If we turn our minds back to the mid-nineties, we would observe a very different world. The global population was around five and a half billion, Bill Clinton was in The White House, John Major was the British PM, and the sporting world was looking forward with anticipation to the Olympics in Atlanta.
The business world at this time was generally getting back on its feet after the 1987 stock market challenges. Great corporate success stories were being acclaimed in the 80s and 90s. High profile books such as “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman heralded a new energy around what makes corporations tick.
But also around the early to mid-nineties, the re-engineering revolution was on the march. Onto the stage strode a whole new approach to business improvement. Organisations were looking at ways to not just improve, but rather to fundamentally re-engineering their business processes. The concept of Business Process Re-engineering or BPR became the new mantra of business improvement. If you were not talking BPR or going to BPR conferences, you were missing out. For some, it was embraced with evangelical fervour.
A whole new language was promulgated around BPR. Terms like cycle times, non-value added activities, as-is and to-be process maps all took prominence in day-to-day discussions in business.
So where did it all go? We don’t hear much about BPR today. Did it just disappear? Well not quite.
Process improvement is still important today, but four fundamental shifts have occurred in the evolution of BPR, and how process improvement operates today:
1. Major ERP systems such as SAP and Oracle have changed the landscape. Over the last 15 years, these and other major software companies have developed and applied process templates that rely heavily on best practice, rather than building from scratch. Of course, the software is configured to suit individual customer needs, but there is a significant foundation built around best practice. Process excellence remains of major importance, but the difference today is that many processes are shaped and configured around best practice.
2. A second dimension relates to flexibility around processes. Today, a major cry from many managers is the need for greater flexibility of processes to be able to respond effectively to customers and markets. This does not mean process anarchy, but rather the sentiments reflect the need to accommodate different types of queries from customers and stakeholders, greater ability to access and analyse customer data, and a stronger ability to quickly meet customer needs. The process challenge is ever-changing and in need of quick response.
3. Another important shift is the speed of change in technology itself. When BPR was becoming established, the internet was still in its infancy. Many people then were still becoming familiar with the term without really understanding its real meaning and what it could do. But technology has enabled massive shifts in the scope and shape of processes. For example, customer management processes have changed dramatically due mainly to technology. Many processes now are much more dynamic in nature with two-way flows of information, and with buyers directly connected to the business and fellow customers via social media and other means.
4. The final issue concerns the balance between people, process and technology. In the heady days of BPR, the focus was very heavily weighted towards process. In today’s environment, there is a stronger emphasis on how people, process and technology can work together in tandem to drive value and outcomes.
Process improvement is still alive and well, but in the past 5 years in particular, it has taken a step up in terms of intensity and speed, and now has a very different flavour from the strong BPR focus in the nineties.