The idea of re-engineering was first propounded in an article in Harvard Business Review in July–August 1990 by Michael Hammer (see article), then a professor of computer science at MIT. The method was popularly referred to as business process re-engineering (BPR), and was based on an examination of the way information technology was affecting business processes.
Michael Porter (see article) said:
The literature on re-engineering employs the term processes. Sometimes it is a synonym for activities. Sometimes it refers to activities or sets of activities that cut across organisational units. In any case, however, the essential notion is the same—both strategic and operational issues are best understood at the activity level.
BPR promised a novel approach to corporate change, and was described by its inventors as a "fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical measures of performance such as cost, quality, service and speed".
The technique involved analysing a company's central processes and reassembling them in a more efficient fashion and in a way that rode roughshod over long-established (but frequently irrelevant) functional distinctions. Functional silos were often protective of information, for instance, and of their own position in the scheme of things. At best, this was inefficient. Slicing the silos into their different processes and re-assembling them in a less vertical fashion exposed excess fat and forced corporations to look at new ways to streamline themselves.
BPR's originators, Hammer and James Champy, maintained that re-engineering had a wider significance than mere processes. It applied to all parts of an organisation, and it had a lofty purpose. "I think that this is the work of angels," said Hammer in one of his more fanciful moments. "In a world where so many people are so deprived, it's a sin to be so inefficient."
Many commentators, however, saw re-engineering as a return to the mechanistic ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor (see article). Others saw it as a shallow intellectual justification for downsizing (see article), a process of slimming down that was being forced on many corporations by developments in it.
One of the faults of the idea, which the creators themselves acknowledged, was that re-engineering became something that managers were only too happy to impose on others but not on themselves. Champy's follow-up book was pointedly called "Reengineering Management". "If their jobs and styles are left largely intact, managers will eventually undermine the very structure of their rebuilt enterprises," he wrote with considerable foresight in 1994.
BPR followed a favoured route for popular management ideas: from a university academic's research, via a management consultancy's marketing (Champy was the boss of CSC, a management consulting firm) and a best-selling book, into (briefly) a perceived panacea for all companies' ills. It was helped by the fact that the book's authors (Hammer in particular) were eminently quotable.
BPR was implemented with considerable success by some high-profile organisations. For instance, Hallmark, a card company, completely re-engineered its new-product process; and Kodak's re-engineering of its black-and-white film manufacturing process cut the firm's response time to new orders in half. The idea was given a boost by the development of enterprise resource planning (ERP). ERP systems enabled a firm's different operations to talk to each other electronically. At last the left hand of the organisation knew what the right hand was up to.
Further reading
Davenport, T., "Process Innovation: Reengineering Work Through Information Technology", Harvard Business School Press, 1993
"Building Process Excellence, Lessons from the Leaders", The Economist Intelligence Unit, 1996
Hammer, M. and Champy, J., "Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution", HarperBusiness, New York 1993; revised updated edn, HarperCollins, 2004
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