a specific process when they specifically need to. For the activities where they are not involved the BPMS will take care of the process activities, notifications, escalations and executing business rules in the background.

They are therefore free to apply their time in a more meaningful way and therefore can be more productive. In summary, the general benefits that will be part of any process automation problem will include the following:

  • Visibility & Control
    Dynamic BPM provides visibility into the real-time status of an entire end to end process and any related activities for information workers and managers. This means that a more proactive approach can become common practice. This level of visibility proves highly beneficial when deadlines are approaching or work items are overdue.Furthermore, executives achieve insight into performance standards such as how long it takes an employee to complete a task, how many activities an employee can successfully undertake at once and how often an employee delegates tasks, thereby enabling better business decisions in the future.
  • Accountability
    Dynamic BPM supports a culture of organisational and personal accountability by tracking and auditing individual’s turnaround time and quality of work. It is also possible to do sampling of specific process tasks to ensure that compliance for critical tasks and processes is in place.
  • Productivity
    In addition to providing executives and managers with increased visibility and control, Dynamic BPM also drives knowledge worker productivity by capturing and interpreting the business context of each task and proactively providing the worker with the content required to complete it.

By proactively serving up the combined knowledge and assets of the entire organisation, Dynamic BPM significantly improves individual and organisational performance.

Postscript – added 22 September 2008:

A site that may be of interest to anybody who finds this interesting is the Information Overload Research Group (IORG). According to their website, they explain their purpose as:

“We are a group of industry practitioners, academic researchers, and consultants dedicated to reducing information overload, a problem which diminishes the productivity and quality of life of knowledge workers worldwide.”

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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3 thoughts on “Information Overload! – Making a case for Dynamic BPM

  1. Dynamic BPM = Model and Meta Drive BPM.
    A lot of BPM Solution today are still static and not able to handle model and meta driven BPM. Means that the model and execution of the process can be changed during runtime based on meta-data or non-developer based tools.
    Due to the economic situation more and more companies are demanding flexibel BPM solution which can be adapted on the fly, without need of long and expensive development cycles.
    Ascentn has a platform and solution called AgilePoint BPM. This BPM Solution and platform is from core-focussed on Model and Dynamic driven processes.

  2. Exactly right!
    I have been struggling with finding the right name for the type of human-intensive, ad-hoc, unstructured processes you describe. I have been using the term Human Process Management (HPM) instead of a modifier to BPM (e.g. Human-Centric BPM, Dynamic BPM) because the technologies and underlying science is completely different than for standard, stuctured BPM and the problem needs to be solved in a different way (http://exeedtechnology.com/email-and-human-process-management). I was worried that people would think that this can be solved by some type of exception handling in standard BPM tools – but the problem is much deeper than that. The standard BPMS toolkit (e.g. BPMN modelling,BPEL execution – even BPEL4PEOPLE) is not the right metaphor for these types of processes. In my opinion, think the type of business transactions described in Jan Dietz’s papers and the Winograd-Flores’ classic book on Understanding Computers and Cognition make much more sense as the underpinnings for describing the way people processes work in an organization. For whatever reason this area receives a lot less press than BPM, even though the issues involved are much more widespread. The only companies I know that focus on this area are ActionBase, ActionTech, HandySoft and Prolify.
    I have written a whitepaper on the subject which I’d be happy to share with anyone that is interested, just send me a note at jacob@exeedtechnology.com

  3. Very true!!
    I believe the combination of process and communication (usually in email) is the key success factor for dynamic BPM along with the ability to dynamically change the flow in an ad-hoc manner.
    ActionBase is doing just that… offering email and document evolution to manage dynamic human-centric business processes.

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