Prediction for 2015 The Fall of People Process and Technology

I don't know how many more years I'll be able to keep it up -- every year I try to make predictions that are unique, bold and a little bit against the grain. Last year I predicted the rise of lefties, two years ago I went with big data finding an Andy Warhol all of its own. This year I'm going extra bold, and extra big: I predict an age old enterprise IT axiom -- People, Process and Technology -- will wane and emerge anew as People, Perseverance and Technology.

Pillar or Platitude?

First articulated in the 60s within operations research and organizational behavior circles, the People, Process and Technology model is now treated as a sacred touchstone of corporate leadership. So much so, that it is described as "the golden triangle" of managing an IT capability inside of any enterprise regardless of size. Almost every IT and business executive is intimately familiar with the People, Process and Technology paradigm to the point where it's frequency of use is just behind that of the variants on the most repeated platitude in corporate America -- "people are our most important asset" / "our people are the secret sauce."

If you have been watching the methodology trends in startups and large enterprises converge, you won’t be surprised to hear that the "process as a pillar" concept is now beset from all sides. When Jim Collins, author of "Good to Great," wrote that “The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline -- a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place,” he was referring to how an enterprise will purposefully attempt to speed expansion into a market and then use process and bureaucracy as a compensation mechanism for lack of sufficient discipline, talent and investment. In the years since Collins' masterwork published, agile and DevOps have taken over and helped enterprises be more comfortable with the concept of failure.

Large shops used to talk the talk that starts: “Do the right things right the first time.” Times have changed to the point where "failure is the new black" and shops, both large and small, compete for the throne of who can fail the fastest. This fast failure combined with fix forward mentality that emerged from the Lean Enterprise movement is one tiny step away from companies pushing process a few steps out of the foreground (and replacing it with perseverance).

Process Is At Odds With Failure

Stepping back again to Good to Great, we can recognize that the cult of process arose in order to minimize the chances of failure when lower skilled or less experienced people engaged in a task. The lower the bar is set, the tighter and more elaborate the process has to become in order to achieve its goal: minimize the possibility of failure. If companies are less concerned with failure prevention and more concerned with speed and iteration, the shift from process to perseverance becomes an easy choice.

World class change agents and innovators already know this to be true. When you combine continuous learning with the concept of gentle pressure relentlessly applied, positive results are just a matter of time. This is the exact same reason that process automation has emerged as the center tentpole of the DevOps movement. Process automation is the key to shrinking the cycle time of iterations. So if process automation is such an important keystone, why is it that I’m predicting process will recede in prominence?

Process is Technology

Process will recede, because it's already present and accounted for. Process is a form of technology. Our culture has come to think of technology as "involving hardware and software," but this idea is imprecise and misleading. Technology is systematic knowledge applicable to solving problems. The systematic process for tossing a crust and baking a pizza is a form of technology. The articulation and use of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) is a form of technology. The financial governance process for managing a multi-million dollar budget is a form of technology. What we refer to as process is more often than not the sequence of proscribed work events that must take place because the enterprise has not gotten around to automating those work events yet.

Even though I am a self avowed lover of our future robot overlords, I am not advocating for the elimination of people inside the enterprise. What I am advocating for is the orientation of putting manual effort stopgaps into operational dead-end jobs as a last resort rather than an "easy" compromise (with the exception of customer phone support -- automated IVRs are the work of twisted masochists and they must be stopped at all costs).

More and more enterprises are catching on to the idea that rather than ensuring success, process minimizes opportunities for failure and that process itself is a form of technology. Combining these ideas together is inevitable. People, Process and Technology is living on borrowed time. And if I’m wrong, I’ll just be perseverant and try again. It’s only a matter of time before the better idea emerges.

Title image by Lubaib (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license