Structured Work, Unstructured Work, and Hotel Elevators

I was at a hotel a while ago and noticed they have installed an unusual elevator system. There are no floor buttons in the elevator cars. Instead, you select the floor you are going to in the elevator bay, and the system determines which elevator you should get on for the fastest service to your destination.


My first thought: “What a great innovation!” Better and faster service by allowing the system to make the right choice for you. Sounds a lot like the core notion behind what Gartner calls Intelligent Business Operations, and Intelligent BPMS specifically. More “smarts” in the system guides the user (or in this case, passenger) to the best option. Straight-through processing of a structured procedure.

As I stepped onto the elevator, I saw a friend walking towards the bay. My natural instinct (being the supremely generous and courteous individual I am) was to stick out my arm to hold the closing door for my friend. But there’s no point in doing that – unless you know the other person is going to your same floor. Which my friend wasn’t doing. “Interesting,” I thought. “This innovation is forcing me to re-think (and change) my standard behavior.” Sounds a lot like the change management issues that confront new BPM users. Improving the way you work often involves relinquishing old patterns and behaviors. But I lost something with this change – I didn’t have a chance to catch up with an old friend on my ride.

Then, as the elevator started to rise, I realized I had left my notebook in the hotel lobby. I went to push a lower floor button to end my ride sooner so I could get back to the lobby before my notebook (and the no-doubt priceless insights contained within) disappeared. But there was no way to override the straight-through process once in the elevator.

So the system is smarter, but at the expense of human decision-making in the moment. There’s plenty of structure in life and work, but the fact is that for both, most things are unstructured, or loosely-structured, in a constant state of change based on new information, new desires, new decisions. The elevator system prohibits me from changing course based on new information (or not even that new; I leave things lying around all the time).

To complete the analogy, this is where the real-time collaboration aspects of BPM dovetail with system intelligence. Smart automation reduces costs for a business, but an easy way to discuss events, share data and change course on a dime is what drives growth. Efficiency without nimble decision-making and fast responsive action is not sufficient.

The continuum of structured and unstructured work will be a major agenda topic at Appian World 2014, so register today to get in on the discussion. We’ll be in downtown DC at the Grand Hyatt. I think you can take any elevator you want.

Ben Farrell

Director of Corporate Communications