What Is Workflow?

Workflow is a word that means different things to different people. As you may suspect by the name, workflow defines a process flow or a set of tasks that produces a result. Although this is a good general definition, workflow is also commonly discussed in the context of software systems.

Workflow systems are often associated with the domain of document management. In general, document-management systems handle the transfer of documents between people and other software systems according to a set of policies and procedures. Although document management may be the default concept that comes to mind, it is by no means the only area associated with workflow.

In addition, an archetypal feature of workflow is graphical representation. Workflows are frequently shown as a series of shapes and icons that represent discrete actions. Arrows are also commonly used to represent the flow of work from one step to the next. Although document management and visual representation may represent a large part of workflow, they are really so much more.

Before going too deep into workflow, you need to understand why it is important. One of the top priorities of IT organizations in recent years automating and supporting key business processes. Business process management (BPM) is the framework that describes how organizations can achieve these goals.

Business Process Management

BPM has gained a lot of attention in recent years. Essentially, it is a set of activities that organizations can follow to better understand, implement, and monitor business processes. There are many resources available to you that discuss BPM, its traits, and implementation methods. However, in the context of this book, you need only a good understanding of BPM’s high-level qualities and how it relates to workflow.

BPM is commonly broken down into discrete phases that take an organization from one level of maturity to the next. You can find many different descriptions of what these phases are by searching online. However, the following phases are generally represented in one form or another:

  1. Design

  2. Execution/deployment

  3. Management/monitoring

  4. Optimization

During the design phase, an organization takes a good hard look at the processes that support the business. Emphasis is placed on fully understanding individual processes and the steps they entail. This might sound fairly obvious, but to fully understand a process and determine where there may be efficiency gains, this phase is crucial. The output of this phase is typically documentation that details the design discoveries.

Typically, the next phase in the BPM lifecycle is to implement the processes that were documented in the design phase. This happens by either making personnel behavior modifications or by implementing or updating technical solutions. There are commercial products available to assist in this phase of the BPM lifecycle from vendors such as Microsoft and TIBCO. These systems are specifically geared toward the problem domain of process development, execution, and management.

Process monitoring describes the step in the lifecycle in which processes are tracked and examined during normal day-to-day operations. For example, the business may be interested to know how many orders are currently in the shipping stage of an order fulfillment process. This is a very important quality of a BPM implementation because if you cannot monitor what is going on with business processes, the metrics that the processes generate cannot help an organization learn and improve.

Monitoring is crucial for the last phase: optimization. Monitoring, when implemented effectively, can help expose issues in processes that were not identified during the design and deployment phases. As you might imagine, these phases are not performed just once - this is an iterative cycle of refinement and improvement.

Of course, for an organization to consider implementing BPM, there have to be some benefits to doing so. If a company better understands its processes and process components, the most obvious advantage is a decline in errors related to performing processes throughout the organization. In addition, because processes implemented through the BPM lifecycle produce valuable business metrics, it is much easier to monitor this information with reports, alerts, and other types of human-consumable data. Better yet, this data can be made available in real time so that adjustments to the process can occur much quicker than in the past, saving precious time and money. Overall, BPM can provide organizations with a larger degree of understanding of its processes while lending itself to better decision making and a higher degree of agility.

Workflow Tenets

According to Microsoft, there are four major tenets that architects and developers can use when considering workflow-based applications. Furthermore, a workflow platform, which can be defined as a software framework to assist in the development of workflow-based applications, should embody these features. The tenets are as follows:

  • Workflows coordinate work performed by people and software.

  • Workflows are long running and stateful.

  • Workflows are based on extensible models.

  • Workflows are transparent and dynamic throughout their lifecycle.

Workflows Coordinate Work Performed by People and Software

This tenet tells us that people play a vital role in the world of software systems related to workflow and processes. Human interaction often occurs through e-mail, web pages, mobile devices, or other front ends. In some instances, the interface between people and software can be part of the normal flow of a process. For example, a workflow might require a human to approve every transaction that comes through an e-commerce website. Human interaction may also be necessary to handle exceptions that cannot be managed in an automated fashion. This scenario may arise when a piece of information necessary for workflow progression is missing.

Because of this requirement, a workflow platform should provide features and infrastructure to effectively handle human interaction and all the issues that come along with it. This includes sending and receiving messages in an untimely manner. People cannot always be relied upon to act quickly or consistently.

Workflows Are Long Running and Stateful

This tenet is important due in large part to the previous one. Because humans are inherently not reliable and tend to interact with software systems on an ad hoc basis, workflows need to be able to run for long periods of time. More specifically, they should be able to pause and wait for input. This could be for hours or months or even longer. Consider a vacation-request workflow at a company. If an employee’s manager is out of town, and the employee is requesting a vacation occurring nine months from now, the manager may not respond for weeks.

In addition, a workflow that coordinates software services that are external to an organization cannot rely on instant responses from these peripheral systems. Because of these characteristics, workflows need to be able to run, or at least be waiting to run, for an undetermined amount of time.

The stateful requirement means that the context of a workflow instance should remain intact while the workflow is waiting for feedback. Consider the vacation workflow that goes on for many weeks. If the workflow is not able to save its state, it may be lost forever if the server it is running on is rebooted due to a power outage or other issue.

Workflows Are Based on Extensible Models

The purpose of workflow is to automate a business process, and because each type of business has a wide range of problems, a workflow platform should be extensible at its core. What works for one business problem domain may not apply to another. It is reasonable that a workflow platform cannot account for every kind of activity that needs to occur in every type of workflow. The great thing about a well-architected, extensible system is that developers are able to build the components that were not included out of the box.

To apply this idea to another area, the workflow management architecture should also be extensible. Most workflow platforms provide functionality for persistence, tracking, and dynamic modifications. These areas should be open for extension by developers so that an organization’s needs that were not covered in the platform’s base functionality can be achieved.

Workflows Are Transparent and Dynamic Throughout Their Lifecycle

This tenet is easier to understand when compared to the traditional software development paradigm. In conventional software, the code itself defines the behavior of the system. As you know, writing and understanding code are very specialized skills that a very small percentage of the business population possesses. Because of this fact, software systems are generally considered to be a black box. People in the business cannot look at a block of code and ascertain what is happening behind the scenes. This can even be difficult for a developer if the code was written by someone else. Workflows should provide the advantage of being able to quickly and easily determine functionality at design time - that is, when the workflow is not running.

Additionally, workflows should be transparent during runtime. This means that a workflow should be able to be queried so that progress can be monitored while it is running. If you take this transparent runtime concept a step further, a running workflow’s steps that have not yet occurred should be modifiable. Compare this to traditional code, which, after it is compiled, cannot change itself. This notion of a workflow that can be changed during runtime is very powerful and can open a new set of possibilities related to process automation.

Types of Workflows

At the risk of being too general, there are two types of workflow: ordered and event-driven. Both types provide distinct functionality and would be used in different situations, depending on the requirements of a given system.

Ordered Workflows

When people think of workflow, the first thing that comes to mind is probably an ordered workflow. An ordered workflow represents a process that starts with a trigger and flows from one step to the next in a predefined order. The process likely contains control or decision-making logic that includes if-then statements and while loops.

The steps in an ordered workflow and the order in which they occur are non-negotiable based on the workflow’s definition. For example, in an order processing scenario, a customer’s credit check always occurs before the order is shipped. It wouldn’t make much sense to swap those two tasks.

Event-Driven Workflows

Event-driven workflows, sometimes called finite state machines (FSM), are based on the idea that you start in one state and jump to another state based on a specific activity or event. For example, a light switch starts in the off state. When someone performs the turn on light action the light switch transitions to the on state.

Like ordered workflows, event-driven workflows have rules that describe which states can transition to other states based on some predefined events. It would not make sense for the light switch to transition to the on state if someone unscrewed the face plate.

Workflow Scenarios and Examples

Now that you have a good handle on what traits a workflow platform should possess and what types of workflows exist, the following sections discuss various workflow scenarios and illustrate a few supporting examples.

Human-to-System Interaction

The aforementioned workflow tenets mentioned that human-to-system interaction is vital in the context of workflow-based systems. The importance of this principle cannot be overemphasized.

System-to-System Interaction

As you now know, it is important for workflows to be able to interact with people. It is equally important that systems are able to interact with other systems through a defined workflow. This process of tying external systems together in one cohesive set of steps is sometimes referred to as orchestration. If you are familiar with Microsoft’s server product BizTalk, you have probably heard this term.

This type of workflow is commonly associated with service-oriented architecture (SOA). SOA is a large topic that is discussed briefly later in this chapter and in subsequent chapters of the book.

Application Flow

A workflow does not have to be an interaction between entities that are external to each other. A common scenario is defining the order in which to display data entry forms or other interface to a user. Think about a college application website. The order in which pages are presented to the applicant is important and is probably based on the education program to which the user is applying.

Another scenario might be a system in which data is processed from a beginning state to an end, cleansed state. Along the way, the data is placed into different buckets that represent different states of being processed. If during a given state, the data cannot be processed because of an extraneous issue, an exception is raised so that a human is forced to inspect and manually fix the problem. This scenario could be applied to customer data coming in from multiple outside sources.

A Few Examples

To get you in the overall workflow mindset, the first example is not a model for a software system at all. It is a set of instructions for an IT recruiter to follow related to an employee hiring process. Figure 1-1 illustrates what this type of process might look like.

image from book
Figure 1-1

The steps could obviously go on from here, but this should give you an idea of what an ordered workflow might look like. The first step is always the receipt of an application and résumé, and the next step is always the review for job requirements. The order of the tasks is non-negotiable.

Conversely, a workflow does not have to be a set of ordered tasks. The event-driven workflow concept introduced previously still has discrete steps that occur to advance a process, but these steps take place based on some action or trigger. For example, a workflow that tracks software bugs may have states to represent bugs that are active, fixed, and irreproducible (see Figure 1-2). A developer is first assigned a bug by a tester, at which point the bug is active. After the code has been modified, the bug enters the fixed state, a tester verifies the fix, and the bug is closed. However, what if the bug was not really fixed by the developer? Instead of progress the bug to the closed state, the tester sends it back to the active state. This cycle could happen over and over until the bug is actually eradicated. Of course, this state-based workflow needs to jump logically from one state to another. It doesn’t make sense for a bug to start in the closed state and then transition to the fixed state.

image from book
Figure 1-2

As previously mentioned, a workflow can define the interaction between people and systems. For example, an order processing software application might notify a consumer if his or her credit check fails, prompting him or her to provide an alternative form of payment. In addition, this same order processing workflow could call a remote inventory web service to make sure the desired item is available for shipment. Both examples describe a scenario in which the workflow hands off a portion of work to an external entity.

Workflow Implementation

You can implement a workflow in many different ways. The following sections describe a few examples and how each relates to software systems.

Conceptual Implementation

Throughout history, the most common implementation of workflows probably involved no code or software. Imagine all the process flow diagrams developed over the years that represent manual processes. Just because a process is not automated does not mean it is not a workflow.

These types of workflows were developed using a variety of tools, from paper and pencil to Microsoft Visio or other modeling medium. Imagine the court system over 100 years ago or some kind of medical procedure. They all involve a series of steps and a decision-making process.

Workflows with Code

Take a look at the following code listing:

  public void ProcessOrder(Order order) {    if (order.Lines.Count > 0)    {       if (order.Customer.CreditCheck())       {          if (order.Lines.AllItemsInStock())          {             order.ShipOrder();             return;          }       }    }    order.Cancel(); } 

Although this is not a graphical diagram with shapes and arrows, it is a workflow. It uses specific information, in this case an Order object, to make decisions and produce an outcome. As long as the order has line items and all items are in stock, it will be shipped. Otherwise, the order will cancel itself, perhaps sending the customer an apology letter.

Object-oriented or procedural code is probably the most common way to implement workflows in modern software. Think about the projects you’ve worked on. Most likely you have automated some kind of business process.

Although this is probably the most popular way to implement workflows today, it comes with its own set of issues. One of the biggest problems with code is that the only people who can understand it are software developers. Although this may provide job security for some individuals, it doesn’t make for a happy business community.

Line of Business Systems

A line of business (LOB) system helps a business do something it is probably already doing. LOB systems can range from the monstrous SAP and Oracle Financials to smaller, more specific applications that handle tasks such as customer relationship management, order processing, or human resource-related activities.

LOB systems can solve business problems common across many organizations, but they solve only very specific problems. Although you may be able to customize an out-of-the-box process, you would probably not develop a workflow from scratch inside an LOB. That is the kind of problem better left for workflow engines.

Workflow Engines

A workflow engine is a piece of software that provides a way to declare, modify, and monitor a workflow process. For example, you could create a workflow for an engine that defines a patient admittance process in a hospital emergency room. Then when the process changes due to a new privacy law, you could modify it accordingly. Also, because the hospital staff is interested in potential bottlenecks in the procedure, you could use metrics to report how many people are waiting to see the doctor.

Custom Workflow Engines

Because there has not been a widely accepted, compelling answer to the problem of workflow, many developers have approached the problem individually. You may have worked on a project where the concept of workflow was so prevalent that a custom engine was developed just for that initiative.

Commonly, these engines are data driven. For example, steps in a process may be represented by rows in a database table or nodes in an XML file. This makes changing a process relatively easy, and using this model does not require changes to code. Another advantage to developing a custom engine is that it is tailored to the exact needs of the project at hand.

Although developing a custom workflow engine has some benefits, such as ease of process definition and modification (depending on how well your engine is architected), there are a few problems with this approach. First and most obvious, developing a workflow engine takes time. This is time that could have been used for solving a business problem, which is what you’re getting paid to do. Second, because you wrote the workflow engine, you have to maintain and support it. Again, this shifts the focus from solving a business problem to supporting a technology problem. Finally, a custom workflow engine probably cannot be all things to everyone. Off-the-shelf engines, which are discussed next, commonly contain functionality for tracking and visualization. It would be quite a task to develop such software when that is not your main business.

Off-the-Shelf Workflow Engines

The free-market system is a wonderful thing. When a need arises, invariably someone invents something to fill the void. Workflow technology is not exempt from this idea. Many vendors offer workflow products to solve the problems discussed in this chapter.

Generally, these products offer features such as workflow definition, management, tracking, persistence, and so on. Going with an off-the-shelf solution has many advantages. Aside from the advantages associated with workflow engines in general (mentioned previously), using a third-party vendor frees you from having to maintain an extra set of code. This relates to the classic buy-versus-build dilemma. In most cases, it is cheaper and more efficient to purchase a workflow product rather than build it yourself. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and you should evaluate the needs of your organization before making any decision.

A potential disadvantage of buying a workflow platform is the reliance on the vendor for support and updates. If the vendor goes out of business or decides to start manufacturing hats for small dogs, you are left with the responsibility of supporting an obsolete technology.

This book is not meant to be a commercial for any particular company; however, it is probably prudent to mention at least the most prevalent workflow products. K2.net (www.k2workflow.com) provides a platform to develop, run, monitor, and administer workflows. Skelta Workflow.NET (www.skelta.com) provides similar functionality. Interestingly, since the announcement of Windows Workflow Foundation, both of these companies have stated that the next generation of their respective products will be built on top of the Microsoft workflow software.

Professional Windows Workflow Foundation
Professional Windows Workflow Foundation
ISBN: 0470053860
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 118
Authors: Todd Kitta

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