Alexey von Jawlenski
Joop Ringelberg
May 23 · 7 min read

Or: The Curse Of Business Process Modelling

There is a bridge in Amsterdam. Not your architectonical landmark like the Golden Gate, claiming full attention. This bridge has a much more quiet personality. It connects the old city with the recently revamped Java-KNSM island. On crossing it, one passes from the bustle of the city to the quiet living quarters of the island, with its greens, trees and cafe’s. The majestic view over the IJ, the wide water with the city on both sides, gives one pause, a breathing space. It is a true ‘transitional space’. It evokes a feeling in people, an emotion of good quality, a sense of beauty even.

Such is the power of a well-designed ‘intervention in space’, as architecture sometimes is called. Moreover, people readily share such an experience. It invites connection; people love to express an experience of beauty and hold on to it by seeing it reflected in each others eyes, elaborate on it.

We value good architecture. Designers of public spaces are well aware of the fact. After all, it is what we live our lives in! Why not pursue beauty and connectedness, even while functionality is what drives the process? For this bridge, too, has a simple function: to connect two land areas, to allow people to cross from one to the other without getting their feet wet.

Now let me draw your attention from our physical environment to the conceptual spaces that we live in. For we are a species with eyes that do not just see the tree and the grass. Much of our waking life we inhabit areas that we’ve come to call ‘virtual’, or collectively, ‘cyberspace’. This is no new phenomenon, at least it would be wrong to associate it exclusively with the digital technology that has become so common. Nevertheless, much of our experience in conceptual space is nowadays shaped by the digital.

So what is the quality of the interventions in conceptual space?

Here we see a different story. A much sadder one, in fact. Consider the software that dominates the workplace of many large organisations. Custom software or adapted standard packages, designed to intervene in and streamline the execution of work processes as they are seen from a management perspective. A perspective that, in the Anglo-American world, is dominated by a single drive: increasing shareholder value. Shareholder value translates into efficiency and that is an euphemism for loading as much work on the back of employees as they can carry without breaking.

In accordance, current thinking in IT, with respect to the workplace of large organisations, is shaped by Business Process Modelling. In essence, this is the opinion that an organisation can be captured in a flowchart. In such a view, humans literally are cogs and wheels as part of the machine. Small wonder, then, that all too often the experience in the conceptual space of the workplace is one of de-humanisation.

And this degrading experience is not confined to the workplace. We all have our experience with functional websites that have invoked impatience, frustration or downright anger. How often have we not rounded a conceptual corner, turning the leaf of a webform, only to discover seemingly endless more forms to fill, steps to take — while we still are not sure whether we really want to sign up, participate, or commit ourselves? Or the frustration of failing at a step in the process, to be thrown back right to the beginning!

Software like this evokes the feeling of being processed, rather, than being in control. Our freedom is taken away, degree by degree, until we find ourselves forced to choose between alternatives none of which harmonize with our intentions or desires. But, like cattle at the market, we find we cannot turn around, we are hemmed in, clamped down upon, and on we must go.

This is the sad reality many of us live their working lives in, day after day. No matter how well-designed the building is one works in, whatever the inspiration you might feel while walking down the corridors and atriums and looking up the vides, as soon as you sit down to enter the conceptual spaces of the working day, all feelings of beauty fly out of the window. Gone is the connectedness inspired by well-designed interventions in physical space, only to be replaced by the shackles, confined spaces and blind walls constructed by the architects of the digital.

Let there be no mistake about it. It is not just a matter of oversight, not even incompetence, nor lack of money, that causes these horrors. It is design, pure and intentional. Business Process Modelling is devoid of thoughts of values and beauty. It serves one purpose only: to configure an environment for efficiency. It is based on the assumption that an organisation operates by repeating, endlessly, the same processes. That it is possible, desirable even, to think about these processes once, very deeply, and then put these thoughts into the form of protocols, of working instructions, to be carried out on the work floor. That the proper execution of these instructions should be checked upon by gathering data, requiring workers to report on what they have done in detail, and to steer from afar, from the management level. Even, to automate this control, by expressing goals in terms of key performance indicators that can be measured autonomously and translated into punitive measures, or, even better still, to let learning algorithms work out what the goals should be and what indicators to steer on. This is how companies like Uber operate (and the name says it all, doesn’t it?).

This way of thinking, of organising, of managing, is bent on squeezing discretionary powers from the organisation, to the last drop. It wants to do away with independent decision making, with delegated authority. With responsibility comes risk and risk is to be avoided by protocol and financially neutralised by insurance.

But it is precisely responsibility transferred onto peoples’ shoulders, trust in peoples’ decision making capacities, placed in their hands, that lends dignity to a profession. With no decisions to make but just protocols to follow, how will you find pride in your actions?

One might ask: is it even possible to create digital conceptual spaces that inspire, that draw people in, that connect them in shared goals and significant meaning? And the obvious answer is yes, just look at the millions that flee everyday life into the virtual environments of massive online games. For many, these conceptual spaces provide their lives with the meaning and purpose their jobs utterly lack.

Our new method for designing co-operation — Perspectives — is, itself, designed from entirely different principles. We wanted to created an infrastructure that builds upon the belief that a working professional should, of necessity, be endowed with discretionary powers. We are well aware of our limitations as designers, as IT professionals, with regard to the pluriform, always more complex, endlessly varied world out there. It is not possible to represent it all, to know it all — and no goal is served by trying to do so! We think an organisation runs itself, more or less, if given the infrastructure to co-operate over a distance in space and time. This is not to say that an organisation needs no rules or governance. Far from it; but these rules must be subject of constant review, of an enduring discourse. And this discourse should involve all those, well, involved! The very word ‘organisation’ points to entities that grow, that develop — not things that are bolted together once and for all like a radio set or a bicycle.

As a matter of fact, we think it is not so much rules an organisation needs, as roles. Roles come with actions and belong to particular contexts. People will take roles in many contexts, switching them effortlessly, fluidly, without blinking an eye. It is what we live by. Roles, actions and contexts structure our social life and our working life. And roles come with responsibility and accountability.

‘Perspectives’ is a name chosen with good reason. We want an infrastructure that opens up spaces, that provides views, vista’s even. Spaces that others can intervene in, to provide good experiences that people want to share. An infrastructure that encourages people to act in ways that others can admire, can see the beauty of. An infrastructure that endows people with dignity, rather than takes it away in the name of shareholders value.

This will be an infrastructure that necessitates an ongoing discourse. It is not bent on driving out risk, so we must learn to deal with risk by recognising its existence and by agreeing on to what degree we accept it in order to create a dignified human experience. Partly, this means checks and balances, including judgement and forgiveness. Perhaps unexpectedly so, it also means we accept to forget. Information technology has enabled us to hang on to the past forever. But this past becomes concrete, in which we find ourselves standing when it is too late. A context should not only be delimited in (conceptual) space, but in time, as well.

And as people move from one context to another, they will need transitional conceptual spaces, too. What will these future bridges look like? We hope, that, like the tram drivers of Amsterdam, people crossing them will ease their pace and enjoy the views.


This is the seventh column in a series. The previous one was: The Robot That Did Not Get Away. Here is the series introduction.

Joop Ringelberg

Written by

The pleasure of finding things out.

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