Software

Five ways to discover unstructured processes

Many companies tend to ignore unstructured processes and instead focus their IT efforts on the larger, structured processes like CRM and ERP. Here's why taking this attitude can be expensive.

Unstructured processes are everywhere in business. They are the ad-hoc, human processes that make the business run that consist of gathering information, collaborating and negotiating with others, and making decisions-fundamentally human activities. From an IT perspective, most of these processes are run using email and documents which allows the work to get done, but relying only on email and documents has fundamental drawbacks -- email overload, a lack of visibility and a lack of control and accountability. These processes are not just in the periphery of the business - but run the gamut from strategic planning to compliance tracking to audits.

Even companies with a process focus tend to ignore unstructured processes and instead focus their IT efforts on the larger, structured processes - like Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Business Process Management (BPM).

Focusing IT effort and investment on structured processes is not bad, but it may be missing the point. Analysts estimate that 60-80 percent of the processes that make a business run happen under the radar and are managed via documents and email.

Ignoring these unstructured processes is expensive. For example, an overlooked email causing a missed government regulation deadline that leads to fines and sanctions; an inefficient investigation of a customer fraud report causing unneeded additional expense and an unhappy customer; incomplete incident and accident management which stymies institutional learning and doesn't prevent incident recurrence; disorganized cross organizational projects that cause missed deadlines and lost revenues; and mishandled communication causes crucial parts to be delivered to the wrong facility.

All of these examples are caused by mismanaged unstructured processes. Of course, before you do anything about them you need to know they exist. So how do you discover your unstructured processes?

  1. Regulatory and Compliance processes - People-intensive processes thatare kicked off as a result of an external regulatory body. These processes tend to be ad-hoc and changing, but since they entail some type of penalty if not followed, they require the ability to be tracked and monitored. Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) processes are examples of unstructured processes that fall into this category.
  2. Exceptions and Escalation processes - People-intensive processes resulting from the need to handle an exception to an existing structured process, or an escalation needed to solve an issue outside the scope of the normal systems. They tend to involve a wide variety of different people, depending on the exact nature of the problem. For example, fraud escalation is kicked off by the normal fraud detection systems and requires that more human investigation be done to resolve the issue. One interesting side effect of these unstructured processes is that they can be used "early warning systems" of changes in the business and customer environment.
  3. Decision Implementation processes - Once decisions have been taken, they should kick off a set of processes to implement those decisions. How many times has your company made decisions that dissipate and never get implemented since there was no way to track and monitor the progress made? An example is the minutes of a board of directors meeting - the executable decisions kick off a set of unstructured processes to implement those decisions.
  4. Audit processes - Internal audits of different organizational activities and adherence to guidelines where negotiation is involved before findings are published. Tracking and monitoring these negotiations can ensure that the audit process stays on track and on target. Once the findings are accepted and published, there is the need to track the processes that were kicked off to address the findings.
  5. Complex Project Management processes - Managing a project is all about managing and coordinating the people involved. Gantt charts and project plans aren't enough, since they don't track the actual interactions between the people involved in the project. Once the work gets kicked off, there is the need to be able to track, control and coordinate the people processes involved in the actual execution of project.

Unstructured processes are human processes where a framework for getting the work done exists, but judgment and experience is used to adjust the process flow and outcome. Unstructured processes include negotiation and decisions.

They handle the "outside the box," issues and innovation. They have no predefined set of rules that can describe the people and expertise needed to complete the process, and people outside the department or even the organization may take part in the process. They are what make your business unique and valuable - and why ignoring them is not an option.

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Jacob Ukelson is CTO of ActionBase, a company that provides Human Process Management Solutions that enable businesses to manage their business critical processes.

9 comments
rochb
rochb

The author writes about identifying the processes but does not attempt to discuss any solution(s) on how to handle the unstructured processes. If the author wrote this article to only identify the need to highlight unstructured processes then that is fine. But, we should also make use of our posts to share solution(s) to problems, even if it implies that you flog your own companies suite of products. This approach would add punch/value to your article. Also, I do not believe that example #5 "Complex Project Management processes" constitutes an unstructured process. ..."to track, control and coordinate the people processes" in my own experiences in PM are not an unstructured process. In fact they are very structured as I have ensured that my project plans are designed to address "the actual interactions between the people involved in the project".

FLphotodude
FLphotodude

I found that in these instances, most people turn to excel to fill in the automation gap. Disparate spreadsheets - each without standards or quality control - are emailed, accidentally overwritten or deleted. Micro process automation via the web is the only way to really approach this problem IMO. Scott

ubwete
ubwete

Isn't that what contingencies - and contingency planning - are all about?

robin
robin

It's good to see someone else is picking up on processes that often are overlooked, but there are many more that the article still misses. In my consulting, seminars, book and other writings (most recently an article exactly on this topic in the June Software Test & Performance Magazine), for years I've stressed the importance of distinguishing the REAL Process from the Presumed Process. In addition to the fine unstructured process examples mentioned in this article, even with structured processes, what people really do often differs from the processes they think they follow. Moreover, the REAL Process includes beliefs, customs, attitudes, management practices, and skills. Traditional process measurement and improvement tends to be oblivious to all these processes other than procedural ones. Generally it focuses only on Presumed Processes which are defined and documented. That's why most process improvement efforts fail. To improve a process, one first must recognize what it really is and then address it accordingly.

psymons
psymons

Rochb, without trying to sound obtuse, there is a difference between Project Management and managing a project. As you point out, Project Management is a very structured process and ActionBase makes no attempt to do Project Management. . However, what ActionBase does do is it brings structure to those unstructured human interactions that occur when you're managing a project. For example, during a weekly status meeting, ActionBase allows you to assign and track actions that need to be done yet aren't necessarily going to end up on a gantt chart. And yes you can attempt to do them via email, excel and word, but those do get lost, overwritten and so on.

jacob
jacob

I am happy to suggest our product as a solution - ActionBase (www.actionbase.com). The reason I put complex process management as an unstructured process is exactly the reason you need a skilled project manager for those projects - each project is different from the previous. There are rules of thumb, best practices, guidelines that a skilled project manager uses - but the process itself changes and morphs as project unfolds, each as unique as a snowflake (sorry felt a bit poetic there:). The question is how you track the interactions between the people in your project - you could require them to use a wiki, or shared worked space - but in most cases the team uses documents and email to manage their interactions. But that means the project manage has no real automated visibility into the progress.

jacob
jacob

Web (e.g. Wiki's Mashups) is one way to go, but it requires people to change the way they work - which is always a problem. If you prefer to stay in the familiar Microsoft nevironment there are tools that enhance the email+document paradigm to habdle unstructured processes (like ours at ActionBase - www.actionbase.com.

dawndrummond
dawndrummond

Both the original article and this comment resonated with me too. When I do process assessments, I usually include in the report a section that outlines the team's findings for the following process dimensions: workflow, technology, motivation/measurement, job descriptions, policies/rules and facilities. Many times this exercise gets the team and management thinking about processes and relationships differently. However, I like the idea of also including an exercise that includes beliefs, customs, attitudes, management practices and skills. This type of exercise may identify better the real root of any process-related and/or technology-related issue.

FLphotodude
FLphotodude

The nice thing about using custom web apps is that you don't need to change how you work - the apps can be custom fit to existing processes. Its when a change is made to a COTS platform (think ERP) that people need to change their work. Software should conform to your rules, not the other way around IMO. Scott

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