Meet the process men

Several hundred Saudi IT managers gathered in February to look at business process management. Eliot Beer looks at some of the issues raised at the event.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  April 2, 2006

|~|saudiconf200.jpg|~|Panel discussions allowed delegates to put their questions to the speakers.|~|People, processes and the technology used are the three most important factors in running a successful business, at least according to many managers and consultants. But all too often an organisation's people and technology get the lion's share of the attention, with processes paid little more than lip service.

At the third annual Saudi IT Managers Forum in Riyadh, held in February, the organisers decided to tackle processes and made business process management (BPM) the theme of the 600-strong summit. This was a shift in emphasis from the previous two years, when the forum had focused on technology issues rather than 'soft' skills such as processes, according to Bassam Al-Kharashi, director of management information services at the King Khaled Eye Specialist Hospital, and a member of the IT summit's organising committee.

"It is very common to look at specific topics, such as a particular technology or type of software, but we decided it was much more critical to look at something like processes, which will have a direct impact on what is happening in Saudi Arabia at the moment," said Al-Kharashi at the event. "The delegates here are mostly from the public sector and government departments, and they will all be working to modernise their IT infrastructure and bring in e-government, so discussing business processes is a vital part of that."

Delegates seemed to confirm the choice of topic, with most in favour of the BPM-focused agenda. One delegate from a health insurance government agency commented: "I think it's an interesting choice, and one that's not been discussed like this before. It is good to get away from 'standard' topics like a certain hardware."

Representatives from a wide range of Saudi government bodies attended the event, including several hospitals and medical bodies, Saudi Arabian Airlines, the Saudi Fund for Development, and the police and armed forces. The variety of delegates gave the summit a degree of authority in terms of the discussions raised, and allowed those attending the chance to engage in some useful networking.

"As far as I can see, the conference was a working event; a lot of people were there to meet and talk to their peers," says Dr Ilia Bider, director of research and development at Swedish firm Ibissoft, who attended the CIO summit as an invited expert on BPM. Bider says this was the first time he has given a presentation to a non-academic audience, and was largely pleased with his reception.

"I think my presentation was taken reasonably well; people asked some useful questions, including on how to deal with people in an organisation who do not want to change, so that was good," says Bider. "I also had some conversations in the corridor afterwards, which suggests that there were some useful points for people. I think my talk may have been relatively sophisticated for the audience, but my objective was to show a general perspective of the problem and the solution, and introduce some concepts and ideas which would be new for the delegates."

||**|||~|bider200.jpg|~|Bider: BPM’s abstract concepts make it harder to understand.|~|Bider, who has published a large number of academic papers on process issues in European journals, also says companies and government bodies in the Kingdom may face challenges in dealing with process issues in the same way as organisations elsewhere in the world. The BPM expert says it can be hard for people who have not gone through a process of change to understand some of the challenges.

"Organisations in Saudi Arabia are going through the normal process of looking at their processes, finding out where they are weak, and trying to improve and automate them," says Bider. "The problem is this doesn't take into account the means an organisation has; you rearrange your processes without looking as if there are effective means to rearrange them, or effective means to do it differently. If you compare it to automating production, we had the conveyor belt before we had robots - the means dictated the processes. With BPM we only have abstract concepts, so it's harder to understand."

Certainly the presentations given - by both vendors and end users - varied in their understanding of business process management, and how the speakers chose to tackle the topic (although this may not have been helped by this correspondent's reliance on the English translation of Arabic speakers). Even IT giant Oracle, with its guest EMEA vice president speaking, gave a presentation which was based largely around a list of public sector customers and skirted round some of the meatier issues.

Aside from the large number of international vendors - with Devoteam, Appian, Holool, 3Com and Cisco among the participants - the end user presentations were almost exclusively from Saudi Arabia. The exception to this was the talk from Thani Abdullah Alzaffin, director of the Government Information Resources Planning Department at the Ruler's Court of Dubai.

Dubai's experience of dealing with planning and process issues is somewhat ahead of the majority of organisations in Saudi Arabia, if for no other reason than the process of change began earlier and the scale of the challenge is smaller than among the Kingdom's sprawling ministries. As an example, Dubai Municipality, the body responsible for the day-to-day running of civic functions within the Emirate, has deployed performance management software across 38 of its departments.

The system will record information from 60 different indicators throughout the organisation, feeding back to the management. Executives will then be able to use the data to improve the operations of the municipality as a whole, according to Maryam Ahmed Al Hammadi, head of the Performance Management Section and assistant manager for the Administrative Development and Quality Department at Dubai Municipality.

While many - but not all - government bodies in Saudi Arabia may be some way off being able to deploy a system similar to that in Dubai, they can take advantage of the willingness of organisations like the municipality to talk about their projects. Taking away practical lessons and sharing best practices from other parallel organisations will allow public organisations to develop much faster than they would be able to otherwise.

And events such as the Saudi IT Managers Forum are the ideal places to start.
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