In the article, “When Should a Process Be Art, Not Science?“ Joseph M. Hall and M. Eric Johnson (Harvard Business Review, March 2009) present an argument that we may have gone overboard with process standardization. They state that many processes are more art than science and imposing rigid rules on them crushes innovation, and adversely impacts performance. Their arguments need to be lauded because once we start to look past our obsession with process standardization we will be able to recapture the American innovative spirit! The three key points made by them are: (i) Identify the processes that should and shouldn’t be art, (ii) Develop an infrastructure to support processes that are art, and (iii) periodically reevaluate the division between art and science. It is encouraging that now academic attention is being brought to bear on this topic!
The third point above is important because any new dynamic, such as change in competition, disruptive technology, market conditions, or a new generation of consumers/users, could disrupt status quo and redefine what should be art and what should be science. The authors acknowledge this but what needs further discussion is how quickly can an organization effect the change – art to science or vice-versa – and, do this without any significant loss of momentum?
It is not enough to be able to re-classify processes (art to science or vice-versa), just as it is not enough to merely develop an infrastructure that supports processes categorized as art. What is needed is an infrastructure that is flexible enough to quickly make the change and support the functioning of the new arrangement because a process could go from art to science or vice-versa very quickly. What is needed is an infrastructure that encompasses the necessary technology capabilities and the people aspects that will make it easier to reevaluate, reclassify, and work the new arrangement. With respect to the people aspects, a culture of process primacy needs to be in place.
We know that a lot of emphasis is given to establishing standard processes, and sometimes to new processes – but mostly during a major initiative or systems implementation. What is woefully lacking in many instances is the drive to sustain the focus on processes and to look at them end-to-end past the completion of that special corporate initiative or that major systems implementation. What is often lacking is a “business process perspective” which has been described in previous posts right here and in the community book, Process First. If the organization’s culture supports the view that process excellence is a key organizational objective, and there are individuals dedicated to working with business processes without being held hostage to technological or political limitations, then the infrastructure to support the entire range of processes – those that are science and those that are art – will be indeed effective in providing speedy relief.
This is the work that needs to happen while we wait to start big new projects.