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Analysis

Podcast: Bringing human interactions into business process
Dana Gardner By: Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst, Interarbor Solutions
Published: 18th March 2009
Copyright Interarbor Solutions © 2009
Logo for Interarbor Solutions

In this BriefingsDirect episode, recorded Feb. 13, 2009, our guests examine the essential topic of bringing human activity into alignment with standards-based IT supported business processes. We revisit the topic of BPEL4People, an OASIS specification.

The need to automate and extend complex processes is obvious. What's less obvious, is the need to join the physical world of people, their habits, needs, and perceptions with the artificial world of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM).

This interaction or junction will become all the more important as cloud-based services become more common.

Our discussion, moderated by me, includes noted IT industry analysts and experts Michael Rowley, director of technology and strategy at Active Endpoints; Jim Kobielus, senior analyst at Forrester Research; and JP Morgenthal, independent analyst and IT consultant.

Here are some excerpts:

Rowley: [With BPEL4People] you can automate the way people work with their computers and interact with other people by pulling tasks off of a worklist and then having a central system, the BPM engine, keep track of who should do the next thing, look at the results of what they have done, and based on the data, send things for approval.

It basically captures the business process, the actual functioning of a business, in software in a way that you can change over time. It's flexible, but you can also track things, and that kind of thing is basic.

... One of the hardest questions is what you standardize and how you divvy up the standards. One thing that has slowed down this whole vision of automating business process is the adoption of standards. ... The reason [BPM] isn't at that level of adoption yet is because the standards are new and just being developed. People have to be quite comfortable that, if they're going to invest in a technology that's running their organization, this is not just some proprietary technology.

The big insight behind BPEL4People is that there's a different standard for WS-Human Task. It's basically keeping track of the worklist aspect of a business process versus the control flow that you get in the BPEL4People side of the standard. So, there's BPEL4People as one standard and the WS-Human Task as another closely related standard.

By having this dichotomy you can have your worklist system completely standards based, but not necessarily tied to your workflow system or BPM engine. We've had customers actually use that. We've had at least one customer that's decided to implement their own human task worklist system, rather than using the one that comes out of the box, and know that what they have created is standards compliant.

All of the companies involved—Oracle, IBM, SAP, Microsoft, and TIBCO, as well as Active Endpoints—seem to be very interested in this. One interesting one is Microsoft. They are also putting in some special effort here.

One value of a BPM engine is that you should be able to have a software system, where the overall control flow, what's happening, how the business is being run can be at the very least read by a nontechnical user. They can see that and say, "You know, we're going through too many steps here. We really can skip this step. When the amount of money being dealt with is less than $500, we should take this shortcut."

That's something that at least can be described by a lay person, and it should be conveyed with very little effort to a technical person who will get it or who will make the change to get it so that the shortcut happens.

Koblielus: It's critically important that the leading BPM and workflow vendors get on board with this standard. ... This is critically important for SOA, where SOA applications for human workflows are at the very core of the application.

... BPEL4People, by providing an interoperability framework for worklisting capabilities of human workflow systems, offers the promise of allowing organizations to help users have a single view of all of their tasks and all the workflows in which they are participating. That will be a huge productivity gain for the average information worker, if that ever comes to pass.

... One thing that users are challenged with all the time in business is the fact that they are participating in so many workflows, so many business processes. They have to multi-task, and they have to have multiple worklists and to-do lists that they are checking all the time. It's just a bear to keep up with.

Morgenthal: Humans interact with humans, humans interact with machines, and data is changing everywhere. How do we keep everything on track, how do we keep everything coordinated, when you have a whole bunch of ad-hoc processes hitting this standardized process? That requires some unique features. It requires the ability to aggregate different content types together into a single place.

One key term that has been applied here industry wide I found only in the government. They call this "suspense tracking." That's a way of saying that something leaves the process and goes into "ad hoc land." We don't know what happens in there, but we control when it leaves and we control when it comes back.

I've actually extended this concept quite a bit and I am working on getting some papers and reports written around something I am terming "business activity coordination," which is a way to control what's in the black hole.

So, you have these ongoing ad hoc processes that occur in business everyday and are difficult to automate. I've been analyzing solutions to this, and business activity coordination is that overlap, the Venn diagram, if you will, of process-centric and collaborative actions. For a human to contribute back and for a machine to recognize that the dataset has changed, move forward, and take the appropriate actions from a process-centric standpoint, after a collaborative activity is taking place is possible today, but is very difficult.

One thing I'm looking at is how SharePoint, more specifically Windows SharePoint Services, acts as a solid foundation that allows humans and machines to interact nicely. It comes with a core portal that allows humans to visualize and change the data, but the behavioral connections to actually notify workflows that it's time to go to the next step, based on those human activities, are really critical functions. I don't see them widely available through today's workflow and BPM tools. In fact, those tools fall short, because of their inability to recognize these datasets.

... I don't necessarily agree with the statement earlier that we need to have tight control of this. A lot of this can be managed by the users themselves, using common tools. ... Neither WS-Human Task nor BPEL4People addresses how I control what's happening inside the black hole.

Rowley: Actually it does. The WS-Human Task does talk about how do you control what's in the black hole—what happens to a task and what kind of things can happen to a task while its being handled by a user. One of the things about Microsoft involvement in the standards committee is that they have been sharing a lot with us about SharePoint and we have been discussing it. This is all public. The nice thing about OASIS is that everything we do is in public, along with the meeting notes.

The Microsoft people are giving us demonstration of SharePoint, and we can envision as an industry, as a bunch of vendors, a possibility of interoperability with a BPEL4People business process engine like the ActiveVOS server. Maybe somebody doesn't want to use our worklist system and wants to use SharePoint, and some future version of SharePoint will have an implementation of WS-Human Task, or possibly somebody else will do an implementation of WS-Human Task.

Until you get the standard, that vision that JP mentioned about having somebody use SharePoint and having some BPM engine be able to coordinate it, isn't possible. We need these standards to accomplish that.

A workflow system or a business process is essentially an event-based system. Complex Event Processing (CEP) is real-time business intelligence. You put those two together and you discover that the events that are in your business process are inherently valuable events.

You need to be able to discover over a wide variety of business processes, a wide variety of documents, or wide variety of sources, and be able to look for averages, aggregations and sums, and the joining over these various things to discover a situation where you need to automatically kickoff new work. New work is a task or a business process.

What you don't want to have is for somebody to have to go in and monitor or discover by hand that something needs to be reacted to. If you have something like what we have with ActiveVOS, which is a CEP engine embedded with your BPM, then the events that are naturally business relevant, that are in your BPM, can be fed into your CEP, and then you can have intelligent reaction to everyday business.

... Tying event processing to social networks makes sense, because what you need to have when you're in a social network is visibility, visibility into what's going on in the business and what's going on with other people. BPM is all about providing visibility. ... If humans are involved in discovering something, looking something up, or watching something, I think of it more as either monitoring or reporting, but that's just a terminology. Either way, events and visibility are really critical.

Read a full transcript of the discussion. The full podcast is also available for download here.

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