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USEFUL DESCRIPTIONS OF ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESSES:

USEFUL DESCRIPTIONS OF ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESSES:

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This paper describes a data collection methodology for business process analysis. Unlike static objects, business processes are semi-repetitive sequences of events that are often widely distributed in time and space, with ambiguous boundaries. To redesign or even just describe a business process requires an approach that is sensitive to these aspects of the phenomena.
The method described here is intended to generate semiformal process representations suitable for inclusion in a "handbook" of organizational processes. Using basic
techniques of ethnographic interviewing and observation, the method helps users map decomposition, specialization,
and dependency relationships at an intermediate level of abstraction meaningful to participants. By connecting new process descriptions to an existing taxonomy of similar descriptions in the Handbook, this method helps build a common vocabulary for process description and analysis.
This paper describes a data collection methodology for business process analysis. Unlike static objects, business processes are semi-repetitive sequences of events that are often widely distributed in time and space, with ambiguous boundaries. To redesign or even just describe a business process requires an approach that is sensitive to these aspects of the phenomena.
The method described here is intended to generate semiformal process representations suitable for inclusion in a "handbook" of organizational processes. Using basic
techniques of ethnographic interviewing and observation, the method helps users map decomposition, specialization,
and dependency relationships at an intermediate level of abstraction meaningful to participants. By connecting new process descriptions to an existing taxonomy of similar descriptions in the Handbook, this method helps build a common vocabulary for process description and analysis.

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Published by: gianmarco.campagnolo on May 10, 2008
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Page 1
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologySloan School of Management
Center for Coordination Science
Useful Descriptions of Organizational Processes:Collecting Data for the Process HandbookbyBrian T. Pentland, Charles S. Osborn, George Wyner, Fred LuconiCCS WP #208 SWP # 4082
August 1999
 
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USEFUL DESCRIPTIONS OF ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESSES:COLLECTING DATA FOR THE PROCESS HANDBOOK
 Brian T. Pentland 
School Of Labor & IndustrialRelationsMichigan State University407 South Kedzie HallEast Lansing, MI 48824ph: 1-517-353-3905brian.pentland@ssc.msu.edu
Charles S. Osborn
Babson CollegeBabson Hall #319Babson Park, MA 02157ph: 1-617-239-5585osborn@babson.edu
George Wyner 
Sloan School of ManagementMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyOne Amherst StreetE40-179Cambridge, MA 02139ph: 1-617-253-3865gwyner@mit.edu
Fred Luconi
Center for CoordinationScienceMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyOne Amherst StreetE40-175Cambridge, MA 02139ph: 1-617-253-3446luconi@mit.edu
ABSTRACT
This paper describes a data collection methodology forbusiness process analysis. Unlike static objects, businessprocesses are semi-repetitive sequences of events that areoften widely distributed in time and space, with ambiguousboundaries. To redesign or even just describe a businessprocess requires an approach that is sensitive to theseaspects of the phenomena.The method described here is intended to generate semi-formal process representations suitable for inclusion in a"handbook" of organizational processes. Using basictechniques of ethnographic interviewing and observation,the method helps users map decomposition, specialization,and dependency relationships at an intermediate level of abstraction meaningful to participants. By connecting newprocess descriptions to an existing taxonomy of similardescriptions in the Handbook, this method helps build acommon vocabulary for process description and analysis.
INTRODUCTION
The ability to measure and make comparisons isfundamental to any empirical science. In the socialsciences, scholars are becoming increasingly concernedwith the study of processes (Abbott, 1992), but ourempirical techniques lag considerably behind those we havedeveloped for measuring and comparing the properties of static entities (Abell, 1987; Heise, 1989; Abbott, 1991). Inthe realm of computer supported cooperative work, oneproblem we face is that business processes are essentiallysequences of events distributed in time and space; typicalbusiness processes can take days or weeks to complete, andthey frequently cross organizational or physical boundaries.For these reasons, business processes cannot easily beobserved at one point in time or in a single location.Furthermore, business processes are enacted through theuse of specialized actions and language that are meaningfulto the participants, but may not be easily translated to acommon vocabulary for purposes of comparison. Thesebasic features of business processes make their descriptionand comparison a particularly challenging methodologicalproblem. It also makes it difficult to redesign existingprocesses or systems to support them.The approach we propose here relies on basic techniques of ethnographic interviewing and observation to collect data.These data are then organized using concepts of decomposition and specialization to create reliable, validprocess descriptions. This method generates semi-formalrepresentations that are suitable for inclusion in a"handbook" of organizational processes (Malone et al.1999). The Process Handbook can be used to analyze orredesign existing processes, to invent new processes, and todesign computer support for processes. The basic approachdescribed here, however, stands on its own as a method forcollecting and organizing field data for the purpose of business process design or redesign.The paper begins with a statement of the problems posed bythe Process Handbook, followed by a discussion of thetheoretical considerations involved in creating appropriateprocess representations. We then describe ourmethodology for collecting process data and discuss thestrengths and limitations of our technique. Themethodology is illustrated using examples from the supplychain in the athletic footwear industry.
A Handbook of Organizational Processes
System designers have long realized the importance of understanding work processes, and have developed a widerange of techniques for analyzing them (Curtis, Kellner andOver, 1992). Traditional systems analysis techniques(Yourdon, 1989), however, are often too detailed to be
 
Page 3useful in the problem of process redesign. Hammer andChampy (1992, p. 129) argue that teams engaged in aredesign effort often get bogged down with analyzing thestatus quo:One of the most frequently committed errors inreengineering is that ... reengineering teams try toanalyze a process in agonizing detail rather thanattempting to understand it. People are prone toanalyze because it is a familiar activity. We knowhow to do it. It also feels good, because analysisgives us the illusion of progress.While it may feel good, we believe it is pointless to spend alot of energy mapping out how a particular activity isaccomplished if you have not yet decided whether thatactivity should be outsourced, combined with anotheractivity, or perhaps eliminated altogether. What is needed,instead, is a technique that allows the analyst to develop anunderstanding of the critical activities in the process andtheir interdependencies. In particular, the method shouldreveal important dependencies between steps and suggestways that these dependencies can be better coordinated.We believe this type of description will be most useful forthe design of systems to support work processes.To implement this approach, Malone et al. (1999) aredeveloping a "handbook" of organizational processes thatencodes descriptions of a wide variety of businessprocesses, including order entry and fulfillment, productdevelopment, sales and marketing, and so on. Thishandbook is intended to support the improved design of processes and the systems that support them. Therepresentation used in the handbook combines three basicconcepts in a novel way to create a taxonomy of processes:
(1) Decomposition.
Processes are decomposed intoactivities, which may in turn be further decomposed intosubactivities. Decomposition allows the nesting of processes within processes, and allows the handbook toshare and re-use process descriptions throughout thetaxonomy.
(2) Specialization.
Processes (and activities) are alsospecialized in a manner similar to a traditional typehierarchy. Unlike a simple object hierarchy, each node isitself a complex entity that inherits a decomposition fromits parents.
(3) Dependencies.
Malone and Crowston (1991; 1994)define coordination as "managing dependencies." TheHandbook represents dependencies between activities inorder to suggest ways in which these dependencies can bebetter managed through the use of information systems.Dependencies are also inherited through the specializationhierarchy.This representational scheme has a number of propertiesthat we believe are especially useful in the design of newprocesses and systems to support them. First, therepresentation is generative. For example, it generates newprocesses through the creation of specializations whichinherit from multiple sources in the hierarchy. Second, itexplicitly represents dependencies between activities,which are an important class of constraints on theconfiguration of a process (Pentland, 1995). Everydependency creates a need for coordination, and at thesame time, creates an opportunity for choosing amongalternative coordination mechanisms. For example, ashared resource dependency can be managed by a variety of different coordination mechanisms, including bidding,rationing, first come, first served, etc. If so desired, thesecoordination mechanisms might be embodied in CSCWapplications. Finally, it represents processes in terms thatare meaningful to participants. Too often, systems analysisand CSCW formalisms have strayed from simple,descriptive terminology that people doing the work canunderstand.To be most useful, the Handbook must be populated with asubstantial number of process descriptions. Thesedescriptions must be collected in a way that allowsconsistent comparisons of processes in a wide variety of organizational contexts. Thus, the Process Handbook imposes a number of requirements for data collection thatcan be described as follows:
(1) Common vocabulary.
Descriptions must be consistentwith respect to a given vocabulary, but the problem is thatthe vocabulary is never a given. In general, it will reflectthe terminology that organizational members andparticipants use to describe their work. The research teammust then be able to abstract from these native descriptionsto create a generic description that can be codified in theHandbook.
(2) Expandability.
As we confront new situations, we willinevitably come across new kinds of activities that arequalitatively different from those in the existingvocabulary. To accommodate these activities, newcategories of activities must be created, with the result thatthe vocabulary will grow. As it does so, it is critical thatthe proliferation of terminology not obscure underlyingsimilarities between steps in processes that take place indifferent contexts.
(3) Appropriate level of abstraction and granularity
Itis important to locate levels of abstraction and granularityat which meaningful and useful descriptions can beformulated. In principle, one could attempt to translateprocesses into primitive elements at an extremely fine-grained level. However, attempts to codify an appropriateset of primitives have not fared especially well. For

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