Some people label it as Enterprise 2.0, others see it just as a new faster pace in ongoing business transformation. Whatever you call it, there’s a seismic shift underway. Process is at the heart of it. And CIOs have a critical role in enabling the enterprise to ride this incoming tide.

The enterprise of the near future will be different in three important ways:

Virtualized. A major part of its activities – both core and support operations – will be outsourced in one way or another. The lean core of the enterprise will be orchestrating service delivery and managing risk across a complex, dynamic and multisourced environment.

Inclusive. We know, from decades of experience in Lean, Six Sigma and other methodologies, and backed by recent research, that organizations that are successful in business transformation engage and involve their people – and especially their front-line workforce – in every aspect of change.

Sustainable. Sustainable performance improvement will be the strategic goal – the sort of approach and culture adopted by leaders such as Nestlé with its enterprise-wide Continuous Excellence program.

All my discussions with clients suggest that we are at an inflection point. We are moving on from project-based thinking, from IT-led transformation, from silo-centric approaches. The future is more sophisticated. It’s like the enterprise has all its limbs and basic motor functions but it is now developing its frontal cortex.

It’s a very promising future, and far more productive. One day, people will find it hard to believe that so many billions of dollars was once wasted on failed systems implementations, or that we even had the concept of organizational ‘snap-back’ to describe how things often slid back to where they were before an improvement project.

IT is center stage in these changes, and is undergoing its own transformation. IT headcount is set to shrink rapidly as much more is outsourced or heads into a Cloud. IT’s relationship with the business is also changing rapidly. But that’s not why the CIO’s role is so crucial at this time.

At the center of this upgrade in enterprise capability is process, which is increasingly recognized at C-Level as the essential foundation. Execs, like everyone else, tend to think of process as something others should follow. Even so, COOs are coming to see that successful transformation and continuous performance improvement can only be built upon an enterprise process management framework. And to manage risk and keep the CFO out of jail, the Chief Compliance Officer similarly needs an enterprise-wide process management framework.

So process is moving rapidly from rags to riches. Long unloved, neglected, a career-limiting overhead, the ugly duckling is morphing before our eyes into the beautiful swan (that everyone really recognized all along). It’s cool to talk process.

The CIO contribution at this point can be immense.

The organization wants process, and it wants tools to support process management. The CIO’s own people naturally favour whatever process tool they have been using as the new corporate standard, and their favorite notation as the new process language. The smart CIO knows that this may meet IT needs but it is only part of the answer. It is not an enterprise-wide process management framework.

Going back to the brain analogy, the enterprise has its own two hemispheres, with distinctive views of the enterprise reality:

  • The left brain – the IT and Enterprise Architecture view
  • The right brain – the Business Operations view.

What the business needs is a collaborative framework which meets the needs of both views. But the truth is that no single process tool, no single language, exists to meet the needs of both hemispheres. This is not well understood. In many organizations, IT departments continue to engage in fruitless struggles to ‘educate’ the business to use their chosen process tool. [and despair that their colleagues ‘don’t get it’]. The business meanwhile gives up on IT and falls back on Visio, Word or Powerpoint to describe and manage its processes. It’s a very unhealthy gulf and has no part in the enterprise of the future.

The left brain is easy for the CIO. IT process tools have been around for decades, together with technical notation and languages for process.

The right brain needs something different. It needs a collaborative and integrated framework based on the end-to-end processes, and in the language of the business. Its real value comes when it connects with end users as an intelligent operations manual, so that process becomes simply ‘the way we do things around here’. To be sustainable, it needs a governance and compliance wrapper that is robust but also intuitive.

In the human brain, the two hemispheres are linked by the corpus callosum. Without it, we couldn’t see properly: with one eye, we would see the shape of a pear; with the other eye, we would see the green color of the pear. But not both.

Similarly, the enterprise needs both hemispheres to be connected. The prize is a complete view of the enterprise, through the synchronization of the left brain EA perspective and the right brain Business Operations perspective.

This is not theoretical. It’s what global leaders are doing now. It’s the foundation for the collaborative enterprise of the future. And CIOs are uniquely placed to provide leadership on this.