Historical analogy alert! Choosing successful routes to “The Future of Business Process” success finds an apt predecessor in history: the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. I recently went to my local library and checked out Steven Ambrose’s excellent book “Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869” (to which, upon learning of the aforementioned check-out, my Kindle-toting – and recent book-publishing – colleagues at the Center for the Future of Work inquired: “What’s a library?”). But I digress…
The biggest engineering undertaking of 19th century America entailed laying track thousands of miles across the USA to get from East to West the fastest, and to get the greatest returns. The 21st century version of this applied to the Future of Process really is about marrying the “where we are going” to the “how” – and new technologies applied to process to take you there. There are multiple paths you can take – which one offers the most efficient route?
Take BPO deals of today: many are currently constrained by thinking only in terms of volume, or numbers of FTEs, and not on driving successful business outcomes for customers. Now consider the days before the railroad shrank the concept of space and time in the late 1800s: the Pony Express, Conestoga wagons, and clipper ships sailing around Tierra del Fuego were the only ways to get people and things from East to West. But today, it is powerful information that is being transported at real-time speed and massive scale, instead of the railroad’s people, mail, and gold-bearing ore. Rethinking and remapping business processes using the application of SMAC technologies are at the center of it all. Future-thinking companies are using automation to better digitize processes, increase the speed and yield of valuable information. It’s also about shrinking time and space, and closing open process loops as quickly, accurately, and efficiently as possible. This isn’t about the number of people tied to “doing the process.”
But which processes and process segments – hundreds, if not thousands, among global corporations today – are the right ones to begin with? Before they could grade, blast tunnels and lay track to shorten the journey between the East Coast and California in the 1860s, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, respectively, had to undertake massive surveying work (which given the times – the Civil War - was fraught with political meddling: does the route go through the North, or the South? The Blue or The Gray?). The blueprint of different route options they had to consider so perfectly represents what 21st century businesses are up against today. Like those building the railroad, leaders have got to find the most efficient way to get to the other side, and jump the gaps of the next major shift in business technology.
This passage from Ambrose’s work is particularly apt. Here is President Lincoln intensely questioning twenty-eight year-old surveyor Grenville Dodge – whom he has just met for the first time - in Council Bluffs, Iowa:
“Dodge, what’s the best route for a Pacific railroad to the West?”
Dodge instantly replied: “From this town out the Platte Valley.”…
Why? Lincoln wanted to know.
“Because of the railroads building from Chicago to this point,” Dodge answered, and because of the uniform grade along the Platte Valley all the way to the Rocky Mountains.
On the other side of the continental divide, one of the unsung heroes in California history was Theodore Judah (for you San Franciscans, you know Judah Street, which – wait for it – has a train running down its middle!). According to Ambrose, Judah was “the surveyor who, above all the rest earned everyone’s gratitude... To start with, the Central Pacific was his idea. In his extensive explorations of the Sierra Nevada, he found the mountain pass.”
Like the mountains and valleys the railroad engineers had to traverse, today’s business processes contain their own topography (e.g., geography, process complexity), points of friction (e.g., increasing regulation, multiple handoffs, paper-based information flow, etc.) and sources of powerful process input (digitized and real time – increasingly derived from Code Halos). Some of these variables can act as lubricants to modularize processes, or amplify processes; they can tell you what your customers are doing, what your suppliers are doing, and how your business is performing. In total, they can help chart a path to the future of process, which in turn is really the future of business. These variables are also metaphorically similar to the railroad builders’ decision in the 1860s to follow the graceful contour of a hill, or deciding when the time/expense of blasting a tunnel through a mountain was necessary.
Where’s the easiest “Platte River” route to find maximum process efficiency, and effectiveness? The race in the 19th century was all about going from East to West. Imagine instead of timber, tunnels, steel and steam, those builders had access to fiber, automation, BI, mobility, cloud, and Code Halo technologies? They could have really gone… Anywhere. Or could they?? Future business strategies – and the future business processes that enable them – still need a destination. In some respects, this is a “race to the bottom, to get to the top”; start by looking for “the Platte Rivers” in your business, the comparatively easier processes that could benefit from digitization and automation. Factor in variables like repeatable tasks, and standardization of process, as well as process volume and scalability. But don’t forget: the route will, shall, and must adapt to getting to where that business strategy needs to go. To be continued…
Photo credits: World Digital Library