A year ago, I was in a taxi heading to Heathrow for the long haul from London back to Sydney. Not a London black cab, mind you. Taking one of those down the motorway feels like riding a Dyson in Nascar. It was a Volkswagen minicab with a wily driver. On the approach to the motorway, we hit a massive traffic snarl and dropped to a snail’s pace crawl that had me missing my flight, and the driver his next booking. “Looks like we need help,” he said and he reached over to his satnav.

He entered the destination and let it find the normal route. Then he pressed a button and the route changed, “hmm, we’ll try it” and when we had crawled up to a junction he turned off and headed in an unintuitive direction, until we hit the jam again. He pressed the “alternative route” button again, and off we went, and again, and again, and again. I swear that on that journey we travelled through a golf course, an aged care village and back lanes that looked like they went nowhere. But magically we came out somewhere that gave us a clear run on to the motorway and into Heathrow just in time.

I asked the driver if he had ever driven that route before or would even have known to drive that route. “No way,” he said. It was only possible because of the on-the-fly abilities of the satnav.

In business, we are buried in activities that demand on-the-fly decision making. That is one of the reasons why traditional workflow fails. Services industries operate in the knowledge economy rather than the machine economy so the concept of a production line workflow fails much of the time. Linear or predefined workflow forces people to pick up the phone or resort to email and workarounds to actually get a real job done.

In workflow and business process management terminology my mini cab driver’s sat nav alternate route function is called ‘best next action’. That means, “based on where I am now and the known conditions and constraints of the situation before me, what is the best thing to do next?” This is a common question for people who are not familiar with the situation they are faced with, because either it is an unusual set of circumstances, or they are new to the task in hand. Put simply, “what do I do now?”

The ‘best next action’ function in an advanced workflow or business process management tool will advise them that, based on when this set of circumstances has occurred previously, the following path is the one most likely to lead to a successful outcome. That’s quite conceptual, so I’ll give you an example.

An educational institution I was talking to a week ago had a complex recruit-to-hire process. They also have different business rules and desired outcomes for the different types of staff. How they onboard corporate and admin people is completely different to how they onboard teachers.

When onboarding a new admin person for example, the head count approval is a defined and unavoidable process and timing is not usually that critical. However if a faculty course is planned, enrolled and scheduled to start on a certain date then it is imperative to have the appropriate teacher on staff in time to deliver the course. Like everywhere, there is a normal elapse time for the recruit-to-hire cycle. If this process is automated with a business process management system then there is full visibility of the elapse time, the areas of delay and the critical success path. When they start a new hire process the system easily predicts the completion schedule. Once the required start date is defined, the system can quickly advise on the likelihood of success. (This is called inflight analytics by the way).

So, as they work through the hire of a new teacher, if the typical onboard time indicates the end date is later then the course start date then we need to do something special to shorten the process. This is where ‘best next action’  can kick in. Based on where you are now, the process is more likely to be successful if you do this step next rather than anything else. The business process management equivalent of “alternative route” on the sat nav.
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