The case for a BPM jack of all trades, master of…one…or two

Jack of SpadesWhen a good friend and I exchanged a few tweets back and forth the other day, it began like the usual exchange of views over some of those typical news items that the #bpm timeline throws up once in a frequent while. But the ‘twonversation’ with my twitter counterpart – a venerable thinker in technology, particularly BPM – got me thinking as it progressed, reinforcing what I have always thought about the skills that really make a real good BPM Consultant. My friend had created a sort of a PR collateral that apparently turned out so good that his firm chose it over a several other alternatives created by specialists from their internal PR, Marketing and external Agencies hired for the expressed purpose of creating impactful collateral.

Now, to be clear, although my friend did not have any history in PR, advertising or media,  what he turned in was clearly able to beat the proverbial &$#@ out of those who were hired for their specialized competence in collateral making. What he created wasn’t quite what he was hired for either. But his firm loved it. They felt they would get better mileage and response from the design and content he had created.

For years, all through school, college and most of our professional lives, the idea of mastering something, finding that one area of specialization, has been pounded into our consciousness so repeatedly and consistently that we have all become some kind of mad rats in a quest to master that ONE area where we can make our claim to fortune and fame.

To  arm myself with qualitative insight, I randomly picked a few professionals and asked them if they had any specialization or if they planned on acquiring one. Here are some responses I got –

  • I want to be a doctor specializing in Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT)
  • I want to be an FS BA – specializing in Capital Markets.
  • I am a specialized senior Domain Consultant for Credit Cards.
  • I want to specialize as a technical architect in <insert 4 letter word> BPM technology because the life-drive I am committed to is my singular burning desire to amass wealth by the hour knowledge. I will acquire stacks of certifications first and then dedicate my life to more learning and towards selflessly sharing what I learn by being an independent contractor, thereby helping customers depend less and less on me. (pause a few moments to allow the author a quick moment to throw up in disgust, freshen up and get back to typing the rest of this piece)
  • I want to be an ENT expert with additional specialization on the Ear.
  • I want to specialize on the Left Ear of Caucasian patients who are ambidextrous and have a hereditary history (maternal side) of premature balding…..

I sort of got the qualitative insight I needed. Quite predictable.

More and more about less and less.

Nothing wrong with that, but here is my question: In our pursuit of specialization, are we forgetting the big picture? And perhaps the fun in learning? Are we somehow missing the sheer joy of knowledge? And, most importantly, the strength and potential for application of that knowledge?

What I am about to say is entirely my opinion and you may please exercise your right to freedom of thought and agree – or violently disagree, by typing out your views in the comments box below. And you can punch the ‘enter’ button with force commensurate to the degree of violence in your disagreement. That said, the sad thing about this whole idea of expertise and specialization IMHO, is that it has put such a premium on the concept of ‘Subject Matter Expertise’ (SME) that the appreciation of things outside of the ambit of the subject in question have been severely compromised.

As a result, we have a generation of professionals with knowledge and skill that are utterly siloed and compartmentalized. So much so, that in the final analysis, IMHO, the value of the actual expertise itself may be  undermined because it is seldom seen in a holistic context.

Somewhere, somehow, along the way, we seem to have forgotten the fact that that expertise is essentially a subset of a broader domain of knowledge. And, more importantly, the true relevance and value of that Subject Matter Expertise is best realized when it is seen as a subset of a broader sphere of knowledge.

But that is not where the sadness of the sad thing ends. It is one thing that many of the much touted SMEs may be inept at making a substantial difference even with all that laser beam focus on their chosen subject, but what troubles me most is that the relevance, indeed, the importance of the ‘Jack of many trades’ has been seriously overlooked.

Our society glorifies the SME – which is fine by me. But what is not fine with me is how we have, without explicit consent, allowed the opposite view to be accepted – that generalists have little or no value: It is bad enough the generalist has no premium, what is worse is that the generalist is barely recognized as anything of reasonable value.

And why is it difficult to imagine a generalist who is also a master of a trade or two?

Take A BPM Consultant for example. If you really think you know what makes a good BPM consultant, you will agree it can’t be just an expertise around process. It can’t be just an expertise around BPM or the domain either. It can’t be just an expertise around Technology. Granted the ‘star BPM consultants’ you will ever hire or employ must certainly be specialists in BPM, but they also need to be a generalists to apply their speciality to influence successful outcomes for you – for, BPM is not one subject matter.

Being a BPM consultant calls for more skills than just a skill around BPM. BPM consultants need to know more than just process. Or just technology.

I once had a BPM consultant colleague of mine who, while studying in-flight customer service process for a leading airline, had to take the pilot’s seat in an extreme circumstance: the pilot AND the co-pilot fainted mysteriously about 90 minutes to ETA. He took charge and landed the Boeing 747 smoothly (and with aplomb) at Heathrow. 380 passengers erupted in a sitting ovation (seatbelts) as he touched-down and manoeuvred the aircraft safely and taxied over the tarmac despite an unprecedented, unfriendly weather (Heathrow, remember?), not to mention the challenge that came with having to fly such a big bird that lacked a whole left wing that fell off near Kazakhstan due to a bad screw up.

Ok I made that up. But what I want to say is that is not the kind of Jack I am talking about. The Jacks I am talking about need to understand how to engineer organizational success through outcomes – and that is many things. Management. Observation. Inference. Analysis. Synthesis. Psychology. Change.  Experience. Technology. Architecture. Domain. Operations. Performance Management. Selling. Negotiating. Possibility thinking….

Many BPM technical architects are totally disconnected from the big picture of transformation. Functional and/or domain consultants have no insight or influence in the way process or technical design principles and ‘nuances’ like re-use are applied.  BAM is usually a sound that comes from having too much beans for breakfast.

You just cannot usher transformation of  a  process with such siloed experts, leave alone transformation at an enterprise level. Enterprise transformation is a far cry. Mark my words.

BPM success hinges on BPM experts who also specialize in being generalists. Like my friend who designed kick-ass collateral. He was able to pull that off because he understood the core of the BPM proposition and was able to apply that in a broader area and what’s more, communicate its value – the seemingly far-off skill in designing collateral. And if you think I am saying every BPM consultant should also design great collateral, you have colossally missed my point.

Find a Jack of many trades who specializes in BPM. You have a better chance at transforming a process.

Perhaps even your enterprise.


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Categories: BPM, Continuous Improvement, Process Management, Strategy

Author:Jaisundar Venkat

Jaisundar Venkat is a process professional specialized in Business Process Management. Jaisundar leads BPM Consulting at a large technology firm and is on a mission to help companies achieve the fundamental promise of BPM. His areas of interest include BPM, CRM, SFA, Sales Performance Optimization, Corporate Performance Management and general IT industry developments & trends. He writes on these topics at his own blog, and also writes for a few popular sites specializing on Business Technology trends, specifically the crucial intersection between Business and IT.

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12 Comments on “The case for a BPM jack of all trades, master of…one…or two”

  1. September 7, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    I like being a “Jack of all.” Love it in fact. Poke my finger in to as many honey pots as I can.

    I love to learn, never get tired of reading, playing, learning, understanding. I have and do deliberately, constantly strive to be broad and deep. I like talking to the middleware guys, the database guys, the storage team, the security team, knowing their parts and pieces within the context of my platform, my solution. Doing those same things myself when I design a solution.

    I like asking users “What do you want to do, what do you need to do?” I like writing use cases, drafting agendas, time boxing them and then facilitating the JAD to present them, elicit the requirements, get the crowd engaged. Hanging out with users, technical people and management all as we do technical stragedy. 😉

    I like doing it all – cradle to grave, inception to implementation. I take delight when the client calls me “the Professor” or “Roget,” brags to their colleagues about assembling a dream team.

    I like BPM. I like solving the problem, figuring out the solution.

    Nice write-up Jai.

    Cheers, P

  2. September 8, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Perfectly summed up. The SME needs to be conversant with all peripheral subjects also. What will really work is a well-rounded expertise with specialization in a chosen subject.

    A javelin thrower for example must be comprehensively fit and well built overall. What we don’t need is something this:

  3. Sebastiraj
    September 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Lovely write up Jai. I too have experiences where BPM had struggled to produce proper results apparently because of wrong mix of expertise. To be precise the team did not have much exposure to other areas other than tool expertise. Only certain things were overlooked (example: Tool, technology). BPM is a journey and aligning your enterprise for this journey with right set of people (aka skill set) is very basic for good success rates.

    IMO Jack of all trades may be little tough; Collaboration with relevant stakeholders would be a reasonable approach.

    Of course I did not punch my enter key 🙂

  4. Rose Green
    September 9, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    I am a definitely a generalist – the more I learn about different things, the better I like it. However, I also understand the frustration of how little generalisation is understood. It also annoys me when job adverts require knowledge of a specific industry to do a job that actually requires knowledge of a specific skill (eg, project manager for a housing company must have experience in the housing sector – why? Managing a project is about bringing the SMEs together not being an SME).

  5. September 9, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Agreed! In a way, BPM is the coming together of many things. The knowledge worker was never more relevant in our world of ‘knowledge working’.

  6. September 9, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Spot On – When I first began consulting, I thought I knew the right way for a process to function. I quickly learned that companies are different and their cast of characters [people] were different. From then on I listened and attempted to improve the way that they did things. I had far better success. People working in silos tend to have limited vision – I am always looking for better ways to perform activities.

    • September 9, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Some would argue that this is true about any enterprise initiative. It is, However, I’d say the need never percolated, or came about as ‘cryingly’. Never as much. Thoughts? Differences?

  7. September 9, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    Best to just be a Renaissance man, woman, person and do it all then, eh? 😉

    • September 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

      Exactly. I propose the term ‘applied knowledge’.
      In fact it is ‘applied many things’:- Applied experience, applied skills, applied theory, applied management, applied technology, applied this and applied that.

  8. September 9, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    This opens a can of worms. We often have the specialist, say a Finance pro appointed as a CEO who is expected to turn around a failing company. By the time he finishes, the organisation is sans assets and cash rich but with a completely demotivated employee strength. Or take an HR specialist who will focus on his specialty and end up with a public sector like organisation with high overheads and little to show for in terms of returns on capital employed.

    It is always difficult to be a hands on manager and I suppose that even in modern organisations, this dilemma will exist.

    Enter the consultant. He will advise! He will defend his recommendations with aplomb. Just ask him to implement and face the consequences and see what happens!

    • September 10, 2013 at 2:02 am #

      Am tempted to use the term ‘Jugaad’ in a sense of lateral application of knowledge and getting things done, but it takes away the specialty of being a generalist. With this book the term Jugaad has a connotation around innovation and work-around which doesn’t quite align with what we are discussing. But yet, there is a very important connection between the idea of Jugaad and the value of the Generalist.

  9. September 10, 2013 at 2:01 am #

    Am tempted to use the term ‘Jugaad’ in a sense of lateral application of knowledge and getting things done, but it takes away the specialty of being a generalist. With this book the term Jugaad has a connotation around innovation and work-around which doesn’t quite align with what we are discussing. But yet, there is a very important connection between the idea of Jugaad and the value of the Generalist.

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