When we think about the work that happens in an organization we typically think in terms of processes. Processes are a set of activities or tasks that when completed together accomplish a business goal. Simple enough right? Not quite.
There are two kinds of processes that organizations deal with. The first are structured processes. These processes have clearly defined start and end states, and they have a clear set of activities and tasks that happen to reach the end state (a repeatable pattern). The other type of process is called an unstructured process, also known as ad-hoc, informal, expert, case and much more. Unstructured processes have a start, but the activities and tasks are not necessarily consistent, and the end state is not predictable.
Do you know which type of process an organization has more of? Unstructured. And that’s why they are so vital to the success of an organization.
The Characteristics of an Unstructured Process
We’ve briefly indicated what an unstructured process looks like, but let’s examine its features in more detail.
What are some examples of unstructured business processes? They include processes that
manage compliance and regulations, perform exception handling, involve contract management, require investigation and collaboration and so on.
- Specific examples could be:
- Managing a complaint from a customer
- Deciding on new products to make or new markets to enter
- Resolving an insurance claim
- An application for a mortgage
- An internal audit
There are several common characteristics of unstructured processes:
- Collaborative: There is no one single person involved the process. Each instance of the process requires a lot of collaboration with other parties, both internal and potentially external to the organization. This collaboration might be to get information, to discuss issues and options, perform activities and so on.
- Content-Intensive: Decisions in an unstructured process are based on a lot of information, and this information can come from many different people, places, and systems.
- Analysis-driven: There is no single answer or end-result in an unstructured process. Each step, or activity, each decision is driven by the previous one and depends on the knowledge and thinking of the person managing the process.
- Dynamic: There is no single way to complete an unstructured process. Each next step depends on the previous one, and could be completely different every time you run the process. The steps and information needed are determined on the fly using the person’s judgment in coordination with the events and any rules and guidelines. Business processes can also be semi-structured which means part of the process follows a clearly defined repeatable pattern while other parts are unstructured and based on the knowledge and decision-making of the person managing the process.
Knowledge workers handle unstructured processes. You’ve likely heard the term knowledge worker before. Defined by management expert Peter F. Drucker as:
“… the man or woman who applies to productive work ideas, concepts, and information rather than manual skill or brawn…Where the farmer was the backbone of any economy a century or two ago…knowledge is now the main cost, the main investment, and the main product of the advanced economy and the livelihood of the largest group in the population.”
Knowledge workers are the insurance agents, the financial analysts, the mortgage brokers, the doctors and lawyers, software engineers, scientists, and so on. The main criteria of a knowledge-worker are that that they “think for a living.”
But it’s not just knowledge workers that manage unstructured processes. Executives, boards of directors, and anyone who performs work to support a business objective uses unstructured processes.
How Technology Can Support Unstructured Processes
It’s true that unstructured processes don’t follow a defined pattern and can’t be modeled beforehand. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be documented and optimized.
It simply means you need to create lean and agile processes based on guidelines and best practices that enable the process to adapt as necessary based on information and the knowledge worker’s experience and judgment. Essentially, you can apply a framework to an unstructured process that supports the management of it and ensures some outcome (business objective) is achieved.
So if you can’t model a process, then BPM technology is out right? Not necessarily, especially when it comes to semi-structured processes. With semi-structured processes, you can implement BPM technology to manage the parts that can be modeled and automated. There is also an evolution happening in the BPM technology space that is resulting in more intelligent BPM solutions that include human intelligence. According to Gartner:
“An iBPMS supports business responsiveness, often at the ‘moment of truth’ in a customer interaction,” said Mr. Dunie. “The ability to provide more ‘joined up’ insight into business processes through the use of analytics — combined with support for the people involved in processes, allowing them to take advantage of this insight — is what differentiates today’s iBPMS market from earlier BPMS technology markets.”
But BPM isn’t the only answer.
The answer lies in a combination of technologies that bring different capabilities to the table. Case Management is one technology that can help manage unstructured processes. It requires you to think about a process in terms of people and information and not processes. A case is defined by AIIM as:
“…any project, transaction, service or response that is “opened” and “closed” over a period of time to achieve resolution of a problem, claim, request, proposal, development or other complex activity. It is likely to involve multiple persons inside and outside of the organization, with varying relationships to each other, as well as multiple documents and messages.”
With a case management solution, you can manage an unstructured process without putting defined activities, and process flows against it. Case management tools ensure every process has an owner, that there is clear visibility and accountability into how the process is executed, and it provides guidelines and best practices that can be applied.
Enterprise content management also plays a role in supporting unstructured business processes. Unstructured processes are heavily reliant on information, and much of that information is likely stored in an enterprise content management solution. This information includes documents, emails, and other information. ECMs also provide collaboration tools, capture and other capabilities that can be leveraged when managing unstructured processes.
The Business Benefits of Unstructured Processes
Unstructured business processes that very important to business, this is where much of the work is done that drives the business forward. Considering the bulk of an organization’s processes are unstructured, you can’t afford to ignore them. Here’s why:
Unstructured Processes Drive Innovation
You can’t decide if it’s time to look at entering new markets or creating new products to continue the forward momentum of your business. So you gather together a group of people in the business to look at the opportunities available to you. This is the start of an unstructured process that includes deep research into how your business is doing today and what markets it’s most successful in; what products are being created and requested by customers; what’s happening in the world related to your business; and so on. It requires discussions and collaboration between internal stakeholders and knowledge workers, external research firms and business communities. It requires a group to think about the options and decide as they move through the investigation process which path seems the best to take. Simply put: without innovation, your business will stagnant.
Unstructured Processes Support Customers
Maybe it’s a complaint from a customer or the processing of an insurance claim or request for additional financing. These processes are all unstructured or semi-structured, and the result is a happy – or unhappy – customer. Happy customers are satisfied customers. They advocate on your behalf, purchase additional products and services and drive the overall success of your company.
Unstructured Processes Ensure Your Organization is Compliant
Whether your organization needs to follow strict regulations or they need to adhere to important compliance guidelines, unstructured processes ensure you are compliant. Regular audits are unstructured processes that move through the process of determining if rules are followed, where issues may lie, and how to resolve them. Non-compliance can mean losing an important certification, or it can be thousands of dollars in fines – either way you need to have the processes in place to ensure your organization is on track.
We seem to pay a lot of attention to structured business processes because they are easily identified, modeled and automated. But they comprise only a small portion of the processes that happen in most organizations today.
As digital transformation continues to take on a more critical role for success, organizations need to focus on the unstructured processes that drive innovation and creativity and keep customers happy.