Modeling Processes involving Knowledge Workers

Author: Rick Rummler

I have tried to come to terms with the differences between our views and experiences and that of other respected experts on the modeling of processes that involve knowledge workers.  I would venture to say that the majority of the business processes we address involve knowledge workers to some extent, so this is not a trivial point.  Here are a couple of examples of the views of others:

Typical cross-functional process maps “convey that processes are predictable and sequential. We think not, especially in a services-based industry where the workforce is predominantly knowledge workers.”

From a conversation with Janelle Hill, VP, Business Process Management Research, Gartner

“It is not easy to view knowledge work in terms of processes, because much of it involves thinking, and it is often collaborative and iterative, which makes it difficult to structure.”

Thomas H. Davenport from the Handbook on Business Process Management 1: Introduction, Methods and Information Systems; J. Vom Brocke and M. Rosemann- Editors; Springer-Verlag 2010 Germany; pg 19.

Surely, there are differences in the characteristics of a highly regimented or automated process and those where knowledge workers play a central role.  There are also important differences between manufacturing and service processes.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every process can be modeled in precisely the same way.  All process models vary in subtle and important ways in order to reflect unique process characteristics and the reason for creating the model.  However, in our experience there is no basis for taking a significantly different approach to modeling processes because of these differences.  It is even more problematic to assume that the approach should differ based on the category of process being modeled.

In a recent post, Alan reminded us that processes are most effectively thought of as a chain of accomplishments and PDL’s process definition states “a process is a construct for organizing work to achieve business value”.  Taken in combination what we are modeling is the chain of accomplishments that delivers business value.  This is true regardless of the type of process and doesn’t require significant differences in your approach to modeling.  Admittedly, effectively modeling some processes may require breaking artificial rules that are sometimes imposed on us by the process modeling software makers.  Here’s a simple example of a simple knowledge worker based process – the family meal planning process and tactics for conveying the characteristics of collaboration and iteration we often associate with knowledge work.

Menu Planning Process




In this example we used a shared accomplishment to convey collaboration (steps #2 and #6), nested accomplishments to denote a set of accomplishments without a prescribed sequence (steps #2 and #4), and the use of a Notes band to convey supporting information without cluttering the model.

Some stakeholders we interact with might perceive that the sample process model is prescriptive simply because it follows a defined path.  There is no denying the reality that there will always be a need to customize our models to best communicate to specific audiences, but this shouldn’t be confused with suggesting a need to abandon approaches to modeling processes that have proven to be effective in understanding, analyzing or designing business processes.