Jun 12, 2012

What Facebook has in common with BPM, and why it matters?

June 12, 2012 - Last Tuesday Mark Zuckerberg officially became a billionaire. I now understand why my iPad corrects the spelling of his family name into "sucker berg" (do try...amazing). By the way berg means mountain, in German... which makes the expletive's size amply clear.

One of the reasons why Facebook is so hugely valuable also helps see what the future of our industry could be. Follow me for a couple of minutes, I promise this isn't all that intuitive, but it isn't far fetched either.

I grew up in Florence, Italy, in the 70's and 80's. In those times, when your friends were far away, you were ALONE. Personal relationships mattered like they do today, but even a phone call was a problematic and hollow ersatz of the real thing.

Fast forward thirty years later. Facebook shows that connections between people can be dematerialized. You just can't touch your friends when they are far (for now - haptic devices are getting out of the MIT labs and into commercial use...). But Facebook's main tenet is that emotional connections can be maintained IRRESPECTIVE OF DISTANCE. So, if THAT can be dematerialized...

Many executives fear redistributing work because of the loss of control - due to the process chain's distributed, global delivery. Many simply cannot think of moving complicated, knowledge intensive processes beyond the same roof - even if the rules that govern them are quite clear. "My team just can't imagine this would feel right", the CEO of a financial institution told me, speaking about advanced analytics work.

But Facebook did something that could have felt even more awkward. And it is now worth a whopping 100 billion USD. Granted, their execution was flawless. But what is it that they really did?

They perfected the HUMAN EXPERIENCE of interacting with each other remotely. They made it frictionless and fulfilling and they turned the disadvantage of distance into an advantage. Now, that "everyone is in the same place", you can see and hear from EVERYONE, which multiplies the excitement, because there is always someone with something exciting.

Why can't we, the lords of business process management, the masters of the science of processes, do the same? Why can't we make workers feel that they work with each other seamlessly, irrespective of distance?

I believe we are constrained by our success. Companies like Genpact started chipping away at the wall of distance fifteen years back, when Pramod and his team said to Jack Welch - "yes it can be done". Every year since then, back and middle office business process operations have been redistributed globally. A massive way of creation of shared services is now underway and everyone, including the laggards, feel that "yes, it can be done".

But we are still looking only at a tiny piece of the equation. We're restricting ourselves to interactions that can be sequential, where you do not need to see and talk to people far away. We still need supervisors in the same place as all their workers, and those workers are mostly co-located.

And we are constraining the ability to standardize, because our "transformation waves" continue to rely on hordes of change agents sent physically into other locations, leaving behind the habitual struggle of stabilizing operations once they have left.

A new paradigm is coming and we must not be blind. Our current use of remote collaboration practices and tools is very rudimentary, at least compared to what the newly minted kid-faced billionaire blesses his users with.

The problem isn't technology anymore.

Data connectivity costs have halved every 11 months for the last ten years. Screens have become bigger and more expensive, and less dumb - my children look contemptuously at any screen that isn't touch enabled. Microsoft's Ballmers has an 80 inch touchscreen in his office. Optic pens that give you proper white board sessions are sub 100 USD these days. And mouse-less pointing devices like Microsoft Kinect already enable you to use hand gestures to trigger things.

Technology's building blocks are there. The genie is out of the bottle. And that's not the limit. The limit is how we mash up those technologies to create a seamless experience that doesn't force users into what technology wants. That is a technology design issue.

And our approach to business processes must evolve, fully leverage the groundbreaking work of practices like SEP, and fully identify organizational structures and business process design that can leverage that user experience. That is a service design issue.

We can solve both.

The prize is enormous. What could you do if the world were next door? What tasks would you be able to perform if your teams were there? If you could see them all, in a frictionless way - that is, not needing to log into half a dozen distinct applications to IM them, send an email, place a call, share a screen, draw a whiteboard, see their face, watch their work, and see their surroundings...as well as monitoring their performance. What could you do if your iPad were a window for when you're not in the office?
And what could you do with those fractional human resources who cannot work full time - or from that particular office where you need them today? Those millions of talented individuals, many of them mothers or senior workers who are forced to drop out of high powered economic life because they just cannot come to office every day. And those experts and professionals in many places that aren't close to your facility - nationally, or internationally.

Just like Facebook got you into keeping tabs with your many friends you thought you had lost, get ready for a time when the notion of "shore" loses relevance for your work.

Stay tuned, you haven't seen anything yet.

About the author

Gianni Giacomelli

Gianni Giacomelli

Chief Innovation Leader

Gianni serves as Chief Innovation Leader where he drives and sponsors Genpact’s strategic initiatives aimed at sustaining clients’ transformation into digitally-enabled companies. He also co-leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) efforts to set up a Collective Intelligence Design Lab.