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What Is a Process?

Recently, everybody seems to be talking about  “process improvement,” “process design,“ “process maturity, “ and so on. But what actually IS a process? The term has a similar depth and ambiguity as the idea of an “object.” The ISO 9000:2000 standard defines a process as “a set of interrelated or interacting activities which transform inputs into outputs.” For an IT specialist it still appears unclear: what is “interrelation” and how do activities “interact?” Why would one deal with “processes” at all? Does that concern our project?

It sounds like we should handle this issue with caution. Many attempts to standardize software project processes ended up in thick files in locked cabinets – and many of us surely have bad memories of that. The term “process” alone frequently induces the fear of everybody soon being annoyed with excessively (apparently or actually useless) formalities, complicated workflow definitions a generally intolerable overhead.

A computer scientist may feel tempted to think of processes as if they were UML activity diagrams with object flows. In this context, the world consists of algorithms and data structures, they just need to be modelled: algorithms as activities, results and inputs as data. However, it doesn’t answer the question about the general purpose of the „process”.

We like a completely pragmatic view on processes. As process consultants, we work with processes in the context of commercial organizations. Thus, processes may be viewed as parts of the value-added chain. This seems only logical, since enterprises are not created out of pure fun: their goal is it to make money.

From this point of view, processes would be just chains of value-adding stopovers on the way to create a positive cash flow for the organisation as a whole. A stopover needs products of preliminary stages in order to „improve” the results for the next steps in the chain. In addition, we should be careful when using certain words: the term „chain“ suggests that a process resembles a deterministic-linear sequence. However, from our experience we can tell that this is not always the case, because decisions, parallelisms and other characteristics lead to bypasses and shortcuts.

Thus, a useful definition seems to be as follows: a process is a directed graph consisting of activities, transitions and work objects. The activities need work objects and work resources in order to produce new or more valuable work objects. A goal of a process is to create a product that can be sold at a profit.

(Originally published: 05 July 2007)

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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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