Social BPM: Social Technology for Competitive Advantage
The unprecedented growth of online, feature rich collaboration platforms such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter has changed the way individuals communicate and connect in both a personal and professional context. Couple this with the timely, albeit slower, response by enterprise-level software Vendors to incorporate similar features in their core products, and we see further erosion of the demarcation between personal and private use of IT systems. This movement is evidenced by the extension to functionality of leading Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Business Process Management system (BPMS) providers, especially in the emerging cloud computing paradigm. “In the process deployment field, social and business process integration is emerging also in industry, as several vendors are proposing integrated social BPM suites” (Brambilla, Fraternali et al. 2011). The emerging paradigm of social business, described by IBM (2011) as integrating “the collective knowledge of people-centric networks to accelerate decision making, strengthen business processes, and increase innovation that matters” is further evidence of this phenomenon.
Known as Digital Natives, “the next generation of employees expect to be able to configure their own environment to suit their working style, to collaborate with others at any point in a business process where they see fit, and to combine information from multiple internal and external sources in order to accomplish their tasks” (Kemsley 2010). This emerging breed of employee provides internal capabilities that have not previously been exploited by the enterprise. Further, competitive organisations have the opportunity to leverage off the network effect of connected consumers as “Social networking is more and more considered as crucial for helping organizations harness the value of informal relationships and weak ties, without compromising the consolidated business practices embedded in conventional BPM solutions” (Brambilla, Fraternali et al. 2011). Organisations have the technology and the opportunity to utilise their emerging Digital Natives to proactively engage online with current and potential consumers to inform their business decisions.
According to Martinho and Rito-Silva (2011), “Business Process Management is considering new approaches that use collaborative environments to involve all types of business process stakeholders in the improvement of the organization’s business functions.” One of the evolving approaches is a field of research termed “social BPM”. A recent definition proposed by Brambilla, Fraternali et al., (2012) captures the current view of the field, “Social BPM fuses BPM with social software, with the aim of enhancing performance by means of a controlled participation of external stakeholders to process design and enactment”. Typically, social BPM research has focused on the use of Web 2.0 applications internally within an organisation to enhance the analysis or modelling phases of the BPM lifecycle. As the concept of social BPM is now maturing, we must move beyond just collaborative modelling and towards the core goal of BPM, that is to “create a process-centric, customer-focused organization that integrates management, people, process and technology for both operational and strategic improvement” (Goeke and Antonucci 2011). It is when we take a more strategic view of how the capabilities of social technology can be applied to business processes that we may see opportunities for competitive advantage.
Social BPM must mature from being just an internally focused collaborative design approach to being a fully integrated practice of embedding the wisdom of the organisational ecosystem into business processes. It is on this basis I posit that by using relevant, contextual information sourced from social technology, organisational business processes can be triggered, enhanced and potentially transformed. Further, the coupling of the rich sources of information available in the business ecosystem and organisational internal capabilities may ultimately provide strategic insight and competitive advantage. As “Organizations are beginning to understand the benefits of incorporating collaboration into their business processes” (Kemsley 2010), technology and management practices are changing accordingly. Through the adoption of these social practices, an organisation may gain insight to the explicit and implicit requirements of their customer base. Early identification of customers and their needs can be utilised for competitive advantage.
Social BPM has emerged as a way of exploiting the “weak ties between people and implicit enterprise know-how to improve activity execution and disseminating of knowledge” (Brambilla, Fraternali et al. 2011). These “weak ties aim to motivate spontaneous interactions between social actors and to create new perspectives on solving problems.” (Wang, Greaseley et al. 2011). However, “BPM is not as simple as managing processes contained within one company but within a network of suppliers and customers” (Janiesch, Matzner et al. 2011). To support the goal of utilising BPM to be a “customer-focused organisation” (Goeke and Antonucci 2011), an enterprise should adopt social technology to proactively engage consumers within a familiar online environment, where these individuals are increasingly spending time and developing a sense of community.
The concept of micro-blogging with an application such as Twitter is gaining popularity as the “service is simple, easy to use and its success has company executives wondering if using the short message service in their Intranets would benefit organisational information sharing and communication” (Riemer 2010). Further (Böhringer 2011) suggests that “it is blogging, especially microblogging, that is of great interest to BPM, as it follows an activity-driven, time-based approach of interaction management”. As a reflection of the applications maturity, Twitter has evolved from its initial scope of being a personal social networking service to now prompt the user at login to “Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.” The inclusion of organisations in this statement is a strong reflection of the changing usage pattern for this application.
Twitter is an ideal IT communication medium as “the technical access barrier can be regarded as very low and at least from a pure technical and ease of consumption viewpoint in first world countries practically as non-existent” (Rosemann, Anderson et al. 2011). Secondly, microblogs such as Twitter “do not have any significant price-based constraints that would exclude users” and finally there are no “significant contractual constraints that would exclude end users” (Rosemann, Anderson et al. 2011). Twitter has several unique characteristics not least of which is the limitation on any message to 140 characters; this is a major point of difference from most other social media platforms. This restriction forces the content of the message to typically be summarised, concise and focused on a particular event. Further the sheer volume of Twitter messages sent each day (340 million), and the ability to conduct data mining and analysis on these transactions, provides a rich source of interaction and contextual information for interested organisations. Twitter’s ability to send information in a real-time directed manner, the ability to label content through the use of #hashtags, and the connectivity provided by mobile technology combine to make this a truly unique application.
To date there have been several studies that have investigated the relationship between internal collaboration platforms (such as Yammer) and the organisation. Findings from research by Riemer (2010) are informative but it is recognised there are fundamental differences between private (internal) and public (external) microblog networks. They have discovered that “microblogging in the corporate context is vastly different to its public equivalent” (Riemer 2010). And “The different usage patterns observed on public, leisure-related social network systems (SNS) and business related SNSs indicate that different social transactions are executed on different SNSs” (Richter 2010). Whilst the differences between private and public microblogging is recognised, “in both cases the underlying technology is quite similar” however “appropriation and use in a corporate context are structured by the needs of the tasks at hand and by a shared group context” (Riemer 2010).
Some limitations must be acknowledged, it is recognised that this approach to “collaboration is also not suited to every business process, particularly those governed by strict regulations, or those performed by inexperienced workers or outsourced participants. The decision to include collaboration in a process – or even in a single step within a process – must consider process governance requirements, the experience of the participant, and the nature of the work” (Kemsley 2010). Further, as mentioned by Riemer (2010), “while simplicity is often seen as a key success factor (e.g. Passant et al. 2008, Netskills 2010, Zhao & Rosson 2009), microblogging is not without controversy. Critics argue that with Twitter an unprecedented mass of meaningless information is created (Pear Analytics 2009)”. These observations support the intent of this research i.e. that these digital interactions with customers must be selective, managed and ultimately add value to both the customer, and strategically to the organisation.
As mentioned by Trkman (2010), “For forty years the issue of fit between an organization and its strategy, structure, processes, technology and environment has been a basis for theory construction and research (Kanellis et al., 1999)”. I propose that by applying the unique capabilities of social technology to organisational processes, the internal capabilities of an organisation could be utilised for competitive advantage. These dynamic capabilities of an organisation have been defined by Teece, Pisano et al., (1997) as “the ability to integrate, build, and reconfigure internal and external competencies to address rapidly changing environments”. Further, “The competitive advantage of firms is seen as resting on distinctive processes, shaped by the firm’s asset positions (such as the firm’s portfolio of difficult-to-trade knowledge assets and complementary assets), and the evolution path it has adopted or inherited” (Teece, Pisano et al. 1997). They purport that “wealth creation in regimes of rapid technological change depends in large measure on honing internal technological, organizational, and managerial processes inside the firm” (Teece, Pisano et al. 1997). Thus, “Dynamic capabilities reflect an organization’s ability to achieve new and innovative forms of competitive advantage given path dependencies and market positions (Leonard-Barton, 1992)” (Teece, Pisano et al. 1997). I posit that based on contextual, event focused information provided by social technology, these “Dynamic capabilities enable firms to create new products and processes and respond to changing market conditions” (Helfat 1997).
Justification for the selection of dynamic capabilities theory as applicable is offered by Trkman (2010) who quotes Vaidyanathan & Devaraj (2008), “The quest for the achievement of sustainable competitive advantage from BPM can best be described by the DCs‘ theory. This theory attempts to bridge the shortcoming of a resource-based view by adopting a process approach. DCs are a buffer between firm resources and the changing business environment and help a firm to adjust its resource mix and thereby maintain the sustainability of the firm‘s competitive advantage”. Further, according to Wade and Hulland (2004), information systems resources (such as a service like Twitter) may take on many of the attributes of dynamic capabilities, and thus may be particularly useful to firms operating in rapidly changing environments. Further support of social technology as a dynamic capabilities enabler is provided by Eisenhardt and Martin (2000) who state that “Real-time information also builds intuition about the marketplace such that managers can more quickly understand the changing situation and adapt to it (Eisenhardt, 1989)”.
Teece, Pisano et al. (1997) propose that organisational capabilities and the renewal of competencies in reaction to the business ecosystem are “intimately tied to the firm’s business processes, market positions, and expansion paths.” Further “Dynamic capabilities also rely more on real-time information, cross-functional relationships and intensive communication among those involved in the process and with the external market” (Eisenhardt and Martin 2000). As mentioned by Weill, Subramani et al., (2002), “Enterprises increasingly link to customers and business partners through electronic channels” and “integrating all the channels to deliver a single picture of the customer’s relationship with the enterprise is a challenge”. Weill, Subramani et al., (2002) also define strategic agility as “the set of business initiatives an enterprise can readily implement” and their research “demonstrates a significant correlation between strategic agility and IT-infrastructure capability”. The consumption of Twitter will support strategic agility as “the capability to change depends on the ability to scan the environment, to evaluate markets and to quickly accomplish reconfiguration and transformation ahead of the competition” (Zahra and Nielsen 2002).
By utilising the unique characteristics of social technology in the context of business processes, opportunities may arise to enhance organisational dynamic capabilities. It is through this strategic agility that competitive advantage can be obtained. This view is supported by Teece (2011) who writes “Dynamic capabilities can usefully be thought of as belonging to three clusters of activities and adjustments: (1) identification and assessment of an opportunity (sensing); (2) mobilization of resources to address an opportunity and to capture value from doing so (seizing); and (3) continued renewal (transforming). These activities are required if the firm is to sustain itself as markets and technologies change”. Chesbrough (2003) further argues “that organizations need to explore new pathways to systematically make use of know-how that lies outside of an organization’s boundaries through new forms of collaboration (Feller et al., 2008; von Hippel, 2001; Walsh and Deery, 2006)” (Niehaves and Plattfaut 2011).
In recent work by Teece (2011) he states that “value can flow to the enterprise from the astute creation, combination, transfer, accumulation, and protection of intangible assets. Such assets are the new “natural resources” of the global economy”. Teece also suggests that some classes of “intangible assets are technological know-how, business process know-how, customer and business relationships, reputations, organizational culture and values, as well as formally identified intellectual property” (Teece 2011). By inference, these new assets, such as organizational social technology interactions, should be nurtured and applied so that value can be derived in support of an organizations unique dynamic capabilities. This is further supported by Teece’s view that “Business-model innovations are critical to success in unsettled markets where traditional revenue and pricing models are no longer applicable. The Internet allows and requires business model innovation” (Teece 2011). Finally, a closing statement by Trkman (2010), “The company should embrace change to enhance its competitive advantage; however, it should carefully align its business processes (supported with the proper implementation of IT) with its environment and assure the flexibility and continuous adaptations of its core processes. It should therefore establish which business processes are key processes and contribute to the competitive advantage”. Competitive organisations are now in a position to leverage these new corporate assets to inform strategy and maintain their competitive advantage.
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