Modern Process Design & the Appian World event

Design Thinking, Modern Process Design and Mobile are hot topics at most user conferences. But at an event like Appian's recent shindig, you got immersed in the cool changes underway in businesses and business technology. Here's a perspective on the evolving tech/process/business world.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

What more of us could have learned about modern process design at the Appian World event


Businesses are all over the map when it comes to how their processes work.  If you thought that the business process re-engineering (BPR) wave of the 1990s sorted all of this out, you’re wrong.

A lot of businesses have processes that follow the very linear and internal focus of the old transaction based information systems they’ve used for decades. These processes were not designed with the customer, vendor or any other external constituent in mind. Nope – the process design follows screen input needs. And, sadly, these processes still work the same way today.

Don’t believe me? Twice today, I had to give my name (spelled out, of course), street address, city, state, phone number and more to my cable/phone/internet provider. This is remarkable as I am not only a customer but my phone service is with this provider. I even asked one of the reps why their systems don’t instantly cross-reference my phone number (it’s available via any Caller ID technology) and load that into their customer database?  I was simply told that their systems don’t do that.

If someone were designing a customer service process, wouldn’t it make sense to start with a design that begins with the customer first?

At Appian’s recent user conference, I ran into customers across a wide cross-section of process excellence. Let me categorize them into via a maturity model of sorts and let you decide where your firm fits in.

Appian 1
Copyright 2013 - TechVentive, Inc. - All Rights Reserved


At the bottom of the maturity model are firms with broken or dysfunctional processes. Any company can periodically end up here. All it takes is a major merger, divestiture, bankruptcy, re-organization, etc. to push a lot of confusion and chaos into the business.  I heard Appian customers describe how they knew they had screwed up processes. These customers didn’t even have improvement statistics to share with others as the dysfunction in their firms was so acute that they skipped any benchmarking and got straight to design of newer functioning processes.  These organizations were more interested in stopping the ship from sinking than in measuring the rate with which it was taking on water. I get that.  One customer said they gave the Appian tools to their users so that they could start documenting heretofore undocumented processes. Only after these processes were sort of codified could the company begin to make improvements, add appropriate control points, fix interfaces, etc.  In effect, the Appian software was initially used as a documentation tool (but this is, in all fairness, a gross underutilization of the technology).

These firms with broken processes often had too many redundant systems, processes, procedures, handoffs and interfaces. Worse, no one understood them or had a command of more than a few percentage points of the total problem. If work was getting done, it was happening in small pieces and getting tossed over the wall to someone else to shepherd or reject. 

Another group of customers had functioning processes but they weren’t great. Yes, the business work was getting accomplished but it was often messy, slow and not oriented around achieving business strategy.

These processes are potentially expensive to operate and rarely exemplify best or top quartile process designs. More often, these processes simply work. Elegance, efficiency or effectiveness are afterthoughts to these processes. How did this occur? These processes are often the result of decades of enshrining old business methods, old technology and personal work preferences into an environment that may no longer be aligned with what the modern firm and its customers want and need.

I heard Appian users speak of situations where they have realized that THEIR processes were driving their own customers crazy. And, when the customers get perturbed, the processes drive the customers away. 

The late Michael Hammer would be appalled to see how badly so many customer-facing processes operate today. The poor outward facing processes we encounter as consumers are unconscionable but commonplace. In my opinion, Appian could make billions just selling its tools to the tens of thousands of firms that are in this very predicament.

The third group of customers has top performing processes. While that sounds like a cause for celebration, it isn’t. These organizations have very efficient and effective processes. Their process costs are very low. But, these processes are often designed to satisfy internal, not external, constituents. As a result, these processes are why it takes weeks to get a home mortgage, an insurance policy, or, in my case today, a new phone line (which I still didn’t get after two tries).

When processes are designed from the other perspective, revelatory moments occur. For all the talk of companies embracing the Voice of the Customer (VOC), improving Customer Experience (CX), etc. , few actually do anything about making the customer’s experience with their processes a success.

Of the few firms that get this last point, I have seen some enlightenment. It comes in small doses but an awakening is slowing emerging.  Here are some the things organizations must change to get to the next level of process performance:

  • Design the process around the customer, supplier, etc. not around your 30-year old input screens.
  • Create analytic and event technology to predict where the user, internal or external, should go next in the system
  • Hire graphics designers to help your organization radically re-design how transaction screens, mobile processes , etc. ought to really work. These folks are NOT wedded to the old tried and true systems, process designs, user interfaces, etc. that traditional IT and business process users are.
  • Spend time, a lot of it, with the other users of your processes. Keep your eyes and ears really open and you’ll be shocked to learn how hard it is for them to do business with your entity. That’s when you can really begin to design the kind of processes that deliver real value to the users you want.

The last group of users I expected to hear from at the event were those in the top-most layer of the maturity model. These folks have created outstanding processes that are re-writing the rules of competition in their industry.  But, I didn’t hear a lot of this conversation. Why?

Well, it turns out that major change in processes requires a combination of skills – skills that extend far beyond business process re-engineering. To create truly transformative processes, businesses must:

  • Possess empathy so that their processes really connect with all of their users (Social Skills)
  • Develop several, flexible process flows to accommodate a range of users, each of which possess different ways of doing business. Whether the process must accommodate people of differing ages, physical conditions, payment preferences, etc., it should adapt to these varied needs easily.  For example, if a business wants to get paid by my dad, they’ll get cash. From me, they’ll get a credit card. My wife might use a check and our children could be using tap’n’pay technology. If you only have one process, your firm needlessly limits its financial future. (Creativity)
  • Utilize inputs from social, collaboration and other technologies in guiding the new process flows (Cosmopolitan outlook)
  • Build analysis into the guidance mechanism of processes. Software should proactively understand the user, their needs/past transactions/roles/etc. to suggest the most relevant next steps in where the process user should go. (Analysis)

Of the Appian users I heard at this event, it was clear that many are still moving up the maturity model. They’re making one step/level change at a time. But, that’s an encouraging thing as it means that these firms, some of which are quite substantial, are prepping for even greater transformation to come. And, a couple I heard were well along that path.

Maybe Appian could license their software to my phone/internet/cable provider?


Disclosure: Appian did pick up my lodging for their conference.

Editorial standards