Dark processes and the implication for your business

holy smoke Jim Sinur recently posted a piece which discussed Dark Processes. These are the unofficial processes used to deliver results that are not visible to management. Jim mentions that there are a number of ways Dark Processes (or Shadow Processes) come into being, these being - for example - when a variation is needed in a process that has no flex, or when an IT limitation inhibits the ability of a process to work as required or - my personal favourite - because Old Habits Die Hard. I wrote something akin to this a few years ago when talking about “The Way Its Always Been Done”.

Jim finishes up his piece by saying
“Dark processes are here to stay. Let’s not fear them, but reduce the number of opportunities to create and feed them for no good reason. Intelligent business operations allows for intelligence built into processes to reduce the need for dark processes.”
I couldn’t agree more.

What does this mean?

But lets have a look, for a moment, about what these dark processes mean for your business, shall we?

  • If you have a process which is inflexible enough to deal with variation, or where IT inadequacies have put some sort of constriction on the ability of people to do their job, you will get a shadow process building up. I have encountered these in many, many organisations. 
  • If you have a finance department that uses Excel as a means of creating management information using data imported from your ERP and ‘manipulated’, than you have a shadow process.
  • If you have employees keeping paper records of transactions with customers because the customer wants something that the system can’t appropriately handle, you have shadow processes.

The existence of shadow process do - in themselves - indicate some sort of underlying issue that needs to be dealt with. Why is an employee having to record transaction off the books to assist a customer? Why are the finance department recording different figures for MI than are shown on the system?
Sometimes the issue is simple. In the case of Finance it could be that they are taking figures from several systems and using Excel to amalgamate and ‘pretty them up’. But sometimes there is a deeper-seated underlying reason.

I worked at one organisation that took centrally affiliated reporting criteria and ‘massaged’ the figures each month in Excel prior to submitting them to corporate for review. The reason was that they were accounting for things in a none standard way and knew that taking the figures directly from the system would show them as having sold less than they actually had. Rather than change the way they accounted for things they decided to alter the figures instead. This resulted in a shadow process which allowed them to do what they needed. The issue came to a head when I implemented a new financial system that allowed all figures to be queried centrally without the affiliate themselves doing any manipulation of the data. That particular shadow process didn’t last long.

How do you remove them?

But overall a shadow process needs to be identified and the underlying cause removed. But how do you do this?

As Jim himself says:
Intelligent business operations allows for intelligence built into processes to reduce the need for dark processes
What this means, in my opinion, is that when new processes are put in, adding a sensible amount of intelligence into the processes will reduce the scope for a dark process to appear. But this doesn’t remove the existing ones that we haven’t found yet.

Identification of a dark process is - by definition - quite difficult. If you knew the dark process existed you would try and stop it (or understand why it exists).

One solution is the one listed above: replace their process with another one and see what breaks. That’s a little radical for my liking (but very effective)

Another slightly less radical way of doing this is to put someone new into the role and ask them to report back to you with their impressions of what happens. You can compare that with what should happen (You do have documented your processes, right?) and identify the discrepancies. But this isn’t always the best thing to do. Employees get distrustful when you suddenly introduce someone new to the company, and rightfully so in this case.

No, the easiest way to identify a shadow process is to go, systematically through your existing processes and document them appropriately. That way you will understand what the employees are actually doing rather than what they think they are doing.

I facetiously asked earlier in this post “You have documented your processes, right?”. In actual fact this appears to be a key factor in understanding where dark processes occur. Get your users into a room, start to ask them what they do. Work through the details until you understand the points at which the current process breaks down. Sure, it'll take a while, and probably cost you a fair amount of money. But compare that with the amount of money you're losing by having the processes there in the first pace and you'll understand the importance of doing this.


We know they're there. We know they're happening. Understand that they happenmand understand why they happen. If you can life with that, fair enough, go ahead and do what you do. But if you think the dark processes are costing you time and money (and they almost certainly are) then you need to start looking in detail at where they occur and trying to stop them.
It's the only sane thing to do.

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Who's your vendor? And why?

New BPM systems

Everybody sees them. Everybody knows about them. It seems that a week doesn’t go by without some new system coming to market.

Questions?So the dilemma which exists for a prospective purchaser of these systems is “How do I differentiate between all these systems?”. In previous posts I’ve looked at some of the criteria that are used for selecting these tools, but at a more macro level I’m interested in understanding what it is about one software company that will encourage you to work with them over a software company which has a broadly similar offering?

As an example: If I worked in the sales department of a major multinational and I needed a CRM tool, there are a number of tools I could use that are on the market. Some are stronger in one area relative to another, but overall they are very similar in what they do and how they do it. Price is always a factor when it comes to software packages, but as the size of the company increases, the price factor lessens (after all you’re going to be spending millions on the project it doesn’t really matter if it costs £1000 per seat or £2500 per seat). So what is it that I would look for in a company that I am going to work with on a large project such as a BPM implementation?

Possible options

  1. Is it the size of the company itself? Would you work with a smaller company if it could convince you that it was more agile and responsive to your needs?
  2. Is it the track record of the company? Does it need to have had many similar implementations with companies your size before you will even look at it? If this is the case, how is the company meant to get started with doing this as it appears to be a Catch 22?
  3. Is it the people you deal with? Mostly - when looking at software tools - you end up dealing with sales people or folks from the marketing or pre-sales team. They are trained to be polite and helpful, and in many cases will promise things that in reality might be difficult to provide. They are usually very pleasant people but they aren’t going to be the ones your project is dealing with after the contract is signed.
  4. Is it case studies? Do you look for organisations that can provide case studies which align with the kind of things you are looking to do by implementing your software package or finishing your project?
  5. Is it references? Do you try and speak to other companies that have implemented this tool? Does it matter if a company cannot produce these references?
  6. Is it accolades from research organisations such as The Gartner Group or Forrester? Lots of organisations subscribe to research provided by groups such as this and they provide “Magic Quadrants” and “Wave” diagrams which identify the top vendors in particular market areas. How much influence does this have on your thinking?


I’m very interested to understand what it is that helps influence a project to decide on a particular software vendor. Any of your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.