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IT staff and Business Process

Two recent articles from the world of commerce and industry suggest that the leaders of information services (typically CIOs – Chief Information Officers) are becoming pivotal in helping to determine business processes rather than simply responding to operational demand.

An article in Network World suggests that:

On, there are more than 22,000 books dedicated to countless methodologies for mapping, modeling or managing business process. With all that knowledge loose in the world, you’d think we’d know more about the topic.

Yet in recent conversations with CIOs, it is quite apparent that this area is still a murky one…

And a separate one in Government Technology suggests that

The value of technology innovation is in bettering business processes, not in owning or operating infrastructure. …CIOs have the opportunity (if not obligation) to fill the void with disciplined management for government operations and service delivery….

Seeing the wood for the trees

One of the things that I attempt to do after facilitating a process review is elicit feedback from the library a few months after the event to get a long-term view of the usefulness of the exercise.

Almost universally organisations assess the exercise as valuable, even if (as sometimes happens) the goal posts have moved and the circumstances which led to the review have changed. Here are typical comments from four of last year’s reviews: meeting

  • “The exercise of mapping and having to explain of our existing procedures was very helpful as it made us stop & think what we do now, why we do it & do we still need to do it…”
  • “[We] found it useful just to get people around table and talk about processes…”
  • “The main impact of the process review was raising awareness within the team of the need to review, streamline and modernise…”
  • “The very process of learning and doing the process review process was very useful…”

Sometimes there have been unexpected beneficial side effects. One organisation reported discovering that about 25% of the stock in store rooms was marked as “in transit” because updating the status had fallen between two departmental stools.

Logical, yes; but is it Culturally feasible?

Reverse_ambulance_with_Star_of_Life In 1992 there occurred one of the most high profile IT disasters in the history of computing. The London Ambulance Service attempted to introduce a computerised despatch system. There were many problems and it appears likely that a few tens of lives were lost, pretty much as a direct result. There was a public enquiry and there have been many analyses published since. These differ in their emphasis, but one thing is clear: this was not simply a technical failure. Indeed the public enquiry concluded:

“…Management clearly underestimated the difficulties involved in changing the deeply ingrained culture of LAS and misjudged the industrial relations climate so that staff were alienated to the changes rather than brought on board…” [emphasis mine]

Societies have cultural norms that are so deeply ingrained as to be almost invisible to members of that society: for example in the UK it would be considered normal to paint a car bright gloss red and the walls of a bedroom in eggshell magnolia: but very odd to paint the car magnolia and the room bright red. There is no very strong reason why this should be so: it is just what we regard as “normal”. There are a host of cultural norms of this kind governing everything from dress (“…should I wear a tie or not…”) to food (lamb may be served with mint sauce, but not sausages with chocolate sauce).

The same kind of assumptions about what is “normal” or “acceptable” occur in organisations or even organisational sub groups like departments. Process change which cuts across these assumptions without recognising and addressing them is likely to run into trouble.

The 1992 London Ambulance Service fiasco was followed in 1996 by a very successful implementation that substantially improved the effectiveness of the service. The 1996 system was more robust technically, but it is clear that much of the success of the 1996 system related to efforts to address soft issues so that staff were enthusiastic rather than “…alienated…”

The conclusion for us is that process improvement (whether or not it involves technology) cannot be driven solely by cold logic. A change may be logically desirable, but if it isn’t also culturally feasible then it may be best not to make it.

Think in large enough wholes…

History is full of examples of people who took too narrow a view of a problem they faced. The French defensive Maginot Line along the border with Hitler’s Germany was bypassed when the German army swept through Belgium.



Another example: the 2000 Millennium exhibition was doomed to financial failure before it opened by the design of the Dome (in contrast to the Great Exhibition of 1851, guaranteed a profit before it opened, in part due to the cunning design of its central building – the Crystal Palace).


On a far more modest scale it is important to think in large enough wholes when considering library processes. An obvious example in a public library context is local demographics where an area with a large young immigrant population has needs and communication preferences that are different from an area of mostly older people.

2010_11_23_ILL There are more subtle traps though. For example, concerns about Interloan (ILL) processing have arisen on a number of occasions in Process Reviews that we have supported. ILLs are just one way of fulfilling a request from a borrower. This request might indeed be met by an ILL, but a suitable item might alternatively be found in the local catalogue, or specially purchased.

ILL processing should not therefore be thought of merely as a self-contained process. The wider context of borrower needs and acquisition handling need to be considered too. Even if you are not in a position to think big, at least you can think broad.

Process Review Webinar

We ran a webinar yesterday for anyone with an interest in the new Talis Process Review service. In the course of this we assembled a number of links which we sent to attendees. It seems that these might be helpful more widely, even though they are all available on this site, so I’ve reproduced them below:

The next Process Review Webinar is scheduled for 24 May 2011, 10.00am. This is a free event and is open to staff from any library regardless of LMS supplier.

Process Review Webinar

Review6 We are running an introductory webinar to give an overview of Process Review and the Talis Process Review service. The webinar is being run on Tuesday 1 March at 10:00 a.m. You can book a place here. There is also a link to the booking form on the Talis Process home page (click the Home tab at the top of this page).

This webinar is not just limited to Talis customers or even to those actively considering use of the Talis approach. Although some of it is, naturally, an introduction to the new Talis service, it is also intended to be in part a useful introduction to Process Review in general, and will for example touch on a number of alternatives.

JISC Process Review InfoKit

Capture JISC have a published Infokit on Process Review in Higher Education. It is well structured and easy to browse (the menu down the left divides the material into chunks which can each be skimmed in a minute or so and read in 3 – 5 minutes), and the whole is clearly written in a relaxed and engaging style.

One nice quote “….If you’re tired of being Restructured, Downsized, Benchmarked, Total Quality Managed, Performance Indicated or having your Scorecard Balanced try this common sense approach to business improvement…”

Overall it is an excellent overview

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Drivers for Process Review

There are, in general, two major reasons for considering process change:

  • A desire to improve efficiency
  • Adapting to changing circumstances

Whilst libraries (both public and academic) are, now more than ever, under pressure to do more with less, one of the recurring themes of the process review work done by Talis in 2010 has been in the second category: to address change driven by an increasingly self-service model of customer interaction with the library. For example:

  • Academic libraries have longer and longer unmanned opening hours.
  • Part time students expect to be able to request something on line and for it to be there when they come in.
  • Where previously a public library reservations would have sat on a shelf behind the counter, they may now be  on an open shelf and issued via a self service terminal

Process Review isn’t necessarily just about saving money. It is often about adapting to changing needs and circumstances

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Soft Systems Methodology – Part I

It is a commonplace that many attempts to “improve” or “re-engineer” business processes fail for reasons that are not always obvious to participants. Sometimes this can be traced to unexamined assumptions about the nature of organisations.

One of the more radical re-thinks of the nature of organisations is embodied in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). This was pioneered at Lancaster, primarily by Professor Peter Checkland. At its heart is a radically different view of what human organisations actually are. Most Business Process Re-engineering/Improvement initiatives unthinkingly take the view that organisations are like machines: that you can analyse their components, take them apart, put them back together and make them work in a different configuration, much as you might do with a car or a gas turbine engine.

Soft Systems on the other hand takes the view that organisations are not like machines Among other things, when assessing any proposed improvement it explicitly takes account of organisational culture by assessing proposed changes in terms of both their “desirability” and “cultural feasibility”.

The other consequence of this mindset is that Soft Systems encourages thinking in large enough Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding wholes: for example, not merely working conditions for employees but perhaps also issues such as the impact of changes to schooling policy on their child-care responsibilities, or of changes to bus routes on their commutes.

A good example of this “wide horizon” thinking which predates Soft Systems is the story of radar in the Battle of Britain. British radar technology in 1940 was not especially advanced. What was advanced was the way they used it. They had to invent from scratch a whole process for using the data well: all the paraphernalia of plotting tables and data filtering – even the selection of radar operators. It all worked because Hugh Dowding had organised for Fighter Command to practice the use of radar data in air exercises in the 1930s even before radar technology was actually available. Peter Checkland tells the story in his book Information, Systems and Information Systems: Making Sense of the Field. What won the Battle of Britain was not technology but an organisation honed to use it effectively.

So the core message of Soft Systems can be summarised in two precepts

  • Don’t treat organisations like machines
  • Do think in large enough wholes

These precepts are well worth keeping in mind, whatever method you are using to attempt to improve an organisation’s performance.

SPRINT Conference

SPRINT (Salford Process Re-engineering Involving New Technology – see is a process improvement framework devised originally at Salford City Council In collaboration with academics from Manchester Business School. Although widely regarded as a de facto standard for Local Government process improvement, it is not actually government funded.

I attended the 6th annual conference last month at Warwick. The SPRINT approach is predicated on the use of internal staff practitioners. SPRINT claim that about 160 organisations have such practitioners. There are also third party organisations supplying supporting software and/or consultancy: one of the presentations was by Pallas-Athena.

There were several interesting presentations, but for me the highlight was an energetic one by Dr Mark Batey (an occupational psychologist at Manchester Business School) on the psychology of creativity and innovation. This clearly has a bearing on process improvement in that devising possible new ways of working necessarily involves creativity. My personal selection from the points that he made were:

  • Excessive competitiveness in teams can mean less team-level creativity
  • A “Have a Go” attitude helps productivity
  • Confidence in sharing ideas helps
  • Confidence in applying ideas helps

These are quite difficult things to foster, perhaps particularly so in some environments in which libraries have to operate

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