In the 1990s, business process reengineering was all the rage: Companies used budding technologies such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and the internet to enact radical changes to broad, end-to-end business processes. Buoyed by reengineering’s academic and consulting proponents, companies anticipated transformative changes to broad processes like order-to-cash and conception to commercialization of new products.
But while technology did bring major updates, implementations often failed to live up to the sky-high expectations. For example, large-scale ERP systems like SAP or Oracle provided a useful IT backbone to exchange data, yet also created very rigid processes that were hard to change past the IT implementation. Since then, process management typically involved only incremental change to local processes — Lean and Six Sigma for repetitive processes, and Agile Lean Startup methods for development — all without any assistance from technology.
Now, a version of this idea is making a comeback in some companies, and we expect to see it in more. It will require not only an appreciation and understanding of AI, but also a renewed appreciation of business processes as a structure for improving work. As AI emerges as a universally applicable, general-purpose technology, it appears increasingly possible that it can enable the kind of radical redesign of business processes originally envisaged by reengineering’s proponents. (One of us — Davenport — wrote the first book on the topic.)