Gartner Day 2: Bruce Williams

The second keynote speaker of the day is Bruce Williams of Savvi International, author of Six Sigma for Dummies (and the accompanying workbook) and Lean for Dummies, speaking on What BPM Means to Business Innovation. Funny, at last year’s Gartner BPM summit, everything was about Six Sigma; this year, this is the first time that I’ve heard it mentioned.

He points out one view of BPM, that it’s just a faster, better treadmill, but we’re still doing the same old things. BPM is more than that: not just operational efficiencies and defect reductions, but measurements and activity monitoring, process controls, and integration between systems and services. Furthermore, he goes on to say that the biggest value from BPM is in business innovation, not process improvement: the introduction of something new and useful and the process by which it is brought to life.

But why is innovation important? Why not just milk the cash cows? The answer is pretty obvious, although ignored by many traditional organizations: the lifecycle of every product or service eventually comes to an end, often because someone else introduces a disruptive product or service to the marketplace that obsolesces the old way of doing things. As James Morse of the Harvard Business Review said many years ago (a quote that I have referred to many times), “the only sustainable competitive advantage comes from out-innovating your competition.” Ultimately, innovation trumps optimization.

Williams continues on with a lot of stuff about why the innovation cycle looks like it does, but there’s really nothing new here: this is just the classic stuff for why products or services pass their peak: fatigue, customer demands, market redirections, competitive pressures, technological changes, globalization effects, organizational changes, demographic shifts, regulatory constraints, economic effects, supply drifts and many other factors. He does point out, however, that most US firms have no program in place for fostering innovation, and don’t even have a clear idea of how to become more innovative. Tom Davenport did a study last year that showed that companies are focussing primarily on product innovation, and mostly ignoring things like business model innovation, or even business process innovation; Williams added some things that didn’t even make the list, like innovation in accounting practices or risk management.

He went through some of the different dimensions of innovation — reactive versus proactive; incremental/sustaining versus radical/disruptive; formal versus informal — and looked at how these dimensions mapped onto some specific cases. When he referred to Americans as the kings of innovation, however, it made me doubt his world view overall and left me with a bit of a bad taste: it came across as ethnocentric flag-waving that has no place at a business conference. I recognize that Americans lead innovation in a number of areas, but there are many other countries in the world that are leaders in their own areas of innovation. He’s also under the deluded notion that everyone wants what Americans have, driving SUVs full of consumer goods back to their monster homes in the suburbs, and laughingly pointed out a survey that he had done that concluded that if everyone in the world lived like he did, we’d need over 7 planets worth of resources to accommodate them. Yikes.

At the end of it all, although he had a pithy quote about how BPM is the grand unification theory for business (which is apparently trademarked?!), Williams had very little to say about BPM, but a lot to say about innovation: one of the prime motivators for why you might be considering BPM.

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