In fact, meticulously defined and managed processes continue to be a powerful source of competitive advantage for many companies. Look at Toyota, for instance. Its highly engineered manufacturing processes not only give it superior productivity but also provide a platform for constant learning and improvement. The formal structure, which is anything but democratic, spurs both efficiency and innovation – productive innovation – simultaneously. Structured, well-thought-out processes are also essential to most knowledge work, from product development to financial analysis to software engineering to sales and marketing. And the more complex the effort, the greater the need for clear processes. Far from making business less effective and agile, the increasing attention to process has increased effectiveness and agility.
If Mayfield had narrowed his argument, focusing on the way knowledge workers collaborate in certain situations, rather than on business processes in general, he would have been much more compelling. The simple group-forming and information-sharing software tools now being introduced and refined will often provide greater flexibility and effectiveness than more complex “knowledge management” systems. But even in these cases, processes aren’t going away; they’re just changing. There can’t be organization without process.
I’m with Nicholas Carr on this one, despite my close friendship with Ross Mayfield and being on the Socialtext board of advisors. I’d been thinking a lot about Ross’ posting on The End of Process, and Carr summarizes my concerns about the idea that business organizations are entering a “post-process” era.
Looking back at my comments about the value of process in newsgathering, where I made the point that we have to have processes that account for the weaknesses of participants (in the case of journalism, it’s the tendency to be subjective and biased that is checked by an effective editorial process) I find it hard to imagine what an “organization” without process could look like. After all, we enter into relationships based on a set of expectations—a process for fulfilling those expectations—not simply on trust. Carr’s assertion that if Ross had narrowed his argument he would have made a more effective point is correct. I can imagine organizations that define themselves through emergent processes, but not an organization without processes.
In talking about applications of technology to democratic goals, too, there has been a persistent subtext in technical discussions that suggests process is irrelevant (which could just be reflective of a techno-anarchism, but I am not an anarchist). However, it’s impossible to engineer process out of democratic deliberation, because there must be an agreed upon set of rules—in the United States, it’s the Constitution—for coming to a collective decision (whether simple or super majority) about policy. Tools need to be flexible in order to accommodate new processes if we’re going to achieve “emergent” systems for social action; tools engineered to defeat process undermine the participants’ agreements.
Wiki is an excellent foundation for exploring new relationships through the information we seek to share. Likewise, it is a great foundation for working out what processes a group might apply to achieving its goals. But there is always process, we simply don’t accept process for process’ sake anymore, which is a Very Good Thing.