about processes and engines

old process, knowledge worker

I’ve started reading Mastering the Unpredictable by Keith Swenson et al. I’d like to weave two links from from the first chapter to two things I have been exposed to.

“Mastering the Unpredictable” is a collection of Essays by Keith Swenson, Max J. Pucher, Jacob P. Ukelson and others. Those essays are reflections on “Adaptive Case Management” (ACM) and its rise alongside “Business Process Management” (BPM) (or where the BPM dream falls short). The title of the book derives its name from the unpredictability of the flow of work ACM would like to support.

the old process

The first chapter of the book is entitled “The Nature of Knowledge Work”, it starts with an example of a night rescue operation. How unfitting a BPMS (Business Process Management System) is for supporting the planning of such an operation. That reminded of a process I’ve been taught in officers’ school. You might summarize it as “assess, plan, execute” (as the first chapter of ‘MtU’ does), but let’s take the time to re-read that process definition.

I’m translating from my native language to english, here is the transcript :

The military method of decision taking acknowledges that
– only a systematic and rational process allows the integration of several people in the decision process,
– most of the time, the commander and the staff are under time pressure, are faced with doubt, only get imprecise, wrong or outdated pieces of information.

The commanding activities gather all the activities of the commander and of the staff, from the arrival of a task or the occurrence of a situation requiring an action, until the achievement of the task.

By respecting always the same sequence of commanding activities, the commander and the staff acquire the confidence necessary to lead in extraordinary and crisis situations.

The flow of commanding activities, performed successively :

1. planning the action
1.1 grasping the problem
1.2 urgency measures triggering
1.3 setting the schedule
1.4 situation assessment
1.5 decision taking
1.6 engagement plan conception
2. leading the action
2.1 issuing orders
2.2 control and conduct of the engagement

The evolution of the situation, as followed by the commander and his control and intelligence teams are the basis for direction the engagement. A change in the situation triggers a new commanding activities process.

During the action planning phase, it might be wise or it is simply necessary to start planning ‘reserved decisions’. The result of the planning of those decisions can generally be used during the action leading phase.

Apart from the direction of the ongoing engagement, the staff has to take care of the planning of subsequent potential task, this is called subsequent planning. The result of this planning is a new engagement plan or new engagement orders.

The first paragraph is interesting : “only a systematic and rational process allows the integration of several people in the decision process”. This process is a convention, shared by the members of a military organization, meant to blossom between a commander and his staff.

When I got taught this process, it often got referred as “commanding rhythm”. We were meant, as young officers, to already breath it, follow its flow. When a new mission arrived or a new situation occurred, we had to quickly grasp the problem at hand, trigger urgency measures (in order to preserve [what was left of] our initiative), determine when the decision would be taken, and all sorts of “when”, then assess, decide, plan… With the staff in our heads.

We were taught to learn and apply this process on our own, so that a) our decisions would be produced efficiently b) we could later join staff and participate in the process collaboratively for a commander. With some luck and lots of skills we could c) command, leveraging the people + the process.

the knowledge worker

The first chapter of “Mastering the Unpredictable” goes on with the distinction between routine work and knowledge work. The character of the “knowledge worker” is evoked, and that reminded me of this passage, from another book :

When an architect sits down with pen and paper to determine the strength of an abutment by a complicated calculation, the truth of the answer at which he arrives is not an expression of his own personality. First he selects the data with care, then he submits them to a mental process not of his own invention, of whose logic he is not at the moment fully conscious, but which he applies for the most part mechanically. It is never like that in war. Continual change and the need to respond to it compels the commander to carry the whole intellectual apparatus of his knowledge within him.

He must always be ready to bring forth the appropriate decision. By total assimilation with his mind and life, the commander’s knowledge must be transformed into a genuine capability.

This is taken from Carl von Clausewitz On War (Howard and Paret edition, p. 147). There is the opposition between routine work and knowledge work. Clausewitz goes on and speaks about “natural talent” for the crafty knowledge work… commander.


These were my two links. An old process and an even older (~1830) quote about knowledge work.

The tool of the commander is his staff. What is the tool of the knowledge worker ?

For those of you lucky enough to be in Japan this friday, Keith Swenson will be speaking about Mastering the Unpredictable in Yokohama. Feel free to register at


Written by John Mettraux

June 28, 2010 at 2:16 am

Posted in acm, bpm, workflow

5 Responses

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  1. Good article John. The old process also applies to the factory floor and in general a good reminder of when command-and-control organizations thrive over self-organizing ones. When the number of possible outcomes is small, then command-and-control with a focus on efficiency and obedience may be the instrument towards achieving a desired result. No wonder it is the “General” who issues commands in the military.

    On the other hand, when the number of possible outcomes and the ability to reach those outcomes is constantly changing, as we see in knowledge work, control passes from the generalist to the specialist. This assumes the specialist has the autonomy to make effective decisions. Perhaps it is this effectiveness, i.e. the ability to look at a myriad of possibilities and define the “right” one, that is the tool of the knowledge worker.


    June 28, 2010 at 5:11 am

    • Hello Sergio,

      there is much lore about the command-and-control approach. Obedience was a desired mean perfected through drill.

      But if you look at Auftragstaktik ( you’ll see that passing the decision/initiative from the root to the leaves, to the specialists in the field is a military ideal.

      The ‘old process’ is meant to be used at all levels. Its product is a mission. Within the bounds of the mission, the subordinates are free to use their special knowledge.

      With new communication means, Auftragstaktik is endangered by Generals issuing orders directly to the infantryman, much as occurs in some video games where you’re put in a god-like position and can take control of a soldier to direct an action.

      The autonomy to make effective decisions has to be treasured.

      Thanks for the excellent comment,

      John Mettraux

      June 28, 2010 at 5:28 am

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