Systems of co-ordination: greasing the wheels of engagement

Neil Ward-Dutton

Friday, January 13, 2012 by

Ever since I read Geoffrey Moore’s Future of IT paper introducing the concept of systems of engagement (published last year), I’ve had a slight uneasiness about the ongoing discourse. For a long time it was nothing I could put my finger on, but in some recent conversations about how technology can improve business agility, I finally realised what had been niggling me. In this blog I’m going to explain what I think is missing.

Systems of engagement vs. systems of record: a summary

If you’re not familiar with the narrative around systems of engagement, in brief it goes like this:

‘Systems of record’ – systems which manage core business information types and provide facilities for processing the information in place (think financial management, logistics, billing, CRM, and so on) – are no longer a source of competitive differentiation: they are a necessary condition of doing business, but because their capabilities are so commonplace their presence is merely table stakes. Increasingly, globalisation is forcing companies to focus more strongly on their core capabilities, and work more broadly and deeply with other companies and agencies to deliver value to customers. This means that communication and collaboration are more important than ever before. And this is where the concept of ‘systems of engagement’ comes in: the idea is that in this more distributed and  collaborative business environment, the ability to adopt the advanced communication and collaboration tools that people are familiar with in their home lives will become the new focus for competitive differentiation through technology in business environments.

Something’s missing

Before I go any further, I should be clear: I have nothing at all against the assertion that the business value of technology is shifting away from how well information is managed in place (by ‘systems of record’), towards how well information is communicated – between systems, people and organisations. I’m also absolutely in agreement with the assertion that social collaboration technologies have some really exciting roles to play in driving business improvement.

But based on my research and industry experience I think there’s something really important that’s omitted from the narrative that I’ve seen: and that’s to do with how the changing nature of value chains, combined with changing customer expectations, regulatory pressures and so on, is forcing a new kind of appraisal of how work needs to be supported by technology. Specifically, the key part of the ‘how’ here that we need to concentrate on is to do with the co-ordination of work.

It’s no longer enough (and in fact it hasn’t been enough for some years) to give people standalone tools (including those ‘systems of record’) and expect them to just get on with it and produce great work. The pressures highlighted above mean that to deliver great business performance, optimising work at the level of an individual’s contribution is a long way from enough; businesses need to be able to optimise how work gets done at a much larger scale.

However I’m not talking here about changes like the outcomes of the BPR programmes of the 1980s and 1990s – rigid process ‘improvements’ that ushered in massive changes to administration and operations through top-down diktat and only offered crude transactional ‘solutions’ that attempted to control information, the focus of work and change in a highly centralised fashion.

Instead we need to invest in systems and cultures that allow technology to be woven more closely into a broad range of types of work, where that work naturally happens, to help actively coordinate how work gets done between people, departments, and companies – and also, crucially, to gather intelligence and metrics that organisations can use to improve coordination and drive better business results.

Introducing ‘systems of co-ordination

Of course, anyone who’s been following my ramblings for a while will know that what I’m talking about is the application of Business Process Management (BPM) technologies and techniques*. These technologies and techniques, when used properly, create systems of co-ordination that enable businesses to systematically manage and improve their knowledge about ‘what works in work’ for them, and apply that knowledge directly in an operational context across people, departments and even corporate boundaries.

In his Future of IT analysis, Moore mentions co-ordination as a responsibility of systems engagement in passing, but I think that a mention in passing just isn’t enough. Given the length of time I’ve spent talking to companies that have implemented process improvement programmes and projects I might have too much bias colouring my view, but I think the value of these systems of co-ordination is just as crucial an element of business-technology strategy and investment as are systems of record and systems of engagement.

In an enterprise people don’t collaborate just for the fun of it – people collaborate to “get work done”. But how does knowledge about the best way to do work, and get the best results from work, get encoded, applied, managed and improved? Neither systems of record nor systems of engagement (at least, in terms of how the latter are painted in the discourse I’ve seen so far) have anything to offer in this respect.

Greasing the wheels between systems of engagement and systems of record

To my mind, then, the narrative needs to be refined. Businesses need to start to figure about the roles that systems of engagement should play in helping them maximise the effectiveness of business interactions, and consider how systems of engagement should play alongside systems of record: but crucially, the interface between systems of engagement and systems of record should not be a direct one. Between these two system layers – the grease between the wheels – should be systems of co-ordination.

What do you think? Am I the only one who thinks we need to look at this more closely? I’d love to hear your comments.

*There’s been a lot of debate about the limits of the applicability of some BPM technology in the face of different types of work – structured vs. unstructured, planned vs. unplanned, goal-oriented, collaborative, and so on – but I’m explicitly avoiding those details here and talking at a general level for the purposes of this piece.

Posted in BPM, Collaboration, General

5 Responses to Systems of co-ordination: greasing the wheels of engagement

  1. I have found it very interesting to find the number of people referencing Geoff Moore’s systems of record, systems of engagement increase a lot over the last year. When I first wrote about it in Nov 2010, there were very few references to it on the web, but now it is regularly discussed, usually in the context of social networks in the enterprise.

    I think that perhaps the reason that this layer of co-ordination you talk about is overlooked is that there is a perception that the engagement layer is typically person-to-person and not very structured. I like the terminology that Mark McDonald at Gartner uses, “mid-office processes”( If you look at his examples of mid-office processes, these are not things which typically lend themselves to BPM (or at least, BPM in my limited understanding of the subject). Geoff Moore also talks about “moments of engagements”, times when an exception occurs and people have to react quickly – these are not typically things that BPM can co-ordinate either.

    But that is not to say that all “engagement” is a chaotic mess of person-to-person communication. It *does* benefit from some level of orchestration. The question is whether BPM is flexible enough to provide this, or whether a lighter-weight mechanism is more suitable.

    That’s what we have done with Clearvale – added a relatively simple task management capability into our social network product. It’s not BPM by any stretch of the imagination, but does provide a certain amount of co-ordination capability.

    • Neil Ward-Dutton says:

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for the comment!
      See my comment to Adam below – perhaps I should have taken more care to define what I mean when I say “BPM”… I’m not just referring to structured workflow automation plus a bit of monitoring/dashboarding but a much wider practice that employs a spectrum of work coordination tools.
      Re: Clearvale’s task management – this is a good start, and I’d be interested to find out how far it goes (and whether customers are looking to take things any further).

      Lastly, as a side note: I took a look at Mark McGregor’s post – I think he makes a couple of decent points, but I think his analysis is too simplistic – for one thing, he collapses the distinction between types of work / business activities down into one dimension, and there are at least two in play [ie he doesn’t distinguish between operational activities, management activities, and strategic activities; instead mixing them up]. I do agree, though, that different flavours of design/automation strategy and technology are required to support different kinds of work – supporting a highly structured back office process isn’t the same as supporting something more in the realm of “knowledge work”.

  2. Adam Deane says:

    Hi Neil,

    I agree, up to a point.

    I agree that social collaboration technologies have some really exciting roles to play in driving business improvement.

    I agree that we need to invest in systems and cultures that allow technology to help actively coordinate how work gets done between people, departments, and companies

    I agree that we need to invest in systems that gather intelligence and metrics that organisations can use to improve coordination and drive better business results.

    But in today’s world, the emphasis has shifted from managing data, to managing complexity.

    In an organisation, using systems to engage with people on complex issues is not always successful. Trying to replace human interaction with communication systems won’t help resolve complex issues that require people sitting down and thrashing it out, and I’m not sure that using BPM here is the correct solution.

    BPM technology is perfect for the co-ordination of routine work, but it struggles dealing with complex work (impact analysis and root cause analysis), human nature (ego, internal politics, resistance to change) and engaging people to decide on complex issues.

    People collaborate to “get work done”.
    Neither systems of record nor systems of engagement have anything to offer in this respect.
    BPM’s offering is good, but far from a complete solution.


    • Neil Ward-Dutton says:

      Adam, thanks very much for the thoughtful comment.
      I suspect that the root of the issue here is our differing definitions / perspectives of “BPM”. I perhaps wrongly decided to avoid getting too deeply into that question in the post…
      Without wanting to put words into your mouth, my suspicion is that you’re using a definition of BPM that’s focused on tools for automating (and perhaps improving) structured, planned processes through up-front design?
      My working definition is probably a bit unfashionable, and comes about because I’m not comfortable with the business of inventing new TLAs. I use “BPM” to refer to a practice of improving work that draws on tools providing automated software support in operation; but I don’t only focus on approaches that revolve around upfront static design of highly structured processes. In other words my definition encompasses a spectrum of technology and tool approaches, capturing what some people might call DCM/ACM as well as what many would call BPM…
      I don’t see a widely accepted term that captures what is common across these approaches, so I’ve decided just to stick with “BPM” for now. Have you seen use of a term that works?

  3. lOVE THIS THREAD. The original Systems of Engagement thesis came out of work we did with SAP on Business Network Transformation. In that work we called out two very different types of business network. One was the collaborative network, focused on complex systems companies peering with each other to take on next generation challenges. The other was the coordinated network, focused on volume operations companies marching in sync to take one current generation execution challenges. Systems of coordination, in my view, take their core reason for being from this latter set, a kind of latterday value chain that has morphed into something a lot more complicated, and therefore needing a next-gen infrastructure to execute at scale. Digital advertizing, I believe, is a great example of a situation where these systems of coordination are desperately needed.

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