itmWEB TechWeekly

October 29, 1997

Is Business Process Reengineering Dead? 

An examination of the current state of reengineering, and its usefulness for business today.

Recently, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Tom Davenport, the CIO Columnist, and the Director of the Information Management Program at the University of Texas at Austin. At the end of our lunch, he was kind enough to give me a thick folder full of his many column and white paper reprints.

A few weeks later, I spent a Saturday morning drinking coffee, and reading through Tom's generous folder. Many of his reprints touched on the subtle evolution of reengineering, and the new perspective we all need to take regarding information and business processes. I even pulled out my old copy of Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution by Michael Hammer and James Champy, in order to refresh my memory regarding the original principles and objectives of reengineering. Very quickly, I knew I had the makings of another itmWEB feature.

While working as a consultant with Ernst & Young, I had the opportunity to work on two significant reengineering projects. For each of these two efforts, my role was to provide Information Technology expertise and recommendations. I also worked on two Information Systems departmental organization engagements (one for a company whose television commercials show a pin dropping by a telephone).

All four of these consulting experiences had elements of reengineering involved. All four enjoyed mixed levels of success. I am aware of many similar projects now occurring within numerous companies today. This started me wondering, has reengineering really died and gone away, or are we just calling it a by a different name?

Reengineering Reflection

Both Tom Davenport and Peter Drucker appear to be having similar thoughts. In a recent CIO feature, A Meeting of the Minds, Davenport interviews Drucker regarding his frank assessment of the numerous reengineering efforts attempted by many companies over the last ten years. Drucker's viewpoint is that two key failings of reengineering are now obvious. The first was making the process seem to be easy to learn and implement, and the second was relying on the reduction of headcount as a primary measure of success.

Lucinda Halate, reporting in CIO about the reengineering portion of CIO Perspectives conference held way back in May 1995, was already pointing out these issues. In her article entitled The People Factor, she highlights comments from Michael Hammer and a host of CIOs who had participated on reengineering efforts within their own organizations. One of their clear warnings: watch out that you don't end up with a "reengineered organization on the surface and employees carrying on guerrilla tactics of resistance beneath."

This low key employee resistance is a major result of showing insensitivity to the "people impacts" of the changes being implemented under the reengineering banner. I also saw this negative reaction from a number of the client employees I worked with on several of the projects I mentioned above. In one specific case, the guerrilla tactics worked, and the rengineering report became someone's bookshelf decoration.

Personally, I feel the best way to deeply understand these people issues is probably just to close your office door and read Dilbert cartoons for about eight hours. Scott Adams has captured cynical employee reaction to non-participatory reengineering projects admirably.

"Making the Organization Work Better"

Isn't this the real goal of reengineering? Making the operation more productive, efficient, and profitable. Are we going to stop doing this? Of course not!

Reengineering as a discipline provided a structured approach for examining the organization with a focused intensity toward improvement. Reengineering also outlined a tangible method for forming an "elite" team to review the business processes and technology, and then to make decisions and recommendations regarding concrete change for the better. Will this type of approach stop being used anytime soon? No way!

Reengineering concepts, and the techniques they have spawned, are here to stay. Whether we continue to use the "reengineering" buzz word is the real question. Especially since it has been used by many companies as a "cover" for downsizing and layoffs. These negative experiences will be hard to shake.

So here in this feature, let's declare the "fad" side of reengineering to be DEAD. In fact, we can all stop using the term "reengineering", and we can all start calling fundamental business change projects something completely different.

Any suggestions?

There is Still a Pulse

The practical application of reengineering ideas is still having a profound influence on the methods and techniques we are employing today to improve our business operations. Whether a company embarks on a hierarchy reorganization, a business process modification, or a complex technology implementation, reengineering has made its definitive mark on the way we approach these business changes. From this standpoint, I declare the concepts and techniques developed under the reengineering name to still be alive and well.

Isn't this what we have been doing for years anyway? Using the best techniques from each "fad", and then discarding the rest with the buzz word?

To wrap this up, I want to return to one of Tom Davenport's reprints. In Cultivating an Information Culture, an interview of Tom conducted by Leigh Buchanan of CIO also back in 1995, he stated the following:

Given the quirks of human nature, consider how people really use information. Given the reality of structural and budgetary constraints, consider how much an organization can credibly change. And, given the difficulty of developing and modifying systems, consider how IS can realistically support that change.

That statement may be even more true today. With business and technology changes rapidly accelerating, with the coming boom in electronic commerce, and with the expected increase in business to business data sharing - the techniques and approaches of reengineering are now even more vital than ever. No matter what we call these efforts, let's just hope we have finally learned how to get them right.