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The Assumption of Objectivity: A BPX-related Fallacy

Usually, a Business Process Expert (BPX) is assigned the task of improving a process.  BPXs and those involved in such projects rarely question or even examine the characteristics associated with the role.  Such individuals usually don’t have time or see the necessity of having such discussions.  The roles involved in such projects and their relationships to one another are taken as given.  Yet, often these roles are based on assumptions that are incorrect and which hamper the development of an effective project team.

The BPX as Observer

There are a variety of steps that are necessary to improve a particular process. Initially, the BPX must analyze the process – try and understand how it works. Without this knowledge (which can be acquired via discussions with process participants, analysis of the IT systems involved in the current  process implementation, etc.), the BPX will have difficulty improving it. There are various methodologies (See the BPM Methodology for one possibility) to achieve such tasks.

Irregardless of the number of steps or their individual characteristics, the BPX is usually initially placed in the role of the observer. The BPX comes from outside of the actual process in question – independent of the organizational underpinnings often linked to the process involved.   Indeed, the BPX role is often described as negotiating between IT and Business based on the fact that such external experts are seen as having an objective perspective regarding the process.  The BPX can speak both “languages” and is seen as someone who shouldn’t take sides – almost as if the BPX is siding with the process itself rather than those who use it or must implement it.    

In this blog, I’d like to ask the question: is this fundamental assumption correct? Is the BPX really an objective observer?

The Observer in Modern Physics

Recently, I’ve been reading a number of scientific thrillers that involve science and famous “scientific” personalities -Newton, etc (For example, Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott . Reading these novels has exposed me to a number of scientific theories including those of quantum physics. One of the most interesting theories in quantum physics questions the idea of the objective observer.

The following quote from a NASA page on mathematical thinking describes this problem in physics and why this problem is critical in scientific experiments.

The ideal observer is one who causes no unnecessary perturbations to the system being observed. An observation made by such an observer is called an objective observation. In our school physics and chemistry, we routinely assume that our observations are objective.

But reality seldom, if ever, provides us with ideals. The real observer always causes an unnecessary perturbation of some kind. Scientists must remain alert in their efforts to minimize the magnitudes of these perturbations. The extent to which they succeed determines the level of confidence they can claim in their results and, therefore, the certainty they can expect in their knowledge of things.

In the 20th century, physics was forced into the position of re-evaluating the role of the observer, both in relativity and in quantum mechanics. In relativity, the absolutes of Newtonian physics were banished, and observations obtained by observers in different frames of reference became all that was available. These observations were linked through a system of coordinate transformations.

In quantum mechanics, the observer and the system being observed became mysteriously linked so that the results of any observation seemed to be determined in part by actual choices made by the observer. This situation is represented by the wave function, a function in the complex domain that contains information about both the cosmos at large and the observer’s apparent state of knowledge.

The BPX as Scientist?

This description of the observer role in modern physics usually refers to some sort of scientist who is examining something. Let’s make a quick comparison between the roles of BPX and scientist to see if it adds any insights to our discussion of objectivity as it relates to the BPX.

Individuals involved in a particular process act out their individual steps in a particular order. This structure may be inefficient but it exists. Information and status information pass between the various tasks. This process exists without the involvement of the BPX.  Thus, at first glance, the BPX has no direct participation in the object being observed – this relationship is very similar to that of a scientist conducting an experiment.

However, as we look more closely at the two “professions”, it is obvious that the objects being observed aren’t the same – indeed, they have very different characteristics. A process is not the usual physical / natural phenomenon that a scientist examines. A process is something artificial created by man.  Thus, this fundamental difference leads to the BPX viewing the process being observed as something that can / must be changed. A scientist examining / measuring the gravitational field of a black hole knows that he/she cannot change the phenomenon in question.

The scientist goes through the following steps when looking at a problem:

  • observes → understands → describes

The BPX goes through the following steps

  • observes → understands → describes → improves

Thus, this fundamental difference shows that a BPX isn’t a scientist – the relationship of the observer to the object being observed is quite distinct. Even the fact that the BPX works based on a methodology doesn’t imply that the process improvement task is a science.  An understanding of this difference leads to a realization that the rules that apply to the role of BPX are different than that of the scientist.

Neutrality vs. Objectivity

A comparison between the definitions of neutrality and objectivity will help further clarify the matter.

  • Objectivity: judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices
  • Neutrality: the absence of declared bias. In an argument, a neutral person will not choose a side.

A BPX is often described as someone who negotiates between parties in an organization. For a negotiator to be successful, he / she must be seen as being neutral.   This neutrality is often assumed to be based on objectivity but this is a fallacy.  A BPX may be neutral but the BPX is not objective. An individual can influence whether he/she is neutral but an individual can not influence their objectivity concerning any particular subject.  Indeed, the discoveries of quantum physics question the possibility of pure objectivity at all.

As the quote above describes “In quantum mechanics, the observer and the system being observed became mysteriously linked so that the results of any observation seemed to be determined in part by actual choices made by the observer.” In our terms, the results refer to BPX’s analysis / suggestions. If objectivity isn’t possible in science, can it be possible in the world of process improvement?

A BPX – like any individual – is product of his/her own past experiences, history and upbringing, etc.  This “baggage” influences how the BPX responds to his/her project environment.  A BPX may try to be objective but this is an attempt that is destined to fail.

That fact that BPX isn’t objective isn’t something disagreeable. The important factor is that the BPX doesn’t assume that he/she is objective and 2) others involved in the project aren’t given the impression that the BPX is objective. This realization shows the importance of “people skills” for the BPX to be successful in their projects.  

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  • Richard,
    Your blog made me recall how I used to set time standards, a test for objectivity.

    I used to go down from a glass walled mezzanine floor to the shop floor to set a ‘time standard’ for a production operation at the shop floor, with a 3-stop watch board, clipped with a structured form and two pencils!
    My cold objectivity used to be sneered at by the operator, the union leader who passes by and even the shop supervisor.

    Firstly I used to talk to them about the job, about the method, about the machine condition, about the material supply, about the standards in general- whether they are achievable or not; and lastly about their trust in my competency to establish the time standard, indicating that another person may be called upon to do the job. Whatever related to the job was discussed also would be noted down and standardized. All their misunderstanding would have melted by then!

    I used to remind myself that I went there with a job of setting a time standard.
    So, chin up and be cheerful, I used to tell myself!
    The management expects me to be more objective, less subjective and be neutral.

    I used to reduce my subjectivity by becoming good at ‘rating skill’ by regularly attending the ‘rating clinic’ to internalize the ‘pace of a normal man’ so that the rating factor could be applied to the observed time to get the normal time, as a first step.
    I am a human being and hence knew my shortcomings at the work place.
    The beauty is that I knew how to overcome that too in due course of time.
    To be objective was a result of being and becoming less subjective.
    This was found to be achievable by addressing one factor after another, fully or partly.

    So, I think that being neutral is a basic requirement and reducing subjectivity is a process towards objectivity and then we maintain the objectivity, later to happily promote it!
    Then you would be called upon wherever objectivity is to be established!

    Your blog also made me refer again to ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters – An Overview of the New Physics’ by Gary Zukov.
    In a corporate situation both Observed and the Observer are people.
    They certainly would come to the scene with objectivity (o) and subjectivity(s).
    A BPX may be in a position to facilitate a process whereby gradually subjectivity would become lesser and objectivity more, comparatively.

    One who truly tries to be objective would never fail, a BPX or whoever.
    There may not be such a destiny for any human endeavour, I feel.

    Sam Anbazhagan

    • Love the title of your comment.

      As I tried to suggest in my blog – there is a difference between being objective and trying to be objective. No-one – not even scientists- can really being objective but many may try and be objective.

      One important trait of the BPX is that he/she try and understand all sides / aspects of a process. This necessitates that the BPX try and picture themselves as different actors. This task requires a certain degree of objectivity to be successful.


  • I forwarded this blog to a lot of people today – it is an important discussion.

    If a BPX tries to take a decision on something – what is the value in that decision, if he doesn’t bring in his “bias”, based on his training and experience to the table? And any one person’s definition of what is neutral/objective, might not sound neutral/objective to another one. A BPX with negotiation skills can have a bias, and still appear neutral to opposing sides, and finally get the result that he wants. But does that make the process improvement any better? 

    If complete neutrality is needed – then we cannot even trust a computer to do that.
    If a software program needs to make a decision, it needs some logic – some “experience” that a developer put there in the first place. The less criteria to make a decision, the more the chance that the quality of that decision is poor. The logic already has bias built into it since a human contributed to its origin.

    So my current position is that bias for a BPX is a good thing, and as Rich said – dont try to sell it otherwise to rest of the team. 

    • I agree. A BPX has a bias. We all do. This bias is also critical for the success of the BPX. The important thing is that everyone understands and accepst that this bias exists.