Expert and professionals are some of the most rigorous and structured people in our advanced economies. They are trained to understand the relationships in a system of complex notions (such as the human body, the legal system, or the laws of physics) and to use different techniques and procedures to intervene and effect desirable changes for the benefit of a client. Yet, a single individual, competent as he may be, cannot single-handedly bring about the solutions that people and organizations need. For all their strengths, and probably because of that training, professionals are staunch individualists and often do not function well in teams, especially multidisciplinary ones. This situation is largely attributable to their lack of understanding of how organizations work. Ironically, they are unable to transfer the systems notions that have become second nature to them in their discipline, to the discipline of management. This web site is dedicated dedicated to such a transfer.

A process is a system of activities (together with the associated resources) that takes an input and transforms it into an output of greater value for a customer, and it is processes that create value, not individual departments (or centres of expertise) in an organization. Functions contribute to value creation through the part they play (i.e. the tasks they perform) in processes. Processes create the benefits customers want by delivering the service, or by making this delivery possible in one way or another. Treating a cancer, for instance, is a process. The input is the patient with an active cancer. The desired output is the patient with a cancer in remission. The transformation (treating the cancer) involves many centers of expertise, such as family medicine, radiology, medical oncology, surgical oncology, and radiation oncology, and value comes from the synergistic interaction of all these departments. Antagonism, or simply a lack of coordination, denies that value, in whole or in part.

Processes embody the know-how of an organization. Understanding the DNA of processes is the key to becoming a learning organization. The classical image of an organization, conveyed by the ubiquitous organizational chart, as a set of functions linked at the top is very convenient for professionals, as it reinforces their paradigm. It does not, however, reflect the reality of value creation. The reader will come to view an organization as a complex system of processes, criss-crossing the organizational chart as if there were no boundaries between functions. Nevertheless, boundaries do exist and are sometimes very hard to cross, thus producing the interference that can be so detrimental to the smooth operation of processes, and thus to value creation.

The process view of organizations is far from prevalent in organizations today. Professional service organizations may be the ones experiencing the most difficulties in managing processes, as professional “bubbles” create a multitude of rigid boundaries. Professionals focus on their body of knowledge and on accepted practices in their field. All too often, they pay little or no attention to the way their actions mesh with those of others in the generation of an overall result for a client. Compounded by the substantial power wielded by professionals – individually and as a group – this narrow perspective results in poor performance.

Complex needs require complex services

People need help, either because they lack the knowledge or skills required to achieve, by themselves, the result they want or because they do not have the right tools, facilities or equipment. Perhaps they do not have access to the required network or they would simply rather have help than do it alone. Help may take the form of providing information or advice, performing some of the required actions on the customer’s behalf, performing some actions jointly with the customer or assuming full responsibility for delivering the desired results (i.e. providing a “solution”).

The web site focuses on complex services, that is, services sought because of a lack of knowledge or skills. Complex services fall into three categories: professional services, semi-professional services and technical services. Strictly speaking, we use the word “professional” to designate a university graduate in an applied field such as law, engineering, or architecture (i.e. excluding theoretical fields such as mathematics or philosophy). Professionals often belong to a professional regulating body, such as the American Board of Medical Specialties or a State Board of Public Accountancy. We need such bodies because these services address very important needs and because the knowledge gap between the client and the professional makes the former vulnerable to malpractice. A constantly evolving body of knowledge, generally requiring compulsory continuing education, and a code of ethics guide professionals in their practice. They are subject to sanctions by the regulating body for any malpractice, including suspension or the withdrawal of practice privileges.

Semi-professional services are similar in many ways to professional services, except that the service providers receive much less training. Insurance brokers, real-estate agents, radiology technologists and electricians, for example, do not need a college education. They do need a permit, however, which can be revoked if they are caught breaking important rules. Their training is not at university level and may typically last between 6 months and 2 years. The knowledge and skills they acquire, linked as they are to specific legislation or technologies, is typically shorter lived than that of professionals. In addition, the stakes when they perform their procedures are generally lower than is the case for professionals.

Finally, technical services involve helping the customer to use complex products or technology-based services. Computers, telecommunications systems, software, camcorders, Internet access and satellite dishes are examples of such products, and they are all are critical to self-service. We exclude from this category the direct repair of complex products such as cars, aircraft, or home appliances, which are quasi-manufacturing activities, but we do include customer support activities (such as training car dealership technicians to service a new model, for example). Technicians providing such services are generally not responsible to a regulating body, but solely to their employers. People use these services in order to be able to perform complex tasks themselves (such as using a computer or a camcorder). Even though the knowledge gap may be very substantial here as well, the consequences of the service are often more immediate and easier to verify than would be the case for professional and semi-professional services.

Why do these three categories of service deserve special attention?

  • Professional services are centered on the most important human needs, and it is very hard for the client to assess their quality, and thus to make sure he is in competent hands. As mentioned above, the knowledge gap between provider and client gives the former power over the latter, and, like any power, entails the potential for abuse.
  • As a class of workers, professionals share a number of characteristics, such as autonomy and independence, which separate them from other categories of workers, and require a different management approach.
  • Professionals represent an increasingly high proportion of the work force in industrialized countries, as machines perform many tasks which add less value (such as many manufacturing tasks) and the tasks that remain are rapidly moving to developing countries. Using these machines, however, requires assistance, a sector of the economy that is growing very fast (and, incidentally, one that is not immune to international outsourcing, as information technology (IT) increasingly facilitates delocation).
  • Finally, the management literature has focussed excessively on the process of making a hamburger (for example) to the detriment of processes which create more value, such as the counselling of a dysfunctional couple or helping someone fend off a liability suit. Professional services in general, and professional service delivery processes in particular, remain to this day a blur in the literature – a shortfall that needs to be remedied.

This web site is also concerned with the many organizations that provide services requiring a mixture of professional and other services to produce the results that customers or clients want. Hospitals and banks, for instance, cover the spectrum of types of services. These organizations face the added challenge of managing the often-turbulent interface between professional services, technical services and other services. We include internal services as well, such as those offered by the legal or engineering department within an organization.

1 Adapted from: HARVEY, J., « Complex service delivery processes: Strategy to operations », Second edition, American Society for Quality – Quality Press, Milwaukee: Wisconsin, 428 pages, 2011.