James G. Kobielus By James Kobielus

I pride myself on my tidy notes (I hear you laughing, all you people who’ve seen my chicken-scratch briefing scribbling) and my long detailed memory (yes, everybody, I know I’m a fountain of trivia and should go on Jeopardy some day — thanks for a lifetime full of comments to that effect).

But my memory has limits. So I build and hold extensible conceptual models in my mind, often in the form of the nuanced phraseology you may hear exuding from fingertips now and again. These mental models help me resurface a lot of buried info when I need quick access.

Business process management (BPM) is an area where I have so many overlapping models that it’s hard sometimes to keep them all straight. Sometimes, models decay through the passage of time (I didn’t say I’m photographic, Mr. Trebek). Sometimes, I simply dispose of the shallowest or more clichéd of the lot.

A couple of nights ago, I found my handwritten notes from 1997, summarizing a literature search I was doing at that time while authoring my first book, the IDG Books title “Workflow Strategies.” Reading the prettier handwriting of a 12-years-younger Jim Kobielus, I was struck by how little has changed since then.

What I mean is, how little the business vision — transformation, optimization, and agility — behind BPM’s value proposition has changed. My notes say this: “common theme [something something] most modern management books [something something] hierarchical workflows [something something] traditional corporate command, reporting, and review chain [something something] lack speed flexibility necessary for business success [something something] nouveau mgmt thinkers call for streamlined, nonbureaucratic, decentralized, parallel, team-oriented, customer-driven workflows.”

Also on the sheet was a quick/dirty tabular presentation of various business process reengineering visions (BPR — remember when that was the rage?). Various management gurus (for some reason, I don’t see their names on this sheet) used different buzzwords to describe more or less the same vision of the flexible, reconfigurable, distributed, knowledge-worker-driven enterprise. Here’s a quick reconstruct of those ink scrawls:

  • Business reengineering: Post-industrial corporations built around the idea of reunifying production tasks into coherent business processes.
  • Cluster organization: Multidisciplinary project teams working together on a semi-permanent basis.
  • Dancing elephants: Large companies that are massive but agile, surviving in the competitive arena by learning how to behave like small companies, establishing flexible project-oriented management structures, moving quickly to take advantage of opportunities, and cultivating close, responsive customer relationships.
  • Extended enterprise: Enterprise that uses information technology to implement high-performance team structures, function as integrated businesses despite considerable business-unit autonomy, and reach out and develop new relationships with external organizations.
  • Human networking: Dynamic coalescence of people with diverse skills into transient project teams.
  • Necessary disorganization: Dynamic construction of networks of small, self-contained elements, units, and businesses.
  • Networked organization: Highly decentralized enterprise that relies on contractors, suppliers, and consultants to perform many or most functions.
  • Perpetual organization: Organization that can take the form of any structure, based upon market demands at the moment.
  • Relational organization: Organization defined not by fixed structures but by ease of relationships.
  • Value chain: Organization modeled as interrelated series of activities that each adds value, directly or indirectly, to finished goods and services.
  • Virtual corporation: Amorphous organization with permeable and continuously changing interfaces between internal functions, as well as between the company proper and external suppliers, distributors, and customers.

A Google or two would probably establish which management guru promulgated which vision.  A deep dive into my moldering pile of 12-year-old paper might do the same. So, OK, I’m not as tidy as I claim, either on the notetaking or notekeeping side. And I’m no memory artist either (as my wife likes to remind me).

Regardless of who coined these particular phrases, they all feel beholden to Peter Drucker, plus a smidgen of Alvin Toffler and a dab of Tom Peters. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some ancient economist’s fingerprints all over them too.

Anyway, it all feels a bit like clever people dreaming up new ways to dish out the same old stuff. It feels like a case of everybody jostling for recognition in the crowded marketplace of ideas. Everybody’s working far too hard to add a dash of “this is now” to their pet coinage.

Do I sound jaded? Can anybody point me to any substantially new BPR (or what have you) thinking since then?