Process ownership and process owners in KM

The people who own the processes in an organisation are responsible for a big chunk of corporate memory. But who are these people?

Perhaps we ought to start with defining what process ownership actually means.

Process ownership is a key component of many management approaches such as business process improvement, six sigma, and Lean manufacturing, and there are many definitions available in the literature.  The definition below is a simplified version

A process owner can be defined as the person accountable for maintaining the definition, and the quality of a particular process.  They don’t have to operate the process themselves, but they need to make sure that the people who do operate the process have access to the documentation they need to operate the process in the (currently identified) best possible way.  

You can write a similar definition for Practice ownership, and in many ways the terms Process and Practice are used interchangeably in this blog post.

Why are processes important in KM?

Think about learning, and about corporate memory.

When a baby learns, they take stimuli and inputs from the outside world, compare these to existing mental models and responses held in their memory, and update these models and responses over time. 
But where is the memory of an organisation? You can’t rely totally on the memory of the employees to be the totality of the memory of the organisation, as employees come and go, and the human memory is, after all, a fragile and fickle thing, prone to many flaws.  In addition to this human organisational memory, we can make a strong case for organisational structures, operating procedures, practices and processes also forming a core component of organisational memory. 
Processes, practices and procedures are built up over time, and represent the company view of “how we do things”. Employees follow the processes, and repeat “how things are done”. The processes hold and propagate the patterns for behaviour, and for the way work is conducted. If the organisation is to learn, these processes must evolve over time.
The concept of evolving processes as representing corporate memory is recognised by many learning organisations. 
  • One of the learning professionals in the UK Military said to me “what is doctrine, if not the record of lessons learned?” (Doctrine is the military term for Process)
  • The head of Common Process at BP explained Common Process as being “the accumulated and embedded knowledge of how to operate”.

But while a baby “owns” her own memory and can update this unconsciously as new knowledge is gained, a corporate process requires conscious update, and needs someone – the process owner – to perform this update task.
Exactly who owns the process, depends really on the maturity of the process, as well as on the structure of your own organisation.  Some example process owners are listed below.

Technical authorities.

The technical authority role is used in many engineering organisations, for example NASA, to ensure that all operational decisions are made with reference to technical engineering knowledge and expertise.  Technical authorities might be individuals such as the chief engineer, the chief electrical engineer, or the head of marketing. They are generally the owners or custodians of internal standards and policies, and so can be considered to be a process owner when a process is fully defined by an internal standard.

When a process has been standardised, that generally implies that it is very well understood, and unlikely to change very much.  Changes to standards are rare, and caused only by major deviations from normal operations.  It therefore makes sense only to give process ownership to the technical authorities in the case of mature and well established processes, and even with these stanardised processes, there may be a need for additional knowledge of how the standards are best applied.

Subject matter experts.

The subject matter expert (SME) doesn’t necessarily have any Line Authority in an organisation, but has intellectual authority based on their expertise.  The subject matter expert is the company-designated person in the organisation who has the greatest expertise in a specific technical topic.  It therefore makes sense for them to be the process owner for their topic, because, in theory at least, they know more than anybody else about that particular topic.  It makes sense for the SME to be the Process Owner for any process which is mature enough, and well defined enough, for a single person to grasp it in its entirety.

Community of practice leader

Communities of practice can also take process or practice ownership.  The leader of the community of practice is the person who coordinates community activity, and should also make sure that community knowledge is compiled and documented.  It makes sense for the community of practice leader to be the process owner, when the process knowledge is dispersed within the community rather than being held by any one person.  This will be the case when a process is relatively new, is being widely applied in the organisation, and where knowledge about the process is still evolving.  So rather than a subject matter expert being able to hold all the knowledge in their own head, the community of practice owns the process, and the ownership role is coordinated by the community of practice leader.  There may often be cases where the community of practice can themselves keep the process up to date, perhaps through use of a wiki or other collaborative tool.  The community of practice leader, in this case, acts as the coordinator and editor.

Research and development team

Sometimes the process is very new.  Sometimes the process is only recently been identified, and is in the process of being developed through a program of trials.  Here the R&D staff own the process, and use the R&D program to define the process. I have been working with one research organisation who divides their areas of practice into “research fields”, and each of these research fields has an owner, who acts as process owner for this – as yet very immature – field of knowledge.

So we can see an evolution in process ownership as a topic matures – owned originally by research field owners, then communities, then SMEs, and finally by Technical Authorities, as shown in the picture accompanying this blog post.

The point, however, is that there needs to be ownership at every stage of the maturity of the topic, to ensure the corporate memory is maintained and update.

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