Stormchasing - the art of business process management

A Doppler on Wheels (DOW) unit observing a tor...Image via Wikipedia

I don't get a lot of time to watch television, but when I do, one of the first channels I usually turn to is the Discovery Channel. The main reason for this is the excellent documentaries and the second reason is for Storm Chasers.

In theory Storm Chasers as a concept shouldn't work. It is a reality TV series following a group of meteorological geeks chasing tornado's in the American mid-west. It generally consists of long shots of people driving SUV's as well as some - usually- very dark shots of clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. All this is usually done in quite inclement weather.

What keeps me coming back to watch is the same thing that attracts people to all sorts of reality TV - it's to see real people in real, unscripted situations trying to beat the odds. Storm Chasers has the usual mix of personalities some of which are guaranteed to start sparking off each other - but what they also have (and one the things that sort of attracts me more) is technology. Lot's of technology.

There are two key groups of people in the chase. One are meteorologists who are trying to survey tornado's and are attempting to capture information to help understand the forces behind these awesome spectacles. The other side are a small group of film-makers who want to take a huge IMAX camera into the eye of a tornado and film it. They - basically - have a large camera which they have mounted on a specially adapted 16,000 pound armour-plated SUV (That's right, 16,000 pounds).

Between them they use lots of electronics. The researchers even have their own Doppler radar dish on wheels (known as the DOW), as well as internet weather, lot's of complex weather measuring apparatus running through computers and computer algorithms. Yet they only seem to actually achieve their objective once every 6 to 10 tornadoes.


The reason is that they still need human intervention. The data is purely that - it is data. It is the actual state of play at a given situation. The forecast is purely that, it is a possible situation at a time in the future. The glue holding all this together is the human interpreting the data.

Now before you start wondering why I am giving you a report on some Discovery Channel reality TV show and click away I want to pose a simple question to you: How is the Storm Chaser's paradigm like managing your business processes?

Well, I see three similarities:

1) They both start with understanding what you already have.
The technology and data they have is used to create an 'as-is' situation. They need to know what the current state of play is before they can start to forecast what the future will look like (or in their case where a tornado might touch down). Sure, there are schools of thought which disagree with collecting an as-is state, but I believe that in the world of business process (as in the world of Storm Chasing) you need to know where you are starting from to work out where you are going.

2) Both can use technology to the detriment of the ultimate solution
One thing that is constantly being referenced on the program is the all powerful nature of the DOW (The Doppler-on-wheels) which is revered as the key piece of technology that is driving them forward. Whilst lots of other items are used, the key decider about future direction is the DOW. Thus it has taken on a significance out of proportion with the actual value it delivers. This is particularly true given the fact that it is a data provider and still needs interpretation. To illustrate this fact, in a recent episode a rival group of Storm Chasers - armed with just a Dell laptop and wireless internet connection - managed to make exactly the same deduction about where a tornado would land as the DOW did. This is a prime example of relying too much on the technology as a solution to the problem rather than as a human enabler. How often do we do that in our day-to-day lives as process analysts? How many times have we relied on some magical BPM tool (or similar technology) as the solution to all our problems? And how often has this proven to not be the case?

3) They still need human intervention to make things work 100%
As mentioned previously, the ability of the technology to make a precise prediction about where a tornado is expected to touch down is minimal. Sure, there are general predictions but when you want to get a truck into the middle of a tornado, you need to be a bit more precise than 'general'. In order to finesse the location they rely on the experience and expertise of other people. They have a weather forecaster on board who isolates potential danger areas at the beginning of the day and then the team leader will make a decision about where to send the equipment to intercept based on that (except often he ignores the data and recommendation and goes somewhere else). Furthermore, despite the presence of several $100,000's worth of equipment and vehicles all the data is being funnelled through the team leader to help make the prediction. So far his ability to accurately forecast - especially in a quickly changing environment - has been less then optimal. But this is a failing on behalf of the individual and his decision making skills rather than the human intervention itself. In the business world as well there are often decisions that need to be made around processes to make them 100%. As with the Storm Chasers, these decisions do not always accurately occur within the system and rely on human intervention. Again - as with the Storm Chasers - management style and ability will predicate the success of these decisions.

I found it very interesting to see the parallels between the world of the Storm Chasers and the world of the business process analysts. Although I'm not sure I want to spend my working life driving a 16,000 truck through the eye of a tornado for a living!

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