Thursday, December 31, 2015

Friend or foe robot? Designing automated processes for business

Programmers are guys who write your business processes with a kind of invisible ink they call code. The better you tell them what your processes are, the better business results you will have. They don't really model your world because they have no clue how the business works.

Programmers will come up with a well-engineered version of the reality they perceive if left alone and that will have to be the way you run your business if you don't tell them how the business works. It will likely more resemble a massive robot rather than a enabling friend.

As a programming instructor, I talk about the declaration and reuse of a set of statements that become methods (or functions or procedures).

As a business instructor, I teach the same thing concerning recognizing a useful process and promoting the larger scale use of it into the business. As your process maturity level grows, the process expands from your own use, to people around you, to even more people until it's a company-wide standard.


Those same maturity steps are used to develop large scale architectures that provide guidance to the necessary design of the infrastructure that has implemented it. In fact, it's the principles of good design that produce a workable architecture. Sometimes business doesn't know which architecture to choose or isn't able to strategically point the direction and then takes the low road of design by infrastructure. This is the choice to buy instead of build and results are good as long as you stay compatible with the other components that are added on. Again what you end up with is a well-engineered solution without regard to your specific business needs.

The business processes existing within a coordinated automated system or an infrastructure are essentially the executable programs. They have been structured to achieve a specific objective. They take inputs and turn them into outputs. They have a specific trigger. They are layered into automated roles and responsibilities to work well when they have to be maintained. Just as if it were an employee, you can fire an architecture layer and hire another version of that layer that fits the bill when managing a cohesive set of responsibilities in a business.

As far as I know there's not as much business writing going on for how to design a job role with few dependencies to other job roles but one of the common axioms of being promoted in business is that you must make yourself replaceable or else you'll never get out of your job. That's the same kind of thinking as when programmers say they must make their programming units reusable or maintenance will become more of a headache.

The process

If processes equal computer programs then they must have similar features. They can be broken down into smaller processes. They are either ongoing processes or processes that have well defined starts and stops. Processes can update policies, standards, guidelines, activities, other processes, procedures and work instructions if needed just like computer code can generate other code, update rules, and modify data that change how the program operates. A program is made up of activities, procedures, and work instructions or as the programmers know it, the class, the methods, and the program statements.

Metrics for a process are built in from the start and can be injected into computer code or built in to the abstract base of the code. In business, the best place to think about your metrics for success is during the planning stage so you can always build with them in mind or else you'll have trouble retrofitting them later. Roles of who should be involved in the process are important. In code, the types of relationships that you maintain with other code is important and successful relationships are spelled out in recipe books called design patterns. I admire Peter Coad who tried to assign roles to classes and discover some reusable patterns for interactivity and not just static recipes.

Process improvements are always a part of all processes and can be found in wrap-up sessions or project post mortems. In code we get a closed feedback loop from the folks who are using the programs who give us reason to enhance the program and get more financing for the next maintenance project. Feedback comes in the form of new or improved features and it gets added to the system as the value becomes known.

Processes should also be well defined in understandable text just like we always do to our fellow programmers when recommending comments in their code. And just like the norm in programming, most documentation happens after the fact because people don't have enough time to document the program until it has stopped changing at the end of the development cycle.

Process owners are the people who understand the process and can help educate others on how to use the process. I help ITIL students who think process owners are not in charge of implementing the process. This always gets me on my soapbox. An implementation of a process, e.g. an ITIL key process, is not going to happen because you read the book. It must be digested, customized by deleting the right parts, and supplemented with all of the current business structure in order to be understood. Then the process activities are noted and people check them off as they need to when they need to encouraged by success and trimmed down by reality.

In programming, it would be the project sponsor who got the ball rolling for the new software and would own the software when complete. They also get new funding when the project is a success and get project funding reductions when the process is too cumbersome.

How and when the process is used is a matter of policy and the ways that you can use these process steps have limits. Just like a computer program, the steps can be run for certain types of tasks and shouldn't be run for others. You don't close the books of an accounting process except for once a month. You don't ship more inventory than you have in stock. Process objectives are probably determined by what planted the seed in the ground for using this process in the first place. In a software project, the business objectives drive the funding and usually can be found in a business case document or a sponsor's mind.

I was reminded of the input and output nature of a process when looking at the method declaration and saw that it defined a general form of a resource just like all the other types of resources.  But until functional programming came along to supplement object oriented programming, we never had a way to send the process information from one place to another internally even though the values of any data could be sent to and fro.

Process testing

Software testing is a way of thinking about your code from the norm or from the original business requirements. This validation is a quality aspect of coding. Test driven design drives home the point that the test is a way of thinking about how your code should be called and used before the implementation is written. ITIL states that
"Even before starting, it is important to think about what the process outcomes should look like." (Service Design, p. 44) 
We also work with requirements in a hierarchical way so that the lower level requirements of the code can roll up to the next level of activity and eventually be mapped to the business goals that drove the project. Then when the system is complete, we have a measurable way to compare what was originally planned and implement improvements if necessary.

Process enablers

The enablers of a process are combined assets of the resources and the capabilities of the business. These are the raw materials and the smarts of the folks that are getting the job done. On the computer programming side are the programming language capabilities and the hardware and software's raw power to get a calculation performed or a sequence of code executed. We measure performance here in FLOPS (floating point operations per second) and computers are moving through the petaflop (1,000,000,000,000,000) ranges now.

Business processes depend on the business assets just like code depends on the infrastructure it runs on. Unfortunately, business is both enabled and limited by humans and computers both enable and constrain business.

Get in front and drive

Processes are not much different whether you do them manually or if you have a robot do them for you. The programmer acts as a plumber in a business process. They know the mechanics and apply the right torque to the right nuts and bolts to hold the system together. The business analyst is going to map out the system so that it works for the business the best.

Sometimes the programmer has no choice but to plan it out and do the best they can. But the business should always get involved at the first to direct the code so that is best represents the business. That's always the best strategy to take for any new project. Don't let the programmer be a back seat driver and transform your software project into something you didn't expect.

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