From Software Futures, a sister publication Imagine being shipwrecked and then being washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island. It’s beautiful, but the landscape is strangely desolate. You try to revive your flagging spirits by indulging in a spot of beachcombing; after all, you never know what the tide may wash up. Then […]
From Software Futures, a sister publication
Imagine being shipwrecked and then being washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island. It’s beautiful, but the landscape is strangely desolate. You try to revive your flagging spirits by indulging in a spot of beachcombing; after all, you never know what the tide may wash up. Then you see it. Something sparkling on the ground which looks like a large diamond. You imagine the riches this precious jewel could bring you, if you ever get off the island. You reach down to pick it up. Suddenly it’s gone and has just become another pebble on the stony beach. Was it a real gem or was it perhaps just a trick of the light in the first place? Something similar appears to have happened to workflow. When we last looked at the market two years ago, the technology seemed ready to take off and provide vast amounts of treasure for any vendor willing to dive in. But it didn’t take off dramatically and between then and now, workflow seems to have reverted to being just another pebble on the software beach. However, some beachcombers – the large applications vendors, notably SAP, Oracle and PeopleSoft – are now buffing the workflow stone up and adding the technology into their products. So it seems timely to return to the workflow arena and assess just what’s gone on in the last two years. Will we ever have workflow on all our desktops, or is the technology destined to remain a rather niche market? Where is workflow going – and do we want to go too?
By Clare Haney
What is workflow anyways? There seems to be a real mix of low- end, forms-based and high-end, engine-based offerings out there. In fact, according to Heather Stark, senior consultant at London- based market research company Ovum, and co-author of a recent report on the subject, there are over 240 vendors who use the adjective workflow and/or provide workflow add-ons. As end user Bill Halpin, manager of engineering application software architecture at GE Aircraft Engines, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, puts it, this isn’t exactly a user-friendly scenario. It seems like everyone and his brother is offering a workflow solution. So let’s go for some clarification first. Ovum defines the technology as follows: A workflow system documents and enforces the logic that governs transitions between the tasks in a process, and brings together the human and information resources needed to complete each task. It sounds close to some of the concepts of business process re-engineering – and that was how it was presented several years ago when the word workflow was creating as many waves as say, online analytical processing (OLAP) did last year, or data warehousing is continuing to do at the moment. Its star was riding high, then it all went rather quiet. What happened? Trevor Salomon, marketing & business development manager at SAP UK, which has just shipped Release 3.0 of its R/3 application suite containing workflow, neatly sums up the problem. Workflow two years ago was a bit like executive information systems in the ’80s – they were the answer if only people could identify the problem. Dave Sholter, chairman of workflow standards body the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) – of which, more later – and a member of IBM’s senior technical staff, based in Dallas, Texas, adds, There’s a lot of visibility when something’s relatively new; the problem is when you really deliver on it. Putting workflow into an account is a relatively long process. Ovum’s Stark reckons product sales cycles for workflow can range anywhere between six and 18 months.
Making the decision
There are two major issues facing those users today as they pour through shiny workflow product brochures. The first is neatly summed by up Ovum in the Management Summary to its report; The most important workflow decision you need to make is not product selection: it is whether or not to use workflow at all. It stresses the limitations inherent in many of today’s offerings, primarily the concept that a task is something which is
done by one person at one time using one application resource, which rules out team-based work and tasks which are defined by their goals rather than their methods. A tad odd in these days of distributed computing, isn’t it? Assuming you’ve decided workflow is for you, the second problem to ponder is do you opt for workflow embedded in applications now or soon to be offered by high-end apps vendors such as Oracle, SAP and PeopleSoft, or do you go for independent workflow from the likes of FileNet, Staffware, ViewStar (now owned by Caere) and Wang? As Stark puts it, There’s a lot of confusion. The general concern is that if users are embarking on multiple projects, do they risk having multiple incompatible workflow systems? Luckily there is a standards body for workflow – the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC). Founded back in August 1993, it now boasts over 160 members, the majority of whom are vendors, among them Digital, FileNet, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and SAP. The Coalition has defined a Reference Model for workflow management systems which identifies the common characteristics of workflow systems and by specifying the discrete functional areas will set the scene for the development of interface standards between them. Last November, WfMC moved a stage further by unveiling its workflow application programming interface for the support of workflow client applications. The API offers a method of communicating between workflow client apps and workflow engines so developers can now write their workflow apps to a standard API. We wonder if the work of the WfMC will ever achieve the heady heights of Level 7 of their interoperability approach: common look and feel between workflow products? As with the OMG, Microsoft is both within and without the organization. Its close relationship with workflow vendor Wang, in which it has a 10% stake, might be cause for concern, as the dynamic duo work on their own MAPI extensions, while being members of the Coalition. We put this point to VP for external relations Europe for WfMC, Nick Kingsbury, who is also managing director of Staffware Solutions Business, the consultancy arm of UK workflow vendor Staffware based in Nottingham. Microsoft won’t have workflow per se. It’s providing the environment in Exchange for vendors to build on and around it. Microsoft has been at pains to point out re the issue with Wang that it’s just practicing integrating their product with its environment. There’s no indication that they’re going their own way.
Demon on your desktop?
Hmmm… We reckon you should never underestimate Gates, Incorporated. That worry aside, we were intrigued last September, when we heard Professor Brian Warboys, professor of software engineering of the University of Manchester’s Department of Computer Science, speaking at ICL’s The Future of Software international seminar in Newcastle, describe workflow as the most dangerous technology we’ve invented so far. So much so that we were tempted to title this article, Workflow: The Real Demon On Your Desktop. He has three basic worries about workflow. The first, echoing what Stark said earlier, is that the technology tends to encourage people to describe processes in separate workflow threads. There’s the issue of how to integrate processes. You could end up in the future with your system in deadlock. He points out that the WfMC could help out here, but as is so common with technology, it’s creating an architecture after the monster has escaped from the laboratory. Next up is ensuring that in creating your workflow system, you don’t end up enshrining all the current bureaucracy in your company. When you come to reorganize your company at a later date, you find you don’t have an overall description of what it does. It’s vanished into the workflow. Isn’t that what we’ve been trying to avoid for the past thirty years with data schemas, etc? What you’re getting with workflow is a bottom-up view, not a top-down view of your organization. Workflow vendors laugh this one off, saying that everyone
‘s done some BPR and knows the score. We’re not so sure, surely some kind of caveat user is needed. His third concern is the prescriptive nature of many workflow systems, where perhaps the computer becomes too intrusive in the workplace as it tells the user what to do and Big Brother-like keeps tabs on how long it takes the poor creature to perform its tasks. Getting back to the embedded workflow in apps versus independent workflow tools confusion, we spoke with Oracle, which will be introducing its workflow module for Release 10 Smart Client of its applications at the end of March. Dave O’Connor, applications marketing manager at Oracle UK, beats the war drum for the embedded workflow lobby. Application vendors are bringing the reality of workflow into organizations. After all a company’s internal processes, such as purchasing and sales routines, are all contained in its applications. So why are apps vendors so heartily embracing workflow? Well, if organizations believe they can achieve significant payback with workflow, be it in terms of speeding up their processes, making them more efficient or streamlining their operations by laying staff off, they’ll be all the more willing to shell considerable dosh for high-end apps. As we all know, SAP’s R/3 and its ilk are anything but cheap. And that’s before you factor in all that lovely, lovely consultancy! Tomorrow, in part II, two very different users tell their workflow tale. Software Software Futures editor’s email address – Gary@computerwire.com