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Ever since companies started to implement enterprise computer systems, such as PLM and ERP, the question that came up sooner or later was what should be done first: First define and optimize their business processes and then find a system that can support those processes, or first find and implement a system and then define the processes based on the capabilities of the system? It’s a variation of the old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg? 

For some people the answer is clear and comes spontaneously: Processes of course. Processes lead and technology follows. Whatever technology is implemented should be flexible enough to support any processes that are in place or will be defined first. However, while this argument has a certain validity and appeal in theory, practically it comes with the challenge what should be done if no system has the capability to support the defined processes with their commercially available functionality. One option of course is to customize the required functionality. Another option is to find and implement two or more different systems that each support part of the overall process. Unfortunately both options are usually quite complex, time consuming and costly, not only for the initial implementation but for the ongoing operation and maintenance of the customizations or custom integrations. Another, and maybe even greater disadvantage of this approach is that the defined processes may not take full advantage of the capabilities of the available technology. In this instance the processes that are defined first may not be as efficient as they potentially could be. 

Other people say processes follow technology, meaning processes should be defined based on the capabilities of the system or systems that are in place or are being implemented. They further argue that many systems come with best-in-class processes already pre-configured, for example a CMII compliant engineering change management process, so why not just use those? While this argument is also valid to some degree, if every company implements the same “best-in-class” pre-configured business processes that today’s systems come with, where is the competitive differentiation between your company and the next one that uses the exact same processes? 

And then of course there sometimes are companies who just implement new technologies on top of old, existing processes. While that is certainly the easiest, cheapest and quickest approach, it is usually also not beneficial, as that merely uses a new and efficient system to do bad things faster. And that is generally not a good thing. It’s like trying to race a Ferrari on gravel roads.

The truth in our opinion is in the middle. Today processes and technology are interdependent, one has to be defined, selected and implemented with at least being informed by the other, and ideally by selecting, designing and implementing both together at the same time. Or in other words, both have to support and enable each other. Gone are the times where companies can merely integrate processes and then separately integrate systems – or vice versa; the new way is to integrate processes and technologies all-together by defining the most efficient, integrated business processes that the best suited system can support and enable without customization. 

That of course creates complexity not only in the evaluation, design and implementation but also in the training and roll-out of the new integrated solution. It also requires that the parties who usually specialize in one or the other, such as a system integrator who specializes in technology implementation and a process consulting firm who specializes in business process design and optimization, have to work very closely together in defining an optimal solution for the customer. Or it requires a new kind of provider, a solution integrator who has deep practical and industry-specific knowledge, experience and expertise in evaluating, defining, implementing and integrating both processes and technologies. 

Andreas Lindenthal, the author, is the founder and managing partner of PLMadvisors. He is a passionate thought leader and recognized industry expert with over 25 years international, hands-on experience in innovation, new product development (NPD), and product lifecycle management (PLM). He has served over 100 leading global companies across various industries to sustainably improve their business results by helping them to drive innovation, increase productivity, shorten time-to-market, reduce costs, ensure compliance and improve product quality through the resourceful utilization and integration of innovation, NPD and PLM practices, processes and technologies.

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