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The revenge of the business process expert - have process mining tools revived an underrated craft?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 26, 2022
Ages ago, I advocated for the business process expert - and got it wrong. But process mining and execution tools like Celonis and SAP Signavio bring back the old debate: we need process experts, not product configurators.


It's hard to believe it. Just seven years ago, on these very pages, I was bemoaning the demise of the business process expert.

Now, thanks to the surge of process automation vendors, has the business process expert finally arrived?

Aside from data scientists, there might not be a more sought-after role. One site claimed 79% of companies have not yet embarked on process mining projects. Lack of internal process mining skills is a major reason. Bill Detwiler of Celonis (a key player in the process execution market), noted:

Data-centric roles are some of the top ranked and highest-paying tech jobs for 2022, and many employers are looking for candidates with process management, process improvement and process mining skills to fill those roles.

You didn't see that a few years ago - so how did we end up here? And: what skills are needed to deliver on process mining/automation/execution?

Legacy BPMN tools - a boat anchor to process transformation

When I got my start as an ERP analyst (and recruiter) in the 1990s, I was always wary of the so-called "ERP expert" that was really just a specialist in product configuration. When vendors started emphasizing the business process expert instead, I applauded. How can you configure a product without being an expert in process? Well, I applauded too soon. Long ago, SAP shuttered its business process expert community. I criticized the decision, but I understood the reasoning.

The "process expert" role fell out of favor because of the boat anchor known as BPMN tools. Painstaking models of existing processes with BPMN tools seemed cool - for a time. But in the end, it was the worst kind of enterprise navel-gazing. Looking back, those early BPMN tools were clunky as heck (they've since improved a lot - to avoid past stigma, I've seen vendors calling these "BMPN 2.0"). Legacy BPMN tools were disconnected from the ability to fix or automate process gaps. To be fair, ERP software was pretty darn clunky back then too, but it had a transactional advantage. You needed ERP to do your job.

But BPMN tool expertise was only a small part of the process expert skill set. Guess what? It's not hard to wipe the dust off that good ol' business process expert skills profile, and wrap it around the vastly superior process mining tools of today.

Why process mining, and why now?

Whether it's Celonis fresh off a monster funding round, or SAP Signavio playing an important role in SAP's RISE plans, "process intelligence" is a big deal (I'm using a few different phrases; each vendor has their favorite. Celonis calls itself "a process mining and execution management" vendor; SAP Signavio emphasizes process transformation and intelligence).

It's only fair to ask - why process mining, and why now? Three reasons. 1. The cost savings from successful process mining projects are eye-opening. As my colleague Derek du Preez wrote:

These aren't just theoretical ideas or marketing promises. Celonis has the customer endorsements to back it up. Some examples include Deutsche Bank saying that it was able to use Celonis to help deliver over EUR 60 million in cost savings, just from improving the efficiency of 40 processes, and BP saying that the vendor's process mining capabilities were key in helping it identify $2.5 billion in cost savings.

Even companies that are committed to "transformation projects" have little interest in massive rip-and replace, or elaborate integrations. That's reason number 2: The best process mining tools tie automated analysis to execution, without disrupting systems. Identify broken processes or automation gaps, and fill them quickly - with tools provided to do so.

This is vastly different than business modeling as a white board exercise, aided and abetted by BPMN. My colleague Phil Wainewright, fresh off a Celonis World Tour event in London, addressed the value of layering process mining onto an existing landscape, without rip-and-replace:

What is particularly interesting about Celonis is that it can be added as a layer around the earlier technology and work with it rather than requiring its replacement to make an impact.

The third factor is: 3. the pressing need for automation amidst pervasive labor gaps. As I said in a recent podcast with Avantra's John Appleby on SAP automation:

That tension between automation and talent just isn't there the way I thought it would be, because right now, they're both an imperative. The skills gap issues across industries are so profound that the automation becomes essential - not as a headcount reduction exercise - but as a way to do more with less, as a way to actually get the job done.

Phil Fersht of HfS Research nailed down the automation imperative in his recent post, I’ll keep finding automations ’til I die:

One CIO I spoke with recently declared, "I'll keep finding automations 'til I die"… the guy is eagerly looking at the many break points and dysfunctions across his company, generally excited at the impact of speeding up repetitive tasks and delighting teams that can focus on higher value work.  He's literally hopping from one project to the next, intent on driving significant improvements to his business.

Defining the process expert skill set - real-life examples

Today's process mining tools take pains to avoid the bog pits of manual process documentation. You don't want huge teams huddling over process maps, emerging weeks later in search of pizza, beer, or a project manager. Doing that remotely isn't advisable either.

However: I reject the idea that these process execution tools let humans off the hook. You still need process experts, or better yet, process transformation experts, either inside or outside your company. Yes, those folks will likely specialize in a particular process mining tool/vendor, but they'll also have a deeper background.

This Senior Process Mining Consultant job description for Celonis projects sheds light. Bullet points that jump out:

  • Have gained 3-5 years working experience in IT-Consulting, Management Consulting, Process Improvement or a similar area.
  • Have a good knowledge of SQL or other programming languages (Python, R, Matlab...).
  • Understand and are able to interpret business processes.
  • Are a person with excellent analytical skills, are always well-organized and known for being a quick learner.
  • Have a strong interest in Big Data, Data Mining, and Process Mining and you seek continuous improvement of your know-how.

The SQL/programming language aspect is different than the classic process expert skill set - though you won't find that in all process mining job descriptions. The biggest change? The emphasis on data and analytics. I thought this SAP Signavio/BPMN 2.0 consultant job was interesting. Yes, there is a need for process documentation via PowerPoint and Visio into Signavio (you can never completely get away from such heavy lifting). The end-to-end process expertise stood out:

Knowledge of end-to-end Record to Report, Procure to Pay and Maintenance flows in SAP.

But it's the finesse of working with end customers that cements these skills. As a PMC (Process Mining Consultant) on Glassdoor put it:

As a PMC, I get to dig into the data and show clients how they can eliminate pain points in their daily business processes, and that is really fun.

This bio from a Celonis training professional demonstrates the convergence of process expertise, analytics and collaboration:

I am a Process Mining and SAP Consultant at Enowa LLC. I bring 3+ years of Celonis implementation experience in processes such as accounts payable, purchasing, sales and manufacturing, using a variety of source systems. To me, working and learning with members of process teams, enabling them to use and build with their own data in Celonis, find answers quickly, ask the right questions, and create forward-looking dashboards and metrics - is where I find the greatest value in Celonis.

Now, compare all that to my SAP BPX (business process expert) skill overview from 2008. Core BPX areas:

  • mastery of modeling tools (ARIS, Visio).
  • "Web 2.0" skills (collaborative process definition and design).
  • "soft skills" (another umbrella area of many skills).
  • focused industry know-how.
  • knowledge of the end-to-end business processes that rely upon your IT/ERP skills to be properly enabled.
  • ability to work as the liaison or missing link with functional and/or technical teams from the other side of the aisle.
  • change management skills (process-driven approach often means organizational changes).
  • project management skills and methodology know-how (lean manufacturing methodologies, Six Sigma, project management certifications).

Terms have changed, but the core perseveres. The modeling tools aren't irrelevant, but we shift our focus to the process mining tool of choice. However, we should add a depth of analytics skills. The abiding lesson: product configurators take the back seat to those who grasp the customer, industry/process - and the tools.

My take

Process experts who dug in their heels have an opportunity: claim a spot in the process mining and execution market. I hope they do, because in terms of revenge, living well is a good play. As for me, looks like I should spiff up my process expert presentations, rather than throwing them in the virtual trash.

The best thing is seeing customer value achieved. I'm hardly the only one who felt this was possible all those years ago, but let's face it - we fell short. Maybe now we can make up for lost time.

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