A business process or business method is a collection of related, structured activities or tasks that produce a specific service or product (serve a particular goal) for a particular customer or customers. It may often be visualized as a flowchart of a sequence of activities with interleaving decision points or as a process matrix of a sequence of activities with relevance rules based on data in the process.
A business process begins with a mission objective and ends with achievement of the business objective. Process-oriented organizations break down the barriers of structural departments and try to avoid functional silos.
A complex business process may be decomposed into several sub-processes, which have their own attributes, but also contribute to achieving the goal of the super-process. The analysis of business processes typically includes the mapping of processes and sub-processes down to activity/task level.
Business processes are designed to add value for the customer and should not include unnecessary activities. The outcome of a well designed business process is increased effectiveness (value for the customer) and increased efficiency (less use of resources).
Business Processes can be modeled through a large number of methods and techniques. For instance, the Business Process Modeling Notation is a Business Process Modeling technique that can be used for drawing business processes in a workflow.
An important early (1776) description of processes was that of economist Adam Smith in his famous example of a pin factory. Inspired by an article in Diderot's Encyclopédie, Smith described the production of a pin in the following way:
"One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head: to make the head requires two or three distinct operations: to put it on is a particular business, to whiten the pins is another ... and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which in some manufacturies are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometime perform two or three of them."
Smith also first recognized how the output could be increased through the use of labor division. Previously, in a society where production was dominated by handcrafted goods, one man would perform all the activities required during the production process, while Smith described how the work was divided into a set of simple tasks, which would be performed by specialized workers. The result of labor division in Smith's example resulted in productivity increasing by 24,000 percent (sic), i.e. that the same number of workers made 240 times as many pins as they had been producing before the introduction of labor division.
It is worth noting that Smith did not advocate labor division at any price and per se. The appropriate level of task division was defined through experimental design of the production process. In contrast to Smith's view which was limited to the same functional domain and comprised activities that are in direct sequence in the manufacturing process, today's process concept includes cross-functionality as an important characteristic. Following his ideas the division of labor was adopted widely, while the integration of tasks into a functional, or cross-functional, process was not considered as an alternative option until much later.
American engineer, Frederick Winslow Taylor greatly influenced and improved the quality of industrial processes in the early twentieth century. His Principles of Scientific Management focused on standardization of processes, systematic training and clearly defining the roles of management and employees. His methods were widely adopted in the United States, Russia and parts of Europe and led to further developments such as "time and motion study" and visual task optimization techniques, such as Gantt charts.
In the early 1990s, US corporations, and subsequently companies all over the world, started to adopt the concept of business process reengineering (BPR) in an attempt to re-achieve the competitiveness that they had lost during the previous decade.
Davenport (1993) defines a (business) process as:
"a structured, measured set of activities designed to produce a specific output for a particular customer or market. It implies a strong emphasis on how work is done within an organization, in contrast to a product focus's emphasis on what. A process is thus a specific ordering of work activities across time and space, with a beginning and an end, and clearly defined inputs and outputs: a structure for action. ... Taking a process approach implies adopting the customer's point of view. Processes are the structure by which an organization does what is necessary to produce value for its customers."
This definition contains certain characteristics a process must possess. These characteristics are achieved by a focus on the business logic of the process (how work is done), instead of taking a product perspective (what is done). Following Davenport's definition of a process we can conclude that a process must have clearly defined boundaries, input and output, that it consists of smaller parts, activities, which are ordered in time and space, that there must be a receiver of the process outcome- a customer - and that the transformation taking place within the process must add customer value.
Hammer & Champy's (1993) definition can be considered as a subset of Davenport's. They define a process as:
"a collection of activities that takes one or more kinds of input and creates an output that is of value to the customer."
As we can note, Hammer & Champy have a more transformation oriented perception, and put less emphasis on the structural component - process boundaries and the order of activities in time and space.
Rummler & Brache (1995) use a definition that clearly encompasses a focus on the organization's external customers, when stating that
"a business process is a series of steps designed to produce a product or service. Most processes (...) are cross-functional, spanning the 'white space' between the boxes on the organization chart. Some processes result in a product or service that is received by an organization's external customer. We call these primary processes. Other processes produce products that are invisible to the external customer but essential to the effective management of the business. We call these support processes."
The above definition distinguishes two types of processes, primary and support processes, depending on whether a process is directly involved in the creation of customer value, or concerned with the organization's internal activities. In this sense, Rummler and Brache's definition follows Porter's value chain model, which also builds on a division of primary and secondary activities. According to Rummler and Brache, a typical characteristic of a successful process-based organization is the absence of secondary activities in the primary value flow that is created in the customer oriented primary processes. The characteristic of processes as spanning the white space on the organization chart indicates that processes are embedded in some form of organizational structure. Also, a process can be cross-functional, i.e. it ranges over several business functions.
Johansson et al. (1993). define a process as:
"a set of linked activities that take an input and transform it to create an output. Ideally, the transformation that occurs in the process should add value to the input and create an output that is more useful and effective to the recipient either upstream or downstream."
This definition also emphasizes the constitution of links between activities and the transformation that takes place within the process. Johansson et al. also include the upstream part of the value chain as a possible recipient of the process output. Summarizing the four definitions above, we can compile the following list of characteristics for a business process:
Frequently, identifying a process owner, (i.e., the person responsible for the continuous improvement of the process) is considered as a prerequisite. Sometimes the process owner is the same person who is performing the process.
Workflow is the movement of information or material from one activity or worksite to another. Workflow includes the procedures, people and tools involved in each step of a business process. A single workflow may either be sequential, with each step contingent upon completion of the previous one, or parallel, with multiple steps occurring simultaneously. Multiple combinations of single workflows may be connected to achieve a resulting overall process.
Business process re-engineering (BPR) was originally conceptualized by Hammer and Davenport as a means to improve organizational effectiveness and productivity. It consisted of starting from a blank slate and completely recreating major business processes as well as the use of information technology for significant performance improvement. The term unfortunately became associated with corporate "downsizing" in the mid-1990s.
Business process management also termed as BPM covers how we study, identify, change and monitor business processes to ensure they run smoothly and can be improved over time. It is a continuous evaluation of existing processes and identification of ways to improve upon it, resulting in a cycle of overall organizational improvement.
Knowledge management is the definition of the knowledge that employees and systems use to perform their functions and maintaining it in a format that can be accessed by others. The Gartner Group definition states that "Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise's information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers."
Total quality management (TQM) emerged in the early 1980s as organizations sought to improve the quality of their products and services. It was followed by the Six Sigma methodology in the mid-1980s, first introduced by Motorola. Six Sigma consists of statistical methods to improve business processes and thus reduce defects in outputs. The "lean approach" to quality management was introduced by the Toyota Motor Company in the 1990s and focused on customer needs and reduction of wastage.
Advances in information technology over the years, have changed business processes within and between business enterprises. In the 1960s, operating systems had limited functionality and any workflow management systems that were in use, were tailor made for the specific organization.
The 1970s-1980s saw the development of data-driven approaches, as data storage and retrieval technologies improved. Data modeling rather than process modeling was the starting point for building an information system. Business processes had to adapt to information technology because process modeling was neglected.
The shift towards process oriented management occurred in the 1990s. Enterprise resource planning software with workflow management components such as SAP, Baan, PeopleSoft, Oracle and JD Edwards emerged.
The world of e-business created a need to automate business processes across organizations, which in turn raised the need for standardized protocols and web services composition languages that can be understood across the industry. The Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) and Business Motivation Model (BMM) are widely used standards for business modeling. The Business Modeling and Integration Domain Task Force (BMI DTF) is a consortium of vendors and user companies that continues to work together to develop standards and specifications to promote collaboration and integration of people, systems, processes and information within and across enterprises.
The most recent trends in BPM are influenced by emergence of cloud technology, the prevalence of social media, mobile technology and development of analytical techniques. Cloud based technologies allow companies to purchase resources quickly and as required independent of their location. Social media, websites and smart phones are the newest channels through which organizations reach and support their customers. The abundance of customer data collected through these channels as well as through call center interactions, emails, voice calls, and customer surveys has led to a huge growth in data analytics which in turn is utilized for performance management and improving the ways in which the company services its customers.
Business processes comprise a set of sequential sub-processes or tasks with alternative paths, depending on certain conditions as applicable, performed to achieve a given objective or produce given outputs. Each process has one or more needed inputs. The inputs and outputs may be received from, or sent to other business processes, other organizational units, or internal or external stakeholders.
Business processes are designed to be operated by one or more business functional units, and emphasize the importance of the "process chain" rather than the individual units.
In general, the various tasks of a business process can be performed in one of two ways
Typically, some process tasks will be manual, while some will be computer-based, and these tasks may be sequenced in many ways. In other words, the data and information that are being handled through the process may pass through manual or computer tasks in any given order.
The above improvement areas are equally applicable to policies, processes, detailed procedures (sub-processes/tasks) and work instructions. There is a cascading effect of improvements made at a higher level on those made at a lower level.
For instance, if a recommendation to replace a given policy with a better one is made with proper justification and accepted in principle by business process owners, then corresponding changes in the consequent processes and procedures will follow naturally in order to enable implementation of the policies
Internal controls can be built into manual / administrative process steps and / or computer system procedures.
It is advisable to build in as many system controls as possible, since these controls, being automatic, will always be exercised since they are built into the design of the business system software. For instance, an error message preventing an entry of a received raw material quantity exceeding the purchase order quantity by greater than the permissible tolerance percentage will always be displayed and will prevent the system user from entering such a quantity.
However, for various reasons such as practicality, the need to be "flexible" (whatever that may signify), lack of business domain knowledge and experience, difficulties in designing/writing software, cost of software development/modification, the incapability of a computerised system to provide controls, etc., all internal controls otherwise considered to be necessary are often not built into business systems and software.
In such a scenario, the manual, administrative process controls outside the computer system should be clearly documented, enforced and regularly exercised. For instance, while entering data to create a new record in a material system database's item master table, the only internal control that the system can provide over the item description field is not to allow the user to leave the description blank - in other words, configure item description as a mandatory field. The system obviously cannot alert the user that the description is wrongly spelled, inappropriate, nonsensical, etc.
In the absence of such a system-based internal control, the item creation process must include a suitable administrative control through the detailed checking, by a responsible officer, of all fields entered for the new item, by comparing a print-out taken from the system with the item data entry sheet, and ensuring that any corrections in the item description (and other similar fields where no system control is possible) are promptly carried out.
Last but not least, the introduction of effective manual, administrative controls usually requires an overriding periodic check by a higher authority to ensure that such controls are exercised in the first place.
Business processes must include up-to-date and accurate reports to ensure effective action. An example of this is the availability of purchase order status reports for supplier delivery follow-up as described in the section on effectiveness above. There are numerous examples of this in every possible business process.
Another example from production is the process of analysis of line rejections occurring on the shop floor. This process should include systematic periodical analysis of rejections by reason, and present the results in a suitable information report that pinpoints the major reasons, and trends in these reasons, for management to take corrective actions to control rejections and keep them within acceptable limits. Such a process of analysis and summarisation of line rejection events is clearly superior to a process which merely inquires into each individual rejection as it occurs.
Business process owners and operatives should realise that process improvement often occurs with introduction of appropriate transaction, operational, highlight, exception or M.I.S. reports, provided these are consciously used for day-to-day or periodical decision-making. With this understanding would hopefully come the willingness to invest time and other resources in business process improvement by introduction of useful and relevant reporting systems.
The span of control is the number of subordinates a supervisor manages within a structural organization. Introducing a business process concept has a considerable impact on the structural elements of the organization and thus also on the span of control.
Large organizations that are not organized as markets need to be organized in smaller units - departments - which can be defined according to different principles.
Information management and the organization design strategies being related to it, are a theoretical cornerstone of the business process concept.