One of the great things about my relationship with Ross (full spectrum from friendship to our investment in his company) is that it is definitive proof that two people who disagree on some big things can still be friends and work together. Ross is a liberal Democrat, I am a conservative Republican, Ross believe business process is outdated, I believe that business process is a critical enabler of productivity.
The post he wrote on this goes back to a breakfast meeting last week that Tony Perkins hosted for Irving Wladawsky Berger (I very much recomend that you read his blog, it is super smart and very stimulating). It was a very small group and we ended up talking a lot about how web 2.0, consumer internet, and enterprise were merging.
At some point during the discussion I made the point that pretty much any modern enterprise has no more than 1,500 business processes and less than a couple dozen actually impact revenue. We ended up talking about differentiating processes and Ross comes out of left field and says process is an outdated concept. This stuck with me and I've been noodling on it considering both the wisdom of the statement and my response to it.
I think where we get sidetracked when talking about business process is the perception that it is just another word for workflow. The business process that I would prefer the debate focus on is the nuts-and-bolts of how companies actually build things. For example, let's take the example of a auto manufacturer doing build-on-demand assembly of a portfolio of vehicles from components manufactured all over the world. Is anyone really going to suggest that you could put up an order front end that integrates with production planning, QC, supply chain, logistics, and finance operations without the benefit of defined and rigid business process?
Business process is not workflow, and Ross' point that most workers spend their days handling exceptions to process is exactly the point of having processes to begin with. Why not organize and automate a collection of repetitive business activities so that workers can actually spend their time dealing with the problems and issues rather than putting the same bolt in the same spot a thousand times a day.
Automation of processes is not perfect, certainly, but like democracies it is better than the alternative. There are a great many things in the modern enterprise that will benefit from ad-hoc and freeform collaboration but in no way will these technologies displace the fundamental machinery that companies rely on day in and day out... and that's all process based.
John Seely Brown and John Hagel point out that while 95% of IT investment goes to support business process (to drive down costs), most employee time isn't spent on process -- but exceptions to process. Further, competitive advantage comes from how we innovate in handling exceptions. When something fails, informed and empowered employees turn to their social network. The informal network, or heterarchy, where most business gets done.