This is “What Is a Business Process?”, section 2.1 from the book Designing Business Information Systems: Apps, Websites, and More (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
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Every information system is designed to improve business in some way. However, before making an improvement, it is critical to understand the current business process. In this chapter we will develop a technique to diagram business processes. We will first diagram the current business process—the so-called As-Is process. After studying the process, we will be in a position to propose and diagram a future process—the so-called To-Be process. If we have done our job well, the To-Be process will improve upon the As-Is process, making it more efficient, effective, user friendly, and so forth. In other words, every process improvement should move the business closer to achieving its goals.
Many information systems projects are conceived of in a life cycle that progresses in stages from analysis to implementation. The diagram below shows the stages that we touch in the current chapter:
Implicit in each current and future state are one or more business processes. A business processA set of goal directed activities. is a set of goal directed activities. In other words, a process describes the actions To-Be taken to accomplish a task. For example, applying to a university, filing taxes, and evaluating employees are all processes. The steps in applying to a university might include filling out an online form, submitting a credit card payment, requesting test scores be sent, and requesting that high school transcripts be sent.
Note that all of the processes mentioned above took place even before the advent of computers. Try to imagine how. Information systems simply transform the processes with the goal of making the process more efficient, convenient, effective, reliable, and so forth.
First, we represent the current (usually deficient) state As-Is processThe way the process functions right now before any intervention or redesign.. Seeing the As-Is process diagrammed exposes obvious areas for improvement in the process. For example, many years ago students registered for classes in person. The As-Is process in that era might have shown a student waiting in line outside a large auditorium. When his turn comes up, the student enters the auditorium. There are tables representing each department staffed with faculty from that department. For each course that the student wishes to take, he must find the corresponding department table and add his name to the list for that class. Buying concert tickets followed a similar process before services like Ticket Master went online. People used to camp out for days in advance outside the Ticket Master office.
Sometimes information technology may improve processes, other times no technology is required. Sometimes the solution is as simple as providing information for individuals completing a business process at the appropriate time, or simply rearranging the steps in the business process, in which case, no new information technology is needed.
The redesigned and improved business process is called the To-BeThe way the process will function after the redesign. process. This process takes into consideration the deficiencies identified in the As-Is process and the goals of the business. The area of work that focuses on improving business processes is called business process redesign. Individuals performing this work focus on understanding the As-Is process and how to improve it in the To-Be process.
Shopping at a grocery store
The fish counter
Shopping at an online retailer
Note that most business processes subsume other business processes. One of the toughest challenges is knowing what process to focus on and with what degree of granularity to zoom in on the process. Never lose site of the problem you are trying to solve—and use that as your filter.
Obviously, you can not diagram a business process without understanding the business. This will require meetings with the client. It is best to walk into those meetings with a willingness to listen rather than pretending that you know the client’s business. Ask open ended questions and take lots of notes.
Those that design systems are called business analysts or consultants. Analysts begin their work with an initial client meeting. The quality of the questions asked at that meeting may well determine the success or failure of the project. Using the following four open ended questions can help in this consulting situation (Starr, 2010):
Note that these questions capture the aspirations of the client as well as perceived barriers and enablers to reach that vision. The assumption here is that the client knows her business pretty well, and the goal of the initial meeting is to capture her knowledge and vision without jumping to a solution.
The initial client meeting for a home renovation project adding a second story to a home. Note the barriers, time and money, and the enablers, the crane and manpower. Business problems require a similar type of analysis. Never assume that you know these items. Give the client the opportunity to explain. It will save you a great deal of time in the final analysis.