If reining in Business Processes Management (BPM) was all the rage in the eighties, then leveraging the power of emergent processes seems to be the focus and challenge of today’s businesses. To illustrate the case for Social BPM, let us take you through the realistic case study of a retailer who was under pressure to take swift, corrective action.


Scenario: Thinking Out-Of-The-Box

Gatsby nervously chewed the end of his ballpoint pen. It was 5.45 am on the day after Christmas -- 15 minutes to when the shutters of his Gloucester store opened for the ‘Boxing Day Sale’, an acid test for any UK retailer. A long queue of shoppers were waiting impatiently outside his store and help themselves to some of the best offers available.

Through the blinds of the shop window, Gatsby spotted the seasoned buyers in the five-hour-old queue outside his shop. These were the hard-nosed bargain hunters. Armed with granola bars and bottled water, they had come prepared for the long wait. Boxing Day was the one day for which they had been waiting the entire year. For this was the day when the most coveted of retail brands sported tantalizingly low price tags. With the massive crowds these sales attracted, stampedes at most stores were common -- sometimes resulting in severe injuries.

Inaugurated less than three weeks ago, Gatsby’s sprawling 14,000 square feet store was the newest in the chain of the high-end apparel retailer, Luke. It offered a wide range of apparel from the high-end Soleur fashion wear to their own affordable range of men’s office wear. Gatsby had spent his entire savings from his Army stint for this franchise located at the far end of High Street, a prime commercial area.

Although most of his staff consisted of new recruits, Gatsby was quite confident of handling the crowd. His confidence stemmed from the fact that the store was equipped with cutting-edge retail technology. The patented planogram retopology system leveraged the positional data of shoppers to provide suggestions for dynamically adjusting the store layout at different times of the day so as to maximise conversions. A state-of-the-art inventory replenishment system could anticipate sudden demand and instantaneously trigger the supply chain to prevent stock-outs.

As a franchise partner, Gatsby and his staff had undergone two months of retail training at Luke’s corporate office to handle any kind of situation, including peaking sales. Luke’s comprehensive BPM systems had workflows covering every aspect of their operations right from procurement to point-of-sales.

Best-laid Plans

Sophie the assistant billing clerk almost cringed when the shutters opened, a noisy crowd of shoppers barged into the store. Almost in the next instant, one of them stood grinning in front of her, holding a pair of Soleur boots like a prized catch in one hand and a credit card in the other. One hour later, Gatsby heaved a sigh of relief as everything seemed to be going pretty smoothly. At his desk, his customised operations dashboard showed a healthy inventory turnover and strong hourly sales.

Outside his room, however, the situation was not quite as pleasant. The queues at the eight billing counters were exceedingly long. While this was not unexpected for a Boxing Day sale, the queue’s movement was extremely slow, taking up to 10 minutes per person. Pat, the shop floor manager, tried to speed things up but in vain. Finally, he threw up his hands and admitted in his thick Irish accent, “We need to tell Gatsby now.”

When asked to intervene, Gatsby found that for the first time, a majority of the purchases had crossed the £100 barrier. It was then that it occurred to him that every purchase above £100 would involve issuing the club card at the Point of Sale. Filling a lengthy form in front of the irate customers was hardly the best use of time. The solution was to simply tell them to produce the bill on a later date and collect the card. However, the challenge was to alter the business process to reflect the current reality.

Gatsby phoned Mark, their BPM architect, who quickly grasped the situation at hand and offered an interesting solution. “We have a Boxing Day special workflow to handle just such a scenario. It was developed by Asil, one of our Manchester branch managers, last year. Our social BPM module can find that for you. Just enter the term ‘Boxing Day’ and approve the activation.” This was music to Gatsby’s ears and the solution worked exactly as Mark said it would. In addition, it contained various minor improvements in the workflow such as suppressing redundant promotion confirmation pop-ups that magically shortened the queues.

Social BPM: A Fundamental Shift in BPM

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” - General George S. Patton

Social BPM can, without exaggeration, save your job in such critical situations when edge-cases not often foreseen by the process designers crop up. Often, it is impossible to create a process that can handle every eventuality. Moreover, even if such an attempt is made, it comes with added complexities that affect its acceptability.

Clay Richardson defines Social BPM as, “Processes developed and improved through the use of social technologies and techniques.” BPM thought leaders have long been advocating the importance of agility in creating business processes. We can no longer rely on the traditional Business Process Reengineering (BPR) methodology of As-Is and To-be process modelling. The turnaround time has to be much faster and, more importantly, the processes need to be developed in a more bottom-up manner.

Collaborative creation of content is happening everywhere today -- right from wikis (Wikipedia) to news (Twitter). Collaboration is integral to the very nature of most human endeavours. Rather, creating a process and following it can be effective only in the most mundane of activities. Ideally, BPM must provide an expressive framework that facilitates reflecting the complexities of real-life processes within rich and evocative contexts. In that sense, Social BPM seems to be a step in the right direction.

Follow our continuing coverage of Information Management Agility including: