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Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Decade Of Business Process

Barry Briggs in a speech delivered says, this is the decade of business proceses. Excerpts with edits:

In many ways business process is by far the most important and valuable form of collaboration since while e-mail, instant messaging, and shared workspaces facilitate communication, business process achieves business goals. When a customer buys something on the web site, a process is set in motion which at its conclusion results in the customer receiving goods and the enterprise, money. Where the eighties were known as the decade of productivity applications - spreadsheets, word processors, and so on, the nineties as the decade of email and the Internet, this decade, starting now (isn't it interesting that software waves start around the middle of the chronological decade), will be the Decade of Process. In the last generation there have been two other revolutions in the way we think about and manage information.
The first is the relational database with which we can query, track, analyze, and report upon enormous volumes of data in ways unimaginable two decades back. The value of the relational database is underscored by the fact that relational technology is at the heart of every major business application shipped today. But for all their power, the DBMS does not represent data in a way intuitively consumed by humans. Only the worst client-server applications would show table upon table. We humans think in document terms: we like text, we like annotations, we like personalization: we rely on the DBMS for structure and integrity, but for human renditions of the data, we prefer the age-old notion of documents.
And that leaves us with a gap: how do we move information from databases to humans and back again, how do we render data in useful ways, through multiple steps in a process and to multiple channels? We need a malleable, infinitely transformable intermediate form for data; and that, of course, is XML. we have only begun to truly appreciate the power and value of XML. It allows applications to easily read relational data and render it in ways appropriate to the human, be it on browser, electronic form, PDA or cell phone. From the neutral XML we can generate any number of types of documents, as appropriate: the order becomes a shipping form becomes an invoice, all from the same neutral data, depending upon the state of the process. XML makes information fluid.
It's trite, but true to say that business runs on business process. Order processing, supply replenishment, human-resources management, and so on and so on: the way we accomplish these goals in a manageable, trackable, and measurable way is through the institution of business process. As we examine business processes, it's obvious that there are many different kinds. Highly deterministic, automated processes control real-time scenarios like electronic funds transfer: People-driven processes by contrast enables the interoperation, the collaboration, of a company's most valuable asset, its employees. Employee performances reviews present an illustrative example: an employee creates a self-appraisal, which is forwarded to the manager, who comments and forwards it further, perhaps to the next-level manager. The review has salary and (perhaps) legal implications, and individuals in those departments are also therefore involved.
And there other types of process: there are document-centric processes, where people, sometimes very large numbers of people, collaborate on a document such as a New Drug Application or merger and acquisition disclosures. There are business-to-business processes; and so on. You can slice the categories of process in many ways. Years back,we in the software industry thought of enterprise application integration (EAI), human workflow, business-to-business communications, and business process management as separate product categories. Today, we do not. Today we think of them as aspects or facets of the same problem, of business process. Any reasonable business process today will have elements of human workflows and backend application integration. How have these notions of process now affected our view of documents? Yes: and in a very, very profound way. In business, documents rarely stand alone; they are manifestations of a greater process; in fact, I claim that business documents are projections of the state of business processes. We are reaching a stage in which the document as a thing-in-itself no longer exists; but different viewers and editors can be instantiated to manipulate process context. Indeed, I have seen examples of business processes in which at appropriate points documents are created from scratch, from nothing, by creating an instance of an XML schema, populated from information in the process -- and then show up as Microsoft Word attachments in end users' email inboxes. This is why it is good to say that this decade of Process will again revolutionize business, as productivity applications and the Internet did in past decades. Building on such crucial advances in technology as relational databases and that marvelously fluid intermediate format XML, we can drive business process to new heights of efficiency and productivity - and this will be essential as the world's business continues to globalize, as even the smallest enterprises run 24 by 7. Illuminating speech - more so at a time when everyone is so focussed on technology exclusively, Barry brings the process perspective.

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