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A critical success factor is commonly defined as a factor that ‘has to go right’ to ensure success in achieving a certain goal. Initially defined by Ronald Daniel from McKinsey in the early 60s and later famously refined by Jack Rockart from the Sloan School of Management in the late 80s, critical success factors studies have become a popular item of investigation not only for Information Systems researchers, but also for analysts, vendors and users.

Typically the outcomes of these studies are presented in a top ten list in descending order based on their importance. They provide the audience with a sense of relevance for how to channel energy in the domain under study. However, we also have to be mindful that critical success factors change over time as priorities and capabilities are moving, that in different contextual situations (e.g., country, organizational size or maturity, project purpose, etc.) the list of factors most likely will differ, that the factors have various interrelationships among them, and that they can be influenced to different degrees. Nevertheless, the simplification of a top ten list of critical success factors is appealing for a start.

In the context of Business Process Management, we have to distinguish multiple layers of critical success factors (see Figure 1 below). First, there is a set of factors that constitute success of BPM as a corporate management discipline (layer 1). But successful BPM is not a means to an end, and the operational goal of BPM is to improve the business processes under the control of the BPM initiative (layer 2). Improved processes, then, will contribute to corporate success if the decreased processing time or costs, or the increased process quality or customer satisfaction with the process outcomes can be converted into corporate performance metrics (e.g. shareholder value, profit) (layer 3).

layers of BPM success factors

Most critical success factor studies (at this stage) do not have such a fine differentiation between BPM success, process success and corporate success. They rather assume that BPM success equals corporate success. For the rest of this short paper we will, due to a lack of data, follow this viewpoint but recognize the need for further work here to develop a better understanding for the multi-layered causality of BPM success.

There are a number of previous studies that explored BPM success factors. A recent European study by Logica Management Consulting and The Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, identified the following items as critical success factors of Business Process Management (Logica Management Consulting: Securing the value of business process change. Amsterdam 2008):

  • Pro-activeness
  • Level of ambition
  • Project-based approach to process changes
  • Use of IT
  • Openess to external parties
  • Availability of critical skills
  • Use of external experts/skills
  • Performance assessment

This list reads more like relevant attitudes than very domain-specific factors, and, maybe in the context of this study no surprise, includes a very open call to engage external consultants. In an attempt to gain deeper insights into the more domain-specific success factors of Business Process Management, we conducted a spontaneous study with the participants of the most recent ProcessDays in August 2009. ProcessDays can be regarded as one of the most established BPM conferences in Australasia. With 160 registrations in 2009, it was certainly one of the largest this year. Most of the participants were BPM professionals from diverse industries with some representation from various lines of business, a few vendors, consultants and academics. The majority of participants were based in Australia. After a brief presentation about the concept of critical success factors in general and the current status in the world of BPM, every participant who was at this stage at the conference was asked to name the single most important critical success factor of Business Process Management. In fact, submitting a response was a pre-requisite to get access to lunch….

The following table lists the result after codifying and consolidating the named factors. While now it could be argued how to exactly consolidate the single responses and though I have to admit that the codification process did not follow the strict academic requirements of multi-coder processes, this list provides at least a good impression of what is perceived as mission critical in the endeavour of being successful with BPM.

Top management support was named the clear number one success factor. This is a typical response across multiple success factors studies across various domains (e.g. ERP, Knowledge Management) by the way. Overall, it can be seen that this list includes to a large extent items that fall into the categories of strategic alignment, governance, people and culture within our BPM maturity model, while the other two factors, methods and information technology, are not mentioned at all.

Rank Topic Votes
1 Top Management Support 18
2 Culture 10
2 Leadership 10
4 Governance / Framework / Discipline 8
5 Meet Expectations / Deliver Value 7
5 BPM Skills 7
7 Mandate / Need / Appetite for Change 6
8 Communication 5
9 Strategic Alignment 4
10 People 3
10 Organisational Maturity 3
10 Change Management 3

This might be seen as a pointer to an important distinction in the set of success factors. I will use the so-called Kano model to make this point more clear. In this model, factors can be differentiated into two types (see Figure 2 below).

On the one side, there are factors that will make sure that the expectation of the customer is fulfilled. However, achieving these factors will not leave the customer with excitement. The customer takes the provision of these factors simply for granted and treats them as a commodity. The absence of any of these factors, however, can lead to significant disappointment putting still substantial pressure on getting this factor right. Maybe, and this requires further evidence, a number of methodological and IT-related factors determining Business Process Management success can be positioned here. We will call them in accordance to the following diagram the ‘below the line factors’.

On the other side, there are a number of factors that truly excite the customer and typically lead to substantial buy-in. A compelling way of how BPM can contribute to a significant corporate challenge or a convincing change management approach might be positioned in this set of ‘above the line factors’.

It is crucially important for every BPM professional to derive the set of individual critical success factors that are essential in his/her specific corporate context, and to distinguish these factors between above-the-line and under-the-line factors to be clear about the contributions they can make.

KANO Model

Critical success factors studies like the outcomes of this brief exercise at a large Australian BPM event provide valuable insights into what is perceived as important. Naturally, one would expect that important factors also attract the interest of the BPM community, i.e. attract resources, commitment and that overall attention is channelled based on the perceived importance of a factor.

In order to evaluate what BPM professionals perceive as being of interest to them, we also gathered data at the same event on what BPM-related topics the participants like to see presented and discussed at ProcessDays in one year (2010). The study participants were asked to rank a list of topics from 1-5 with 5 being of the highest importance. Table 2 lists the topics in descending order based on the sum of votes for this topic.

Rank Topic Votes
1 Process Modelling 85
1 Process Governance 85
3 Process Architecture 68
4 Enterprise Architecture 57
5 Change Management 53
5 Process Measures 53
7 Selling BPM 52
8 People in Process 40
9 Future of BPM 38
10 Business Rules 32

Immediately, it stands out that the number one topic on the ‘what do I like to see next year’ list is a topic that at least explicitly did not make it into the critical success factor hit list (Table 1) at all. Process modelling plays without any doubt an implicit role in the success factors discipline, skills or communication. In a similar way, the strong desire to learn more about process/enterprise architecture is not reflected to the same extent in the success factor list. In return, one would have expected a stronger interest in gaining top management support (a component of selling BPM), leadership or how to deliver value (implicit in process measures).

Though ProcessDays tends to attract rather BPM professionals and business (process) analysts and less senior executives, it is a concern that there is a reasonable strong disconnect between those factors that are regarded as very important for successful BPM (Table 1) and the topics that the BPM community likes to see discussed (Table 2).

Writing this while coming home from the 7th International BPM conference in Europe just one month after ProcessDays, I believe that this disconnect is not only an issue in the (Australian) BPM community of BPM practitioners, but also an issue for the academic BPM community. In the academic world of BPM, process modelling is by far the most intensively discussed and researched topic within the BPM conference series.

Maybe this misalignment is grounded in the human temptation to investigate rather intellectually challenging, tangible BPM artefacts than dealing with the difficult challenges of leadership, senior executive engagement or change management.

Maybe this misalignment is one core explanation for the still limited uptake of Business Process Management as a discipline (there is sufficient evidence that process modelling is widely spread). In any case and very obviously, it is time to devote energy to those critical success factors that matter, no matter what BPM community you are in. Or, how the previously quoted Logica studies puts it: “If there is one thing we noticed in the survey, it is that Winners did think this over far better than Losers and acted accordingly.”

About the Author

Dr. Michael Rosemann is Professor at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, Australia, and Co-Leader of QUT’s Business Process Management Group. The best way to contact Michael is via email (m.rosemann-AT-qut.edu.au).

Tags: Business Process Management BPM