The Real Inefficiency?

In my last post I outlined how concepts of product usability might be applied to the work place as Business Usability. I want to expand the idea of the conceptual model and how the modern knowledge worker is often at a disadvantage compared to their historic colleagues.

In everything we do there is a conceptual model and a mental model. The conceptual model describes how something actually works and the mental model is how we ‘think’ something works. The success in anything working properly for us is when those two models converge. When our mental model matches the conceptual model things are obvious and easy to do.

In many workplaces the conceptual model of how things work is embedded in the environment. Think of a train station, there is a ticket desk, a platform and a train. You go in, you buy your ticket at the desk, you go to the platform and then board the train. There are sometimes signposts to help you in larger stations. Here we know what the steps are because the environment, and our cultural knowledge, dictate this. Some stations/airports work better than others.

Think how relevant this is in manufacturing environments, production lines, where every machine and person has a place, the trigger is the incoming widget the output is the outgoing widget+. It’s easy to train people, and for them to sustain their understanding of what to do because their environment provides so many visual indicators. They don’t have to remember everything only enough to mentally piece together what they actually need to do. As humans we use this type of construct to save us having to store information in our long-term memory. For the vast majority of us long-term memory is incredibly inefficient, you know what it’s like when you try to remember the name of ‘that’ song or the author of ‘that’ book. What we are very good at is piecing together, or constructing, memory based on recognizable identifiers.

Now consider the typical office worker, or knowledge worker, where the environment provides no clues as to what happens next. A computer, desk and a telephone. Without these traditional indicators we have become inefficient as we have to work harder to piece together the steps required to meet our goals. We must rely heavily on long-term memory and spend a good deal of time looking for information, discussing with colleagues and guessing at the steps we need in order to get there. This is, perhaps, one reason why process improvement methodologies have not been as successful in the information domain as they have in traditional industries.

As we spend so much of our time staring at the computer screen it seems sensible that these identifiers should be embedded there. There are many software apps available that do a good job of providing the right amount of information at the right time to help you understand what you are supposed to do when you are using them. But outstanding user interfaces are still in the minority and they are generally limited to the activities for which they are used. They do not provide clues that lead you to them in the first place, nor what you do after you have finished using them.

What is required is a common platform that provides just enough information at the right time to the help user achieve their goals. Detailed procedures or complex flow diagrams are not ideal; they require examination and concentration that takes time away from real work. These new ‘conceptual models’ need to be instantly accessible and, where appropriate, interact with the underlying tools and applications that are required in order to complete the process.

Perhaps the biggest inefficiency in modern business is the time workers spend trying to piece together what they are supposed to do.


Make Your Business Usable – Business Usability

Your systems are usable right? They have great user interfaces that are a pleasure to use, everyone loves using them. But what about your business’ usability? For the end users, your employees, how usable is your business? What is the user experience like? If the user experience is bad workers are wasting their time trying to figure how to get work done. If the user experience is good workers are spending their time innovating and delivering the organisation’s goals and objectives.

So how does one make business ‘usable’? In his book, “The Design of Everyday Things”, Donald Norman sets out some simple principles for designers. 1) Provide a conceptual model, 2) make features visible, 3) map actions to features and 4) provide feedback. A conceptual model should provide a framework for what happens when and why. Sound familiar? The conceptual model for business is locked up in the process documentation, manuals and procedures that are common place within most organizations. The problem is that for the conceptual model to be effective it cannot be too detailed, overly complicated or simply unrecognisable to the user that needs it. And this is exactly the problem with much of the process documentation that is captured today. It is not created with the end user in mind unless the end user is considered to be a system or analyst. Care is not taken to provide just the right amount of information to the user completing the tasks.

Humans are intelligent creatures; they don’t need to be told exactly how to perform an action every time they do it. They need a reminder, a framework in which they can place themselves and act to produce a desired outcome. Overly detailed and complicated documentation will simply serve to confuse and frustrate the user. Thought must be given to the level of information required for that person to perform their tasks efficiently. It’s probably less detail than you think. Some areas may need more detail than others. Some processes may be highly regulated while others are completed infrequently or by unskilled labour. There’s a chance that these will need more detail but even then don’t overwhelm the user.

Make the features that make up your business, visible. These are the process documentation, the various systems and tools required by users to complete their work. Think about where the documentation is held today, some in the BPMS, some in the training system, some is on your hard drive and in various intranet and shared stores. Creating a portal and listing everything in it does not make it visible.

The conceptual model needs to be delivered to the user in context. It needs to be easy to locate. Some form of tagging is useful based on a taxonomy that is easily recognisable to the users. When the content is delivered to the user it should not just reference the system to be used it should link the user directly to it. This is about mapping what needs to be done to the tools required to do it.

Finally provide feedback to the users. Instant feedback should be provided when systems are launched, when workflows are kicked of or when data is committed. Holistic feedback should be given through real time metrics displayed in the context of the process.

I believe that improving your organization’s usability is perhaps one of the most important things you can do with regards to efficiency. It also supports the other two aspects of ‘social’ I described in a previous post. Combining all these approaches can make BPM an essential component of your social strategy.

Acronym tennis, BPM back on center court

I’ve never really understood the lengths some go to in order to argue a case for a single, agreed definition for Business Process Management (BPM). At best, the hours of debate bring some fringe insights into aspects of BPM not previously considered. At worst it’s a serious distraction from the real work of helping organizations focus on working better.

In fact I have always seen this as a distinct advantage. I hear a sharp in take of breath at this point. As I’ve discussed previously the words Business, Process and Management are entirely open to interpretation and for good reason. From a customer’s point of view this allows us to shape the definition to suit the organization and it’s specific problems. A definition can be agreed that fits the culture and supports the strategic goals.

However, recently I have found myself engaged in discussions with colleagues and analysts exploring advanced aspects of BPM. In order to fully understand these, and ensure we are talking the same language, I found it necessary to come up with a single definition we could all agree on before proceeding. So here is that definition, I’m sure to many it’s nothing new but perhaps some might find it useful as a simple concise description of BPM.

I start by describing Business Processes as:

  • everything an organization does in pursuit of its strategic goals.

Those goals may not be well defined, if at all, but they still exist even if only in the mind of the CEO. Employees may not know what they are supposed to achieve which is why I use the word ‘pursuit’. Business processes exist, they may just be unstructured and have no clear goal.


  • Business Process Management is a systematic approach to understanding and improving business processes in order to achieve the strategic goals.

Here I use the word ‘achieve’ because the assumption is that if the organization has matured to the point that it recognizes some form of management of what they do is required then they must know what they are trying to achieve.

It’s simple, it does not attempt to imply a specific tool set, it does not impose notions of customer needs or efficiency and effectiveness. The later are strategic goals and, like tool sets are agnostic of BPM. This definition does not impose specific approaches nor does assume an overly prescriptive methodology for documenting, governing and enforcing process steps. This is entirely up to the organization applying the approach.