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The Role of Social Networks in Process Evolution

In a discussion on Twitter, technology analyst and pundit James Governor (@monkchips) and Michael Bechauf (@mbechauf) from SAP were arguing about enterprise applications and processes.

As a BPX, I kept thinking about this conversation and it resonated in my memory. Although the conversation is relatively short, there are some very interesting ideas that I’d like to examine in more detail.  I’d especially like to focus on the idea of human involvement in processes as described in the conversation:

“Human disambiguation would be let the network of followers help me decide what to do next”

A Broader Look at Processes

Before we take a closer look at human involvement in this context, let’s take a broader look at processes. 

Processes are usually static entities with a certain number of steps / tasks that may be spread over various roles / individuals. Of course, there might be various paths through this process but these paths are known.  This static quality is necessary to assure that corporate “behavior” in the form of processes is repeatable and thus, measurable.  Without this structure, “chaos would reign” and employees wouldn’t know what to expect when confronted with a problem.

I’m assuming that many of us wouldn’t feel comfortable if we didn’t have structure / rituals in our lives – corporate and personal.  Dealing with unexpected events is often difficult and tedious – stressful.

However, from a corporate perspective, these unexpected events also represent innovation and opportunity. Such changes often occur in periods of social and economic upheaval where those corporations that are able to adapt quickly are able to grab market share from others that are slower or unable to adapt.

Social Networks and Unexpected Processes

Let’s return to the twitter conversation between James and Michael and see whether it is relevant to our discussion.

What happens when an employee is confronted with a problem / task? If the problem is known and has been performed many times (creating a PO, for example), there is a probably a process that has already been defined and, in all likelihood, is supported by technology – irregardless of what tools / software are involved.  What happens, however, when this task is new our unexpected? Of course, “new” and “undefined” are subjective. A new employee might be asked to perform a task for which a process has been defined but is unknown to the new employee.  The new hire could then ask a social network in the corporation (irregardless of which tool is used) and be pointed to a description of the process.

If you look at the conversation between James and Michael, they are discussing another use of this social network. They are implying that this social network doesn’t just provide information about existing processes but is used to define the process itself

What would this behavior lead to?

  • Dynamic processes that would reflect the knowledge of the network itself
  • Each process could be unique and thus, process-related KPIs/metrics impossible. Each process might occur once and then never again.  However, if the employee facing the problem was able to solve the problem more efficiently than if he had acted differently; wouldn’t the value of a “one-time-use” process still be demonstrated?

Of course, if all enterprise problems / tasks would be dealt in this manner, employees would be constantly bombarded by messages referring to tasks with the request to define an appropriate dynamic process. Thus, the use of social networks to deal with unexpected problems might be restricted to such problems where such an analysis is appropriate. 

The next challenge is associated with the necessity of identifying what tasks are new / unexpected. One employee can’t be expected to know all processes in his corporation, so how will this individual know when to use his network to define a new process? Maybe, ask his/her network? This ability to question whether a problem is new or not shouldn’t be restricted to some committee of process experts, because then you would have a bottleneck that would prohibit the most efficient use of the corporate knowledge pool. 

This dynamic process definition would lead to process evolution in which more efficient processes might be more likely to survive. Such an evolution is only possible if a newly designed process could somehow be saved and performed again. Thus, there must also be an avenue to move these newly defined processes into the existing process landscape. If this is not done, the benefits of this new process might not be widespread.  Therefore, these Web 2.0 tools need tight integration into existing process technology to support this transition.

As depicted above, social networks help the enterprise deal with unexpected / new tasks. Such networks might also be used to look at existing processes and see if they still work / could be improved. This would assure that old processes aren’t inefficient.


The basic premise of the ideas regarding the value of social networks is based on the assumption that the knowledge of the “crowd” is more appropriate / better than that of isolated experts (including BPXs).  Of course, if an individual has a small network of inexperienced / new employees, then this network might not be efficient as a group of process experts.  The ability of such Web 2.0 tools to support “discovery” is thus critical to assure that problems are solved the most competently.  “Discovery” means the ability of users asking questions or looking for information to find / discover those individuals who are most likely to be able to assist them.  

In order to support such process evolution, BPXs must be willing to use such Web 2.0 tools, be willing to engage with individuals who have questions, be willing to involve “the crowd” in the definition of processes and finally view collaboration as one amongst equals rather than an expert preaching the gospel to a group of possible converts.

Note: While I was writing this blog, I was struck by the problem of how to best to re-use information from one Web 2.0 tool in another environment – in this case, twitter / microblogging to a blog.  Ideally, I would have the possibility of marking this twitter conversation and moving into a blog so that I could use this information more efficiently.  Without such smooth transitions, each tool will remain its own island which will prohibit a better utilization of its knowledge.

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  • Pardon me for the pretty long comment.
    It is my random thoughts which I have been compiling for past few days:
    Engaging the people for a common understanding processes, by a BPX.


    The best description of a process would appear when someone is pointed finger at for lack of results!
    They would say, ‘It’s not a magic. It is a prooocess!’
    They would mean’ It takes time. Because, it involves diverse entities. It involves interconnected activities.’
    They would be right and their understanding may be appreciated and refined further there upon!

    Opportunity to learn software to describe a process

    People also describe their process well if they are provided with the new software for this purpose. They want to use it and show their competency! We used ‘FLOW’ way back in 1997 and it was very encouraging to allow them to learn the software as well as to make them describe their processes and thereby educate them on process approach.

    Now with further improved software people would certainly come forward to use and benefit by it to depict their processes and understand it better; especially if what they prepare finds a place in a manual for reference by others, of course with provision for authorship, and approval.

    A forum to highlight their processes

    In addition if the department is provided a forum to describe their processes and how they contribute to the overall process of the company, they do it very willingly. If they also get an opportunity to highlight their best practices or the improvements they have gained, it makes them all the more eager to describe their processes!

    BPX, an archeologist!

    A BPX may, with some companies, have to act like an archeologist too. In the sense that like for an archeologist even a small broken bone would do and he would build the whole structure and describe its functions and so on, the BPX may be able to build around whatever little or one running process in the company and make the people understand process approach by profiling the process.

    Profiling a process

    The profile of a process may involve:
    –     Title of the process
    –     Purpose
    –     Roles
    –     Responsibilities
    –     Authorities
    –     Inputs
    –     Process steps
    –     Outputs
    –     Procedures, including reference to any Work Instructions, Standards, Guidelines
    –     Monitoring and Measuring Indicators
    –     Key Performance Indicators
    –     Principles involved such as quality, customer satisfaction and such others. 

    There could be others too, different and few in number. It would depend upon the competency level and requirement of the people involved.

    Way to think on excellence

    The Monitoring and measuring activity would slowly lead them to seek excellence, as the target would get revised progressively. This would be an important outcome.


    Process steps incorporating related principles and values

    Every process would promote certain principles and values with in-built steps. It may be efficiency, effectiveness, quality, systematic approach, customer satisfaction and so on.
    This would be an interesting understanding. It would also make one understand the time to be taken for processing as well as the importance of timing of an output.

    Suppose then we say: ‘ “Principles-in-process” means the ongoing (temporal) discovery of the meaning of principles, for only in process (that is, over time) do their meanings emerge. It means keeping principles rooted in one’s temporal consciousness, not treating them as entities (‘unity’, ‘the Absolute’) existing independent of consciousness. For process wisdom, after all, is an attitude and action of persons. Principles exist in a person’s processes of relating to the world.”

    This would be intelligible to them and the relevant principle would find its space in reality. The espoused principle and the principle in action would align – a major benefit from process approach. It is this realization that would drive them towards process excellence, one can hope.

    Explaining a process to different level of personnel

    When we talk about process to people in a company, we should be able to talk differently to different level; that is by describing different facets of process. A BPX desirably be clear as to which facet must be told to whom
    – to the personnel at operational level,
    – to the personnel at supervisory level,
    – to the personnel at management level,
    – to the personnel at general  management level,
    – to the personnel at director level and
    – to the person at the top.
    All of their understanding together would form the understanding of process approach in the company.

    A Director if told the simple definition, he would say ‘that’s obvious!’
    What he means may be ‘It’s not that simple!’
    For them one must describe including the complexity, ambiguity and explain how knowledge of process would help to reduce the sense of uncertainty at their level.
    If their need for ‘What’s in it for me?’ is satisfied, introduction a new process would be easier.

    BPX to serve as a window to development in the field

    The explanation must provide a chance for a higher level of understanding also based on the views of scholars, like the one quoted above. A BPX for this purpose would serve as a window for them. They might get slightly convinced and satisfied, a bit curious to know more as well as to get posted on further development in this field of study.

    A book, an article, a conference etc., may have to be provided as a means of exposure to them on the subject. This kind of educating them would help the BPX to engage them fully in the introduction of process approach in the company.

    Example of business principles

    For example, the quality management system as per ISO 9000 standard is based on the following eight principles:
    Principle 1: Customer focus
    Principle 2: Leadership
    Principle 3: Involvement of people
    Principle 4: Process approach
    Principle 5: System approach to management
    Principle 6: Continual improvement
    Principle 7: Factual approach to decision making
    Principle 8: Mutually beneficial supplier relationships

    As to know how the eight principles are described, we may look at one of them namely the principle of process approach:

    Principle 4: Process approach
    A desired result is achieved more efficiently when activities and related resources are managed as a process.

    Key benefits:
    – Lower costs and shorter cycle times through effective use of resources.
    – Improved, consistent and predictable results.
    – Focused and prioritized improvement opportunities.

    Applying the principle of process approach typically leads to:
    – Systematically defining the activities necessary to obtain a desired result.
    – Establishing clear responsibility and accountability for managing key activities.
    – Analysing and measuring of the capability of key activities.
    – Identifying the interfaces of key activities within and between the functions of the organization.
    – Focusing on the factors such as resources, methods, and materials that will improve key activities of the organization.
    – Evaluating risks, consequences and impacts of activities on customers, suppliers and other interested parties.

    Some of the benefits would certainly appeal to management personnel. When different benefit is seen as applicable by different management personnel, the principle would have a full play in the company yielding maximum benefit within a specified period of time.

    For detailed description of other seven principles, the mentioned site may please be visited.

    Thus, it may be said that there may be several ways of making the business people understand the process approach and this would lead to their understanding the business model and all that it promises.

    sam anbazhagan

  • Social networks or “wisdom of crowds” have more efficiency of coming up with correct solution than a coterie of knowledgeable experts (provided the sample of experience drawn upon is sufficiently large enough).  Tools that that enable this interaction with social networks are required to be integrated into any ad-hoc process requiring definition.

    I was drawn to this article because I was thinking about the efficiencies per se of social networks over individual endeavours. Knowledge with utility take effort to create. It’s hard writing blogs.  Commenting and answering questions is easier. In the latter, the context is apparent, and specific to the question. However, with the former, much more effort has to made to show relevancy and introduce sufficient hooks for the thread to be picked up. That’s a hit and miss affair. Much better to use a peer to peer type process engine that spreads the effort (aka forum), so the user can, with the right search tool, cherry pick the best answer.

  • I just revisited a blog I wrote when BPX was launched back in 2006. It summarized the community input around “ What is a Business Process Really”.  I tried to consolidate definitions then, but today while looking in Wikipedia for an updated, Business Process definition I saw this twitteresque short form: “Process is a structure for action”.
    This micro definition made me realize there is a distinction between Process and Business Process.  I think the glossary definition I used 3 years ago still might have some merit: “Business Process: A set of activities transforming a defined business input into a defined business result.”
    The first definition describes a container for steps, actions, activities, tasks.
    The second implies an not only the structure for the steps but an outcome.
    To piggy-back on your “island” idea (also introduced by Babu in his post called Islands, the business process is more than just a bunch of isolated steps or tasks the moment there is business context.
    The real question would be whether human disambiguation could also mean a set of followers who may not have all the context necessary for the most informed and best outcomes.
    I shudder when I think of the “crowds” online, egging on another online participant to commit suicide as we have heard reported of late.
    I also shudder at times when I think of a Kathy Sierra take on the “wisdom of the crowds” which often is really “ the dumbness of consensus“.
  • I wish there was a preview available before submitting comments! The first part of my comment was an attempt to confirm my understanding of this excellent blog. The second part was an endorsement that social networking is inherently more efficient than structured or individual answers, with an example of blogs vs. community discussions. Hope that makes my answer easier to understand.
  • I’d like to see some clearer examples on the use of Web 2.0 for knowledge acquisition. The wisdom of crowds is not necessarily an synonym for the madness of crowds. Bad information is always a problem, however it is generated. I would hope that a Web 2.0 discourse and debate would shed light on The Truth, or a closer understanding of what it might look like. An alternative is a handed down fiat, with all the validation done beforehand. Yes, there are problems and security with both approaches, but there’s an opportunity create by easy communication tools to look at how feasible group-derived solutions can be, and if they are better tailored to unexpected situations.
  • Barely Repeatable Processes
    here from Zoli Erdos
    here from Ross Mayfield”

    “Most employees don’t spend their time executing business process. That’s a myth. They spend most of their time handling exceptions to business process.”

    “… the greatest source of sustainable innovation is how you’re handling these exceptions to business process.”

    “… So I’ve always looked at it as we’re doing the other half of enterprise software: making this unstructured information transparent.”

    This social media(twitter, yammer) just layers more immediacy and history (transparency) to process decisions.