Keywords: business processes, information technology, logistics, supply chain management
Information technology mediated Business Process Management - lessons from the supply chain
For most of the twentieth century, organisations in both the private and public sectors have adopted a functional structure, segmenting their work practices and decision processes into discrete compartments in the form of departments, divisions or groups. Not surprisingly, the information-processing infrastructure, which has been developed to support these functions, is typically composed of applications subsystems, which may be reasonably efficient in themselves but are frequently difficult to link together. Today, this legacy of discrete applications systems poses a challenge to any organisation trying to adopt a more integrated approach to its decision-making processes. Management thinking has highlighted the deficiencies of the traditional highly specialist structures, and offered alternative paradigms and models, but the practical guidance which has been offered concerning the replacement of legacy systems has been sometimes contradictory and appears to have been at best ineffective and at worst damaging to the companies adopting it. In order to gain further insight into this issue, it is appropriate to study the experiences of practitioners of "Supply Chain Management" (SCM). Having abandoned a traditionalist and functionally orientated approach to "Distribution and Warehouse Management", many companies have now taken a systems based view of their physical distribution networks. Seeing "Logistics" as a networked mega-function has led to significant performance improvements, without the need for major information systems replacement. Furthermore, a few practitioners have now gone even further and have adopted a consciously process oriented approach to logistics, following a "Supply Chain Management" approach. There is emerging evidence that this can lead to further significant improvements in performance, once again without recourse to wholesale revision of information systems. The case of Xerox's "Customer Supply Assurance Managers" (CSAMs) provides grounds for optimism. There is at least initial evidence that radically different business processes can be introduced into a well-established company without the delays and dangers associated with major disruption to its legacy systems. Indeed, it is possible that the adoption of a Business Process Management (BPM) approach, combined with the use of existing information processing techniques to interrogate and surround the legacy systems may prove to be the most acceptable solution to the legacy systems problem. The underlying but emerging lesson would appear to be that for many organisations the key to greater effectiveness may be producing better informed people, empowered to make wider ranging decisions, rather than producing technically more sophisticated information systems.