On Defining "Workflow"
Saturday, May 20, 2006
If you're interested in business process management, and you're not reading every word that Bruce Silver
writes, you need to start right now. Bruce is the best independent analyst I know of on BPM technology. Much of his work is available for free, too, including his excellent 2006 BPMS Report
I read Bruce's recent blog entry
on the use of the terms "workflow" and "BPM" with interest. He references a post by Keith Swenson,
architect of Fujitsu's BPM product and a long-time participant in the Workflow Management Coalition
. Both Bruce and Keith have roots in the traditional workflow world, where the term referred to automating interactions among people. Keith points out that he is heartened by Microsoft's use of the word "workflow" in the forthcoming Windows Workflow Foundation
. He also proposes differentiating between workflow
, meaning automation focused on human capabilities, and orchestration
, meaning automation focused on system capabilities. BPM then becomes the umbrella category for both.
I like this distinction--it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, it doesn't match the way Microsoft is using the term "workflow". Windows Workflow Foundation will be used for automating human interactions, as in the workflow support being added to Windows SharePoint Services, Version 3 and Office SharePoint Server 2007
. But it will also eventually be used for automating system interactions when it one day provides the orchestration capabilities in BizTalk Server
. For Microsoft, the term"workflow" covers both areas.
What Microsoft has begun to do is distinguish between human
workflow, as in Windows SharePoint Services, Version 3, and system
workflow, as in a future version of BizTalk Server. Windows Workflow Foundation is meant to support both equally well, as well as allowing developers to create applications that span both areas. And because this technology will become a standard part of the Windows operating system, it's fair to expect Microsoft's preferred usage to become dominant in the half of the software world that uses .NET. Whatever one might wish, the naming conventions chosen by the big vendors have a disproportionate impact on the terminology we use.