Workflow Learning Inevitability

March 14, 2005

On Demand , In the Soup, on the Path to Glory
by Jay Cross

The issue of Forbes magazine dated today throws cold water on IBM’s On Demand computing strategy and grid computing in general, quoting a hardware-hawking competitor that “The utility computing model is bull. Hardly anybody is buying that way.”

Forbes reports that IBM CEO Sam Palmisano is now pushing “business process transformation,” and continues…

In addition to that, there is a market called “business process outsourcing.” Instead of simply reuninng computers, IBM hopes to operate entire parts of a company’s business, such as personnel or accounting. Last year at a meeting with Wall Street analysts, Palmisano touted this kind of outsourcing as a $500 billion market of which IBM dreamt of someday getting 10%.

Is IBM smoking something? I think not. Sam is merely ahead of his time. And when everything measurable appears to be getting exponentially quicker, smaller, and more connected, who’s to say we should evaluate the future by traditional clock and calendar anyway?

Permit me to describe the inevitable convergence of some very powerful forces from the perspective of the Workflow Institute.

SMART SYSTEMS. Business software is become aware. Networks are linking to networks like topsy. As long as every new node adds disproportionate value, the grid will continue to expand like kudzu. As if the existence of the internet were not enough, organizations are linking customers, suppliers, partners, and workers. Business are forging deeper links to one another. Sensors inform the net of physical conditions. We’re approaching an information singularity, the point when membership in the net becomes so valuable that joining is irresistable.

BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY. To maximize shareholder value, invest in core and outsource everything else. Sort of. That’s what you’d do in a world without friction. I’d hire a yard guy to mow my lawn so I could do something more productive. But I haven’t done that. I’d have to drive down the hill to pick up a migrant, negotiate his pay for the job, monitor his work, and, if I planned to seek elective office, pay a nanny tax or something. Outsourcing business functions sounds great until you face the transfer costs. But IT is poised to make those costs go away.

INTERNET OPERATING SYSTEM. All commercial software development is informed by the example of the internet. Adopt simple standards, be open, make connections, simplify, let it flow. Think virtual. Java runs on a virtual machine; the internet operates in a cloud. The adoption of internet principles and standards is called Service-Oriented Architecture. (Go figger.) Instead of Client-Server Architecture, where one computer’s in control and another is doing its bidding, SOA is democratic, and interactions among software agents control the show. SOA is flexible and robust, more like a school of minnows than a whale. Having a hive mind but separate bodies enables the minnows/agents to reconfigure themselves, something we call….

LOOSE COUPLING. The minnows of business are processes. In an old-style organization, the processes were all glued together. (This is why every business isn’t outsourcing whole hog already). A set of standards called Web Services makes it possible to separate business processes and reconnect them with a universal socket and plug. Mind you, this is all in software; it’s virtual. The result is an organization that resembles a Tinkeytoy set. You can take off a piece and replace it with another. Maybe you decide to remove your payroll department and replace it with ADP. Why not? You’re not in the payroll business. Thanks to loose coupling, ADP’s payroll is now wired into your systems. From a reporting standpoint, you can’t tell the different.

BUSINESS PROCESS MANAGEMENT. All the virtual stuff in the world isn’t going to make a dent unless it’s connected to the real world, and that’s where we get to the concept of business process. This is a field of limitless acronyms, so I’ll try to describe it by analogy. Imagine you are seated in front of a triple-size touchscreen monitor upon which is displayed a map of the processes in your organization. You zoom in on, say, credit approval. The color alerts you to a chokepoint. You see a way to route around the problem by jumping to an outside credit bureau during peak times. You run a quick what-if scenario and find out the change will save $5,600 a year. Here’s the magic: you change the process on screen — and the underlying code changes simultaneously. Hold your applause, but in that instant, business units wrested the power to improve processes from the IT department.

These five things, all in prototype now, spray organizational WD-4o on the couplings of business processes and make Sam Palmisano’s dream of frictionless business process transformation come true. Business executives can optimize workflow by swapping functions in and out. They’ll be able to model the benefit of doing so in advance. Bots will work through the night optimizing business structure. This is the ticket of entry to the next higher level: reconfiguring the business to exploit new opportunities.

But I get ahead of myself. What about the people? How are they supposed to adapt to this world? I go to work at the fish store and by the end of the day it’s an upscale market research firm. Maybe not, but you get the idea — keeping up with change will be one hell of a challenge. Enter workflow learning technologies.

RICH CLIENTS. Portals. The intelligent front-end. Instead of a static jump page (Yahoo or your intranet, for example), a rich client portal is a dynamic, smart connection to people, news, processes, alarms, learning, and more. Rather than worry about locating experts, monitoring the work I’m responsible for, accomplishing routine tasks, and everything else, it’s all there when I need it. Remember the Apple vision for the Knowledge Navigator? A Rich Client is the Knowledge Navigator grown up. This sort of technology will be built into the IT woodwork.

WORKFLOW LEARNING. Training is a lousy way to cover over design flaws. The first performance support tools were developed in lieu of training, to simplify the task rather than train people something needlessly hard to do. It was a great concept, unfortunately ahead of its time for realization. Take the principles of performance support, realtime workflow monitoring through a rich client, connections with all the people/process/tools one needs, and voila: workflow learning, learning that finally returns to where it belongs, embedded in the work itself.

When the work process moves on, so does the workflow learning that accompanies it. Work and learning, bound together as tightly as protons in the nucleus of an atom.

Granted, this is enough to make your head spin. My friend Wayne Hodgins likes to live five years in the future. I try to live in the present, but I find that my optimism has me putting things in the “real” category a couple of years before they arrive. I have no doubt that what I’m describing will be commonplace in the near future.

But why, one wonders, has Sam Palmisano bought in to this? He’s going to have to show revenues. Soon. His On Demand vision requires businesses made of interchangeable parts with people who can adapt to jarring change.

TIME, TIME, TIME. The answer is time. The pace of business is ever faster. Yesterday’s differenting advantage of shortening time-to-market or being lowest cost producer don’t count for much when everything’s cheap and can be delivered by FedEx tomorrow.

Organizations that cannot morph at the speed of change are toast. Sam Palmisano appears to have the only game in town that’s working on all the pieces of the puzzle.

Earth to Forbes, earth of Forbes….

DISCLOSURE: IBM is a client of Workflow Institute.

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