Brad Power’s post this week on his HBR blog Where have All The Process Owners Gone? makes interesting reading.

He concludes by asking the million dollar question: How best to ’set up process owners and other organizational mechanisms for sustained cross-functional improvement?’.

Ian Gotts and Richard Parker, co-Founders of Nimbus, published a book Common Approach, Uncommon Results on pretty much exactly this back in 2004.

But here’s my attempt at an alternative answer, this one more from a sociological perspective…

Social structures reflect cultural norms. Our courts, for instance, even the layout of our courtrooms, reflect our cultural assumptions about what justice means and how it should operate. Social structures and cultural norms are two sides of the same coin; they don’t exist independently. This is true in every aspect of life, including the world of work and the enterprise.

Frameworks such as CMMI describe the journey that organizations are taking towards higher and higher levels of process maturity. Sometimes this is a conscious cultural evolution with executive leadership; other times it is tactical response and forced by circumstances.

Either way, process maturity – CMMI Level 5 for example – defines operational excellence and continuous improvement. So ultimately competitive pressure will propel every organization along this journey towards a culture of process maturity.

As an organization’s culture develops, so its social structures are re-shaped. If an organization has a CMMI Level 1 culture of Heroics, it’s just not possible to create and sustain end-to-end process ownership and a governance framework because they are the social structures appropriate for higher levels of process maturity. It’s like trying to implement a complex corporate tax code in an agrarian economy.

Any attempt to implement higher order social structures without reinforcing cultural change is not sustainable – it will fall apart once the key individuals move on. Similarly it will fall apart where, as often happens, an organization is just paying lip service to the idea of process maturity, as though it will somehow come into being of its own accord. That is cargo cult thinking and leads nowhere.

As an organization develops the increasingly sophisticated social structures required by higher levels of process maturity – clear process ownership and goverance, for instance – so the underpinning process management platform becomes more critical.

There are many exemplar organizations out there where a CMMI Level 5 culture of process maturity underpins operational excellence and continuous improvement – and who are not Nimbus clients. Yet anyway 😉

But ultimately every organization will surely be looking for a platform that gives line of sight between strategy and operational reality; that can enable effective collaboration across the enterprise, providing a single source of truth on process but with different views for the different stakeholders; that is made real by end user adoption; and that is wrapped within a single robust governance framework.

A platform of this kind is not just the key to efficiency. It’s also the social infrastructure that reinforces both the process maturity culture and the social structures that make it work. The right platform doesn’t just enable the highest levels of process maturity; it accelerates the pace of change, and reinforces the cultural shift.

So Brad’s question about how to ’set up process owners and other organizational mechanisms for sustained cross-functional process improvement’ is really about how to move along this journey towards process maturity.

The essential elements are cultural change + more sophisticated social structures + increasingly, an enabling process platform that glues it all together and makes it ‘the way we do things here’.

[For the avoidance of doubt – process maturity doesn't replace management by functional unit, or product lines, or regions, or by any other business unit. It's the ability to see and manage in an extra dimension as well – the dimension of end-to-end process].