Editorial for upcoming issue of Architecture Journal
Updated to remove the incorrect assertion about WfMC now being a part of the OMG. This was totally in error - I meant to say BPMI was now part of OMG.
Thanks to Keith for catching this and pointing it out to me!
Note the names of the authors have been sanitized. Why? Subscribe for free and you'll see who's written what in our special "workflow issue" coming out in March!
This section of Architecture Journal focuses on workflow and workflow-related technologies. Despite the current hype around workflow and business processes, the concept of workflow is not new. Workflow technologies first emerged in the mid-1970s with simple office automation prototypes at Xerox Parc and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Interest in workflow and office automation began to wane in the early1990s until the book “Reengineering the Corporation” re-ignited interest in workflow and business processes. The reengineering trend of the 1990s gave us several books and methodologies for process analysis – unfortunately the technologies available at this time (CASE and their ilk) were immature and required significant manual intervention, potentially exposing projects and executive stakeholders to significant levels of risk. Even worse, some of these early “workflow-branded” products were thinly disguised efforts to help sell scanners, printers and other peripherals. Clearly the term “workflow” was being abused to take advantage of confusion in the market (indeed some might say that history is repeating itself with vaguely defined acronyms like SOA and ESB, but that’s a topic for another time).
Over time software-based workflow solutions began to emerge – these early systems focused on document routing and were somewhat limited in terms of their flexibility, interoperability and extensibility. Organizations like the Workflow Management Council (WfMC) emerged to help define standards but suffered from limited adoption among some of the major platform vendors.
Given workflow’s somewhat troubled past why should we expect it to be effective this time? The industry is better positioned today to adopt and implement workflow technologies than any time in its troubled past due to various levels of maturity that have emerged over the past decade:
- Technology maturity - Products like BizTalk Server have exposed a reliable workflow capability (orchestration) for several years. Emerging tools like Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) enable developers to embed and expose workflow capabilities with minimal effort. The flexibility of WF supports both automated and human workflows, joining two “worlds” of workflow that have previously required different tools. The extensibility of WF can support emerging process standards like WS-BPEL while enabling developers to define organization-specific or domain-specific “building blocks” (activities) that can be leveraged in current and future workflow solutions.
- Enterprise maturity – Each year, Gartner’s Executive Program releases the “CIO Agenda” - a list of CIO business and technology priorities compiled from worldwide surveys of their members. For the second consecutive year, business process improvement is the CIO’s top business priority (according to the 1400 global CIOs surveyed). When reviewed beside CIO Magazine’s list of CIO priorities, we see a shift of priorities from being internally, to externally, focused. This new focus is seen in the increased importance of customer relationship and competitiveness priorities which ask IT to stretch beyond running effective internal operations. Clearly enterprises are focusing more on maximizing and extending their existing IT investments to gain competitive advantage. This doesn’t necessarily mean building new systems, but analyzing, extending and tuning the processes supported by their investments. Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) is a key enabler to gaining better visibility into the effectiveness of existing processes, enabling “what if?” scenarios to analyze enhancements and explore new business models while minimizing risk. Products like BizTalk Server enable analysts, developers and information workers to collaboratively establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the effectiveness of a business processes in real-time, identifying and eliminating potential performance bottlenecks.
- Industry maturity – The IT industry as a whole has matured and repositioned itself as an enabler of business processes, partnering with users and analysts to help define and implement processes instead of dictating a bottom-up approach that risks misalignment with the organization’s business objectives. Despite past claims to the contrary, IT does matter and should be leveraged to enable competitive advantage. Failure to do so will result in missed opportunities to maximize existing business processes while exploring new business models.
The emergence of a flexible, extensible framework like WF enables the application of workflow-oriented solutions in ways that may have been impossible in the past. We have defined a “workflow manifesto” to help us to better consider some of the new frontiers that are available for us to capitalize upon:
- Workflow is everywhere: Workflow doesn’t just live in the datacenter on integration servers. Any sequence of steps or procedures can be represented as a workflow.
- Workflow is expressive: Workflows can do anything that a “pure-code” approach can do, at a higher level of abstraction.
- Workflow is fluid: Workflows can be modified, interrogated or otherwise manipulated at design time or run time.
- Workflow is inclusive: Workflow works well with both humans and software.
- Workflow is transparent: Workflow is easier to visualize, understand and modify than opaque blocks of code.
Looking across the workflow-oriented articles in this issue we can see evidence of the “workflow manifesto” in action:
- XXXXXX’s article illustrates the higher levels of abstraction that workflow enables by examining BPM capabilities at various layers of an integration solution.
- XXXXXX’s article touches upon the expressiveness of workflow while providing several insights into designing your workflows.
- XXXXXX’s article uses an amusing analogy to discuss the fluidity and expressiveness of workflows.
- XXXXXX and YYYYYY collaborated on an article that provides several scenarios and patterns that clearly illustrate the inclusivenature of a workflow-oriented solution.
- XXXXXX contributed an article that touches upon all aspects of the aforementioned manifesto.
I am honored and excited to introduce you to articles that were written by experts with several decades of combined experience designing, building and deploying workflow-oriented solutions. It is my hope that these articles will help you to reconsider and rethink the role that workflow should play in architecting, building and deploying solutions for your organization.
Workflow is indeed everywhere and tools like WF enable architects to harness and exploit the expressiveness, fluidity, inclusiveness and transparency that a workflow-oriented solution enables.
Architect, Workflow and Business Processes
Microsoft Architecture Strategy Team