Business Process Reengineering and Human Resource Management By Hugh Willmott Judge Institute of Management University of Cambridge, UK A later version of this article appears in Personal Review, 23, 3: 34-46 (1994) For more information on published articles by Hugh Willmott please refer to http://dspace. dial. pipex. com/town/close/hr22/hcwhomeBusiness Process Reengineering and Human Resource Management Hugh Willmott Manchester School of Management, UMIST Abstract
This article reviews the Business Process Reengineering (BPR) vision of radical business process change, focusing upon the use of information technology to facilitate a shift away from linear/sequential work organization towards parallel processing and multidisciplinary teamworking. It highlights BPR’s cursory treatment of the human dimension of its programme for radical organizational change and raises the question of how HRM specialists are to respond to its trivialisation of the complexities and dilemmas associated with the reengineering of work processes. Introduction There is a new-look menu over at the Consultants’Cafe. Good old soupe du TQM and change management pate are off. Perhaps you would care to try some business process reengineering instead? ‘ 1 During the 1980s, executives were invited to sample and digest a series of ‘recipes’ for enhancing corporate performance. Notably, they were urged by Peters and Waterman to emulate the successes of ‘excellent’companies by strengthening their corporate cultures 2 . More recently, Total Quality Management (TQM) has been widely promoted and adopted as a means of achieving continuous improvement . However, ‘A recent study indicates that around 85% of the organizations using TQM are disappointed with the outcome ……. experts are predicting that TQM will be replaced by corporate re-engineering as the technique most favoured by organizations anxious to maximise their people and material resources’ 4 In order to compete successfully against ‘sleek startups and streamlined Japanese companies’, Hammer, the leading advocate of Business Process Reengineering (BPR), asserts that ‘companies need fast change and dramatic improvements’ 5 . In BPR, the emphasis is placed pon the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to play a key, enabling role in transforming the design of work processes 6 , a role that stretches far beyond the automation of existing methods of manufacturing products or delivering services 7 . ‘Nearly all our processes originated before the advent of modern computer and communications technology. They are replete with mechanisms designed to compensate for “information poverty”. Although we are now information affluent, we still use those mechanisms, which are now deeply embedded in automated systems’ 8
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ICTs are identified as a means of quite radically ‘reengineering’organizations to achieve market responsiveness whilst substantially reducing labour costs. Making the transition from function-3 centred to process-oriented organizing practices necessarily depends upon the ‘human resources’ who enact, and are also (re)constituted by, BPR. Given BPR’s focus upon business processes, it is remarkable how little attention is given by BPR to they human dimensions of organizing. The paper begins by reviewing the BPR vision of radical business process change 9 , focusing pon its use of information technology to facilitate a move away from linear/sequential work organization towards parallel processing and multidisciplinary teamworking. The neglect of the human dimension within BPR is then identified. Finally, the paper questions how HRM specialists, in particular, are to respond to its trivialisation of the human and organizational complexities and dilemmas associated with the BPR recipe for radical organizational change. It concludes by suggesting that the human aspects and implications of BPR have been woefully neglected, and that these should provide a strong focus for contemporary management research.
Business Panaceas Revisited? Given the number and variety of earlier solutions to unsatisfactory corporate performance that failed to fulfil their promise, it is not surprising to discover a degree of scepticism about Business Process Reengineering (BPR), especially as its programmatic and abstract character makes it harder to pin down than recipes for strengthening corporate culture or building quality into every aspect of business activity 10 . Does BPR have a distinctive flavour or is it the same old imperialistic consultancy guff dressed up in new jargon?
Needless to say, business consultants have a vested interest in emphasising the novelty and potency of whatever variety of ‘snake oil’ they dispense to managers. But investment in previous recipes also means that they are inclined to interpret the new in terms of the old, and to repackage old wine in new bottles. In turn, this may lead to an overhasty dismissal of BPR as simply the latest in a line of fads that is distinguished from previous panaceas only by its achievement of a new nadir in the inelegance of its terminology.
In our view, such treatment is unhelpful if it blinds us to the possibility that BPR represents and promotes something distinctive and innovative in its approach to the restructuring of business practices. In common with previous recipes for improving business performance – from Taylorism to TQM – BPR draws together, synthesises and provides an articulation for ideas and practices that have been floating around in the business world without a catchy label or a champion.
Though it may represent a new nadir in the inelegance of its terminology, BPR is sufficiently striking, flexible and ambiguous to encompass many programmes and techniques, such as teamworking, and networking and even EPOS (electronic point of sale), that are have contributed to the reorganization of work during the 1980s. What Hammer has done is not so much to concoct a novel recipe but to put a name to an emergent trend in business organization that has been prompted, above all, by an intensification of competition that intensifies the pressures upon executives to seek (radical) ways of gaining competitive advantage.
His contribution, like that of earlier guru figures, resides in a flair for packaging and promoting an appealing product in a market where status-conscious consumers are, like the proverbial Emperor, anxious to espouse and sport the latest in management fashions. 4 Hammer’s formulation of BPR promises radical (not just incremental) improvements in such areas as product development, product quality and speed of delivery. By undertaking a fundamental review and transformation of key business processes, Hammer’s focus is upon the leaps in performance that can be attained through the innovative use of ICTs.
Instead of using ICTs to ‘automate’ existing, functionally organized methods of production, Hammer urges that they be mobilised to redesign processes in ways that ‘obliterate’established practices. ‘It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should “reengineer” our businesses : use the power of modern information technology to radically redesign our business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their performance’ 11
The embeddedness of out-moded mechanisms both within organization structures and their IT systems is diagnosed as a principal source of competitive decline. Their symptoms are legion : lengthy product development cycles, poor customer responsiveness and service, capital locked up in operations that add little or no value. Even in companies that have embraced the principles of TQM and JIT, it is claimed that their bureaucratic structures have been left largely intact, or have even been reinforced by such programmes, making possible room for dramatic improvements in performance Despite (the application of TQM and JIT principles), most Western companies remain highly bureaucratic, with departments acting individually and “throwing over the wall” to the next department designs, information, product, and most of all problems ….. barriers to overall business effectiveness are raised and turf is jealously guarded …. This kind of organizational linking needs to be broken apart and rebuilt as a process-oriented business …. where everyone regards working in cross-functional teams as the norm …. and where everyone knows that the key goal is to produce a service or product that the marketplace perceives to be best’ 2 BPR demands that old assumptions, values and rules, are challenged and superseded. For example, BPR encourages a fundamental questioning of conventional wisdoms – such as the assumption that merchandising decisions are best made at headquarters; or that customers don’t (and perhaps won’t) make even straightforward repairs to their own electrical equipment. It is by exposing and overthrowing assumptions that lock companies into existing paradigms of production and distribution that BPR promises to accomplish the quantum leaps in processes of service delivery, product development cycles, etc.
Instead of striving to make incremental improvements to existing processes, BPR urges the radical reexamination of current practice in order to ‘determine which of its steps really add value and search for new ways to achieve the result’ 13 . To take the analogy of new product development, the BPR approach favours the development of a completely new product rather than one that improves marginally upon existing products. Recent examples, taken from the financial services industry, are the development of Direct Line insurance sales 14 nd the establishment of Firstdirect as an alternative to conventional banking. Both innovations rely heavily upon ICTs to gain a niche within a saturated and highly competitive market place. With5 the UK, N & P Building Society is perhaps the most celebrated case of a financial services organization that has triumphantly embraced the BPR credo. The application of BPR may be confined to one area of activity – for example, the delivery of a particular product or to the development of an alternative product.
But it is also, and more fundamentally, concerned with revolutionising all kinds of established organizational practices in an effort to achieve dramatic, ‘quantum leaps’in business performance. ‘We cannot achieve breakthroughs in performance by cutting fat or automating existing processes. Rather, we must challenge old assumptions and shed the old rules that made the business underperform in the first place’ 15 Radical transformation is possible, the advocates of BPR argue, because most businesses continue to rely upon structures and procedures that pre-date the processing capabilities of low cost ICTs.
It is by thinking carefully about how new, alternative modes of operation can harness the power of ICTs that breakthroughs can be achieved. De-differentiating the Collective Worker When it comes to identifying the new organizing practices that are to replace old, outmoded mechanisms, the advocates of BPR are more vague and its methodology of change is quite opaque. Not undeservedly, BPR has been likened to the curry house special : no one knows exactly what it is 16 . However, certain contours are comparatively well defined.
BPR’s special weapon is the power of ICTs and its principal targets are functionally-based structures and sequentially organized processes. Both are criticised for their tendency to differentiate rather than integrate elements of product design, manufacture and delivery. As Hammer and Champy 17 make this case, ‘The most basic and common feature of reengineered processes is the absence of an assembly line; that is, many formerly distinct jobs or tasks are integrated and compressed into one’. The call for improved integration is hardly unique.
Improved flexibility and responsiveness and the reduction of managerial overhead 18 , both to be accomplished through the de-differentiation of what Marx 19 terms the collective worker, is a recurrent theme of the new management thinking. Kanter (1992) has described ‘post-entrepreneurial’ companies that are successful in achieving improved integration (trans : de-differentiation) in the following terms ‘They make sure each area contributes something to the others. The leaner, more focused, more cooperative and integrated organizations that result help each unit add value to the others.
The “whole” contributes something above and beyond the value of the parts …. The post-entrepreneurial corporation represents a triumph of process over structure. That is, relationships and communication and the flexibility to temporarily combine resources are more important that the “formal” channels and reporting relationships represented on an organizational chart’ 206 The understanding that there is an alternative to the classical, bureaucratic form of corporate design can be traced back at least as far as Burns and Stalker’s The Management of Innovation (1961).
Burns and Stalker argued that a more dynamic, ‘organic’ system of management was appropriate for companies operating in environments that frequently gave rise to fresh, unanticipated and unpredictable problems. The difference today is that leading management gurus, including the champions of BPR, are insisting that virtually all companies can only hope to survive if they rapidly develop systems that match and surpass the reengineered, postentrepreneurial organizing methods that have been pioneered or adopted by the most successful companies, including many market leaders.
At the heart of new management thinking, including BPR, is a concern to remedy a familiar subject of industrial sociology : the problem of goal displacement and organizational politics. Corporate goals become displaced when the occupants of functional specialisms become preoccupied with their own objectives and/or devote themselves to the specific range of responsibilities allotted to their specialism, to the neglect of their contribution to adding value to the corporation as a whole.
In common with other recipes for improving corporate performance, a key objective of BPR is to challenge and disrupt such ‘dysfunctional’ patterns of behaviour. But BPR is distinctive in urging the use of ICTs to de-differentiate tasks that have been dispersed into discrete functions or steps in a process. ICTs are understood to provide the technological means of running in parallel tasks or processes that were previously organized in series. At one level, then, advocates of BPR can be said to be labelling old wine into new bottles.
But, at another level they are making a radical and indeed extraordinary claim. Namely, that the chronic managerial problem of achieving a balance between differentiation (to cope with task complexity) and integration (to coordinate a fragmented division of labour) can be solved by using ICTs to reengineer business processes so that a single individual, or a virtual individual comprising a group of employees linked in real time by ICTs, can perform tasks that previously were divided between a number of imperfectly coordinated staff.
Whereas the old principles of work organization tended to assume the necessity for functional departments that were accountable, through hierarchical organization, to themselves ‘The new principle says to forge links between parallel functions and to coordinate them while their activities are in process rather than after they are completed. Communications networks, shared data bases, and teleconferencing can bring the independent groups together so that coordination is on-going’ 21
But it seeks to deploy ICTs to reduce both vertical and horizontal divisions wherever these do not ‘add value’. As this occurs, the accountability of specialists shifts from their function within the hierarchy to the task or project in process. Instead of complying with the standards of performance demanded by their specialist function, employees are required to direct and discipline their efforts in accordance with the demands of the task. In principle, the multifunctional group determines, guides and evaluates the contribution of each member.
These groups are also required to feedback and inform the development of the broad priorities in a more direct and open manner than has hitherto been achieved. However, hierarchical relations continue to set broad priorities and monitor their performance with the assistance of information7 technology. A Preliminary Assessment The experience or threat of losing market share makes BPR potentially appealing to senior executives who are attracted by the claims of a technique that promises to make a quantum leap beyond the performance gains delivered by the Japanese lead in JIT and TQM.
On the other hand, it could be objected that the BPR focus is upon improving the operations of companies, to the possible neglect of the competitive advantages that can be gained from other sources, such as strategic planning and marketing. This objection is partially disarmed by Hammer’s insistence that management functions, including marketing, be integrated into processes of product development, etc. BPR could be deployed to reengineer the processes through which corporate strategies are formulated and implemented, but it does not extend to identifying or creating markets or niches where big profits can be made.
BPR is presented primarily an operations-led approach to strategic selfimprovement. It builds upon, as it aspires to leap beyond, ‘the tactical process-oriented philosophies of JIT and TQM …. to bring the process philosophy into the broader realm of corporate strategy 22 . BPR has most relevance for securing and defending niches by continuously (re)engineering processes so that profit levels can be sustained even if there is a decision to increase costs (e. g. by enhancing the product or raising the marketing spend) or reduce prices in order to maintain market share.
It is not an alternative to strategic management. BPR presents a novel challenge to organisational structures, processes and cultures. But its promise of greater productivity and shorter time to market is predicated on making major shifts in managerial practice and culture, the attainment of which is brushed aside in the BPR literature. Whilst advocating multidisciplinary integration of business processes, it is largely driven by the logic and language of computer science and production engineering.
Perhaps for this reason, if no other, David Nadler, president of Delta Consulting Group is reported to have said that ‘We have watched a number of re-engineering projects fail. They have involved huge promises of savings, but have either stopped because they don’t seem to be leading anywhere, or they have been completed but with none of the promised gains to show for it. Moreover, such projects generate payments to consultants of upward of $5 to $20 million. It’s a nasty little secret’ 3 By promising to provide the means of leaping ahead of the global competition, the BPR vision of the future of work presents a beguiling answer to the problems of declining competitiveness. However, it also promotes the continuing contraction of employment as organizations (continuously) reengineer their processes. Those who remain are obliged to work at an everquickening intensity and pace. For this elite, there is the prospect of eventual ‘burnout’ and disposal.
For the mass whose jobs have been reengineered out of these companies, there is the increasingly restricted prospect of occupying the lowly paid, temporary jobs that service tomorrow’s ‘networkers”information brokers’and ‘symbolic analysts’ 24 .8 This is the achilles heel of BPR. Implicitly, employees are assumed to be BPR to be infinitely malleable. And any antagonism to BPR is interpreted as inertia rather than as warrantable resistance to change that can be dissolved by the persuasive powers of senior management. HRM specialists, in particular, may question whether the he ambitions of BPR are consistent with the distinctive qualities of ‘human resources’. More specifically, it might be asked to what extent the increased pressures that are fuelled by BPR are compatible with ideas of creativity, empowerment and fulfilment that differentiate human beings from other factors of production. From this perspective, it is not BPR’s inflated sense of novelty so much as its shallow, technicist appreciation of the human dimension of organisational change that renders it vulnerable to failure and must be addressed, not least by HRM specialists.
Two contrasting responses can be identified, depending upon how the distinctive identity concerns of HRM are formulated. If the responsibilities of the HRM specialist are construed primarily in terms of facilitating change programmes designed and initiated by others, then a relevant response to the alleged deficiencies of BPR would be to propose refinements that incorporate HRM techniques that are tailored to the adoption of BPR and/or overcoming resistance to its implementation.
On the other hand, if HRM specialists aspire to some degree of professional (including ethical) autonomy, however partial and precarious, they may question whether the assumptions and ambitions of BPR are consistent with enhancing the qualities of creativity, empowerment and fulfilment that differentiate human beings from other factors of production. A major problem with the intent of BPR, as its critics have observed, is that its celebration of the idea of unbridled competitiveness as an unassailable good ‘locks us into a frenzied cycle of growth with desperate environmental consequences… ompetition does not just exist as some transcendental condition but is the outcome of practices, of which BPR is the latest variant. It is as if a person were running on a treadmill being constantly encouraged to run faster to keep up with the wheel’ 25 How are HRM specialists to respond to the challenges of BPR, including its contribution to unemployment and its intensification of work processes? Is heir professional understanding of the distinctiveness qualities of the human resource to be applied to smooth the passage for a (technocratic) mode of change management that is divisive in terms of its effects upon employment, and which either disregards or trivializes the distinctiveness of the human resource? If so, the HRM specialist surely deserve the epithetic pimp of management – in the sense of procuring human resources for economic exploitation without regard for the moral basis of social and economic relations, or the demoralising effects of treating human beings as manipulable, expendable resources.
For, instead of questioning and challenging the pressures to reduce human beings to commodities, HRM specialists contrive to use their specialist knowledge of the ‘human resource’ to represent its commodification as entirely normal and legitimate 26 . Or are HRM specialists to develop and apply their expertise in ways that expose and explore the basic conflicts between a system driven by impersonal imperatives for profit and growth? In which case, the radical claims of BPR are questioned on the grounds that it is seen to ‘hijack the notion of radicalism in the service of aims that are politically conservative’ 27 9 for example, by debasing the (radical) currency of empowerment as it is equated with the idea that those remaining in employment can be empowered (as if it empowerment were a gift to be bestowed by others) to ensure the smoother operation of a system that systematically exploits and oppresses in the name of individual freedom and opportunity. Hammering the Human Resource The marginalization and trivialization of the human dimension from expositions of BPR is remarkable, even by the standards of leading proponents of TQM.
Making the transition from function-centred to process-oriented organizing practices necessarily depends upon the ‘human resources’ who enact, and are enacted by, BRP. Given the focus upon business processes, it is incredible how little attention is given by BPR to the human dimensions of organizing. This shortcoming is symptomatic of the way BPR’s claims and prescriptions for change are even more abstracted from the practical realities of organizing and managing people than earlier recipes for improving business performance, such as Excellence and TQM.
Little consideration is given to the issue of how BPR’s (universal) remedies are to be reconciled with the (particular) conditions in which its prescriptions are to be applied. When examples are given, these are presented as unequivocal success stories. For example, Hammer describes how Ford (North America) reduced its accounts payable staff from 500+ to 125 by redesigning the payment process and using ICTs in a way that dispensed with invoices altogether. Perhaps those who lost their jobs (or were redeployed) were entirely supportive and cooperative in this change.
In this respect at least, the parallels between BPR and Taylorism are quite striking. Like Taylor, who rose to become Chief Engineer at the Midvale Steel Company, Hammer, the computer scientist, is quick to transfer the language of computing, and recent developments in parallel processing, to the complex and frequently perverse world of human relations. In any event, Hammer unreservedly represents the reengineered process as a means of ’empowering’ employees.
When commenting upon the reengineering of insurance applications at US Insurer Mutual Benefit Life (MBL), for instance, he observes that ’empowering individuals to process entire applications ….. has eliminated 100 field office positions, and case managers can handle more than twice the volume of new applications the company previously could process’. Here empowerment is equated with the integration of tasks made possible by the development of expert systems and relational data bases rather than with the expansion of discretion or even an increase in task variety.
No consideration is given to the loss of employment opportunities associated with such change. Nor does Hammer consider the probability that the VDU operators (‘case managers’) are stuck in a dead-end job that in all likelihood has become more intensive, routine and isolating as a consequence of the reengineering. Indeed, virtually the only comment made by Hammer on the human dimension of BPR is that its demands upon employees are entirely congruent with an educated (trans. : self-disciplined) workforce that no longer requires close supervision. What methods are used to ‘produce’ this workforce remain a ystery. The population in general is simply deemed to be ‘capable of assuming responsibility, cherish their autonomy and expect to have a say in how the business is run’. Consider the situation of the ‘case managers’at MBL. Assuming that the tasks which they performed were driven by menus, it is difficult to reconcile the highly routinized design of their work with ‘assuming responsibility’. If employees do indeed ‘cherish their autonomy’, it would10 be interesting to discover how MBL retained these ‘case managers’. Finally, it would be instructive to know what ‘say’they had in running the business.
For example, what involvement can they expect to have in any future ‘reengineering process’ that might further intensify their work or ‘eliminate their positions’? Champions of BPR, like Taylor again, are willing to acknowledge that the radical changes envisaged by BPR may encounter some resistance. But they also assume that this resistance can be dissolved by effective leadership and commitment from top management. Hammer, for example, acknowledges that the disruption and confusion generated by reengineering can make it unpopular, though he is equally confident that any opposition can be effectively surmounted by top-level managers.
The commitment of managers as champions of BPR is deemed to be sufficient ‘to enlist those who would prefer the status quo’. So, despite an admission that ‘the strain of implementing a reengineering plan can hardly be overestimated’, Hammer is sure that employees can be convinced of its virtues; or, to put this more directly, where major job losses are involved, he is confident that strong leadership can persuade sufficient turkeys to vote for Christmas.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article that reviews the experience of BPR in 100 companies, with detailed consideration to its application in 20 companies, a rather less sanguine conclusion is reached. Once again, it is assumed that ‘strong leadership from management’ is necessary if BPR projects are not to be sabotaged by ‘the psychological and political disruptions that accompany such radical change’. However, there is a greater appreciation both of the depth of this resistance and the scale of resources and length of time required to accomplish radical organisational transformation: all the old support systems will become obsolete – from IT systems to employee skills … The new infrastructure should include programs like comprehensive training and skill development plans that require years, not merely months, for success; performance – measurement systems that track how well the organisation is meeting its targets and how employees should be rewarded based on those objectives; communication programs that help employees understand how and why their behaviour must change ….. Here there is some awareness of how employees, not just processes, must be reengineered or debugged if they are to run effectively in the systems.
However, there remains the assumption that employees, including managers, are infinitely malleable; that the parallel development of HRM systems and strong leadership will dissolve resistance; and that the new systems will not themselves generate new problems and resistances. What such assessments and prescriptions omit or, at best, marginalise is an appreciation of BPR’s major implications for job losses and further intensification/degradation of the quality of working life for employees at all levels. Which does not mean that some features of the changes envisaged by process reengineering will not be welcomed.
For example, despite the increased routinization and depersonalization of their work, ‘case managers’ at MBL (see above) may approve of the removal of supervisors or prefer the reduced fragmentation of tasks. But even those who, on balance, endorse such changes are also likely to have reservations about its implications for their future job security. They may also recognise, and resent, the extent to11 which the pace and accuracy of their work can now be continuously monitored, albeit indirectly, by information systems.
Hammer himself acknowledges that the reengineering of business processes has numerous implications for how businesses are managed. For example, he notes that the introduction of the new process of handling applications at MBL necessitated some major changes: ‘MBL had to develop a culture in which people doing work are perceived as more important than those supervising work. Career paths, recruitment and training programs, promotion policies – these and many other management systems are being revised to support the new process design’.
However, despite the realization that new business processes can have knock-on effects upon the management of human resources, the implementation of changes necessary to support the new processes is presented as wholly unproblematical. Indeed, there seems to be an assumption of an elective affinity between so-called empowered employees, sophisticated systems of actual or potential surveillance and strong, and some might say demagogical, leadership in postentrepreneurial organizations, as exemplified by T. J. Rogers, CEO at US chip producer Cypress Semiconductor since 1983.
Rogers has advocated the empowering techniques of networking and teamworking. But he also runs an IT-based monitoring system that allows him to ‘peer down into the bowels of the organization’ and target the performance of individual employees. Even sympathetic commentators have described his managerial style as idiosyncratic and military. Because employees are not infinitely malleable, passive commodities who are indifferent to how they are managed, accomplishing the full and effective implementation of BPR is likely to prove more difficult than is contemplated by its advocates’ faith in the persuasive powers of senior management.
Where employee cooperation with the implementation of BPR is achieved under duress, it is likely that its impact will be sustained only by the same old coercive methods condemned by the new prophets of business management. Given the challenge BPR can present to established orders, processes and identities, an attentiveness to the insights of HRM would seem to be pertinent. However, this would require the prophets of BPR to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own specialist training, work cooperatively and openly with other functions, and thereby re-assess the value as well as the plausibility of their prescriptions.
Conclusions Neglect of the human dimension in BPR may reflect a growing sense of confidence and/or desperation amongst corporate executives and their consultants. Confidence inasmuch that the 1980s have seen a successful employer offensive, supported by New Right industrial policy, that has weakened the power of employees to promote as well as resist change. But desperation too because this weakening of employee power has not been sufficient to reverse the loss of competitiveness and market share to Japanese businesses and Pacific Rim companies.
Commercially speaking, it may be true that many companies struggling to survive in national and world markets are ‘burdened’ with ‘layers of unproductive overhead and armies of unproductive workers’ in comparison to their competitors. It may also be true that other ‘softer’12 and more incremental recipes for (re)gaining competitive advantage have not done enough to lighten this burden. But it remains questionable whether those who comprise the ‘overhead’ – corporate managers no less than other employees – will willingly recognise themselves, or even be persuaded to understand themselves, either as a ‘burden’or as ‘unproductive’.
Unlike previous recipes for organizational change championed by the gurus of Corporate Culture and TQM, BPR goes beyond declaring war upon supervisory and middle levels of management to attack head-on the very functional structures that have traditionally provided an identity and a career path for the managers that have formed an integral part of the collective worker. For this reason, amongst others, BPR is likely to encounter difficulties of implementation even where employees overtly espouse its objectives. It is not just that the ‘process’thinking advocated by BPR is often foreign to those who are being required to apply it.
It also poses an immediate or deferred threat to job security and conditions of work. Yet, the architects and advocates of BPR continue to assume either that employees will unequivocally welcome the changes brought by BPR or will be persuaded by top management to support them. As a consequence, there is no discussion of why, or how, managers and other employees may directly or covertly oppose its logic or resist its demands for change. This then raises the question of how HRM specialists are to address BPR’s neglect and trivialization of the human dimensions of organizing and managing change.
Are HRM specialists content simply to provide the relevant HR techniques that are claimed to smooth the implementation of programmes that have been designed by others? Or does their distinctive concern for the human dimension of work enable and spur them to question the rationality of remedies that contribute to the dis-ease for which they profess to dispense a cure? The introduction of BPR in organizations will be as much a test of the meaning of professional ethics for the HRM specialists as it will be a trial for those who are subjected to, or displaced by, its zeal to obliterate jobs as well as established practices.
Acknowledgement I would like to thank Fergus Murray for his assistance and comments in preparing an earlier version of this paper as well as the helpful and constructive comments received from Chris Grey and anonymous referees. Notes 1.. Oliver, J. ‘Shocking to the Core’, Management Today, August 1993, pp. 18-23. 2.. Peters, T. J. and Waterman, R. H. In Search of Excellence : Lessons From America’s Best Run Companies, New York : Harper and Row, 1982. For a critique of this literature, see Willmott, H. C. , ‘Strength is Ignorance; Slavery is Freedom: Managing Culture in Modern Organizations’, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 0, No. 4, 1993, pp. 515- 553. 3.. See, for example, Oakland, J. Total Quality Management, London : Heinemann. For a critical examination of the theory and practice of quality initiatives, see Wilkinson, A. and Willmott, H. C. , Making Quality Control, London : Routledge, in press. 4.. Oates, D. ‘Buzz Words: Learning the Language of Business’, Accountancy, August 1993, p. 38. 13 5.. Hammer, M. ‘Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate’, Harvard Business Review, July-August, Vol. 67, No. 4, 1990, p. 112. 6.. See Hammer, M. and Champy, B. 1993) Reengineering the Corporation : A Manifesto for Business Revolution, London : Nicholas Brearley, especially Chapters 2 and 5. Its creator, Michael Hammer is a former Professor of Computer Science, now president of Hammer and Company, consultants. 7.. Hayes, R. H. , and Jaikumar, R. ‘Manufacturing’s Crisis: New Technologies, Obsolete Organisations’, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct, Vol. 65, No. 5, 1988, pp. 77-85. 8.. Hammer, op. cit, p. 110. 9.. Since the term was coined by Hammer (op. cit), articles and books on business process reengineering have mushroomed. See, for example, Morris, D. nd Brandon, J. Re-engineering Your Business, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993. Since these books are frequently derivative as well as repetitive, I focus upon Hammers’s original Harvard Business Review article (see note 14), his subsequent book with Champy (see note 9), and Johansson, H. J. et al. , Business Process Reengineering, Wiley, London, 1993. 10.. Articles that attempt to elucidate BPR include Barton, S. B. , ‘Business Process Engineering’, Business Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3, 1993, pp. 101-107 and Rigby, D. , ‘The Secret History of Process Reengineering’, Planning Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1993, pp. 24-27. 11.. Hammer, op. cit, p. 104, emphasis added. 12.. Johansson, H. J. , McHugh, P. , Pendlebury, A. J. , and Wheeler, W. A. Business Process Reengineering, John Wiley, London , 1993, p. 7. 13.. Hammer, op. cit, p. 108. 14.. Direct writing insurance dispenses with old forms of insurance distribution. A large sales force in the field is replaced by carefully targeted advertising and telephone sales. ICTs are used intensively to give real time personalised quotations, to reduce and refine underwriting risks and to analyse and predict responses to advertising.
This latter use of ICT allows a highly flexible use of part-time labour to cover peaks in work flow. 15.. Hammer, op. cit, p. 107, emphasis added. 16.. Oliver, op. cit, p. 18. 17.. Hammer and Champy, op. cit, p. 51, emphasis added 18.. See Hammer’s comments in James, M. ‘Hammering Home the BPR Message’, Management Consultancy, July, 1993, pp. 47-52. See also comments on the effects of ‘Core Process Redesign’, the McKinsey equivalent of BPR, in Browning, J. ‘The Power of Process Redesign’, The McKinsey Quarterly, No. 1, 1993, pp. 47-58 where it is claimed that there is no place for middle managers. 19..
Marx, K. , Capital, Vol. 1, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976, p 464 et seq. The collective worker is constructed by capital, or its managerial agents, as control over the labour process passes from those with craft skills to others – today, the managers and consultants – who currently exert the greatest influence over questions of how human skill and technologies are to be identified, valued and combined to secure the reproduction of private accumulation. 20.. Kanter, R. M. When Giants Learn to Dance: Mastering the Challenges of Strategy Management, and Careers in the 1990s, Routledge, London, 1992, p. 1 and p. 116. 21.. Hammer, op. cit, p. 111, emphasis added. 22.. H. J. Johansson et al. , op. cit, p. 34. 23.. Quoted in Thackray, J. ‘Fads, Fixes and Fictions’, Management Today, June, 1993, p. 41. 24.. See Reich, R. B. The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism, Simon and Schuster, London, 1991. 25.. Grey, C. and Mitev, N. , ‘Reengineering Organizations : Towards a Critical Appraisal’, Working Paper, School of Business and Economic Studies, University of Leeds, p. 8, emphasis added. 14 26.. See Keenoy, T. and Anthony, P. ‘HRM : Metaphor, Meaning and Morality’ in P. Blyton and P.
Turnbull (eds. ), Reassessing Human Resource Management, London : Sage, 1992. 27.. Grey and Mitev, op. cit. , p. 9 . The word play here is on the principal architect of BPR, Michael Hammer. . Wilkinson and Willmott, op. cit. . See Hosseini, J. , ‘Revisiting and Expanding Taylorism: Business Process Redesign and Information Technology’, Computers and Industrial Engineering, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1993, pp. 533-535. . The eighteenth largest life insurer in the US. . Hammer, op. cit, p. 107. . Hammer, op. cit, p. 107. . Hammer, op. cit, p. 112. A similar emphasis upon leadership occurs in Johansson et al, Ch. . . Hammer, op. cit, p. 112. . Hall, G. , Rosenthal, J. and Wade, J. ‘How To Make Re-engineering Really Work’, Harvard Business Review, November-December, 1993, pp. 119-131. Quote is from p. 119. . Hall et al, op. cit, p. 123. . For example, the implementation of these systems makes it possible to monitor the speed and accuracy of the case managers’work. . Hammer, op. cit, p. 112. . See Business International , The Management Network Revolution: How Innovative Firms Are Getting Results From Flatter Organisations, Business International, London, 1993, p. 11. . Hammer, op. cit, p. 112.