Theme Feature: Internet-Based Workflow

IEEE INTERNET COMPUTING 1089-7801/00/$10.00 © 2000 IEEE
Vol. 4, No. 3: MAY-JUNE 2000, pp. 34-36

Beyond Documents: Sharing Work


Charles Petrie

Sunil Sarin

Internet-mediated workflow will be the single most important technology of the early 21st century. To see this, consider your current onslaught of e-mail. People call this "information overload." Some claim that the remedy is to mine it using web-bots that can find relevant data because the problem is finding the right information. Rather, the problem is just the reverse.

We are already deluged with the relevant information. That's why we feel burdened. Otherwise, we could just hit the delete key on everything. Junk mail is annoying but easily disposed of. It is not so easy to deal with the message from a colleague asking you to review a paper or to handle a client. And those are just the big chunks: the major requests. What really kill us are all the thousand small cuts out of our time and energy each day.

Yes, but what does this have to do with workflow? Isn't workflow just some sort of planned document routing?

That was last decade. Following actual practices, planned or unplanned, and converting them into formal processes is now commonly described as "paving the cowpaths." New workflow systems can handle processes that are very flexible, often evolving in directions not anticipated. Workflow is increasingly becoming a way of helping people organize their work, rather than coercing them.


Those of us whose work life is governed by e-mail are called "information workers," but the economists cannot account for us. We produce no goods and yet companies assign the value of our salaries to us for talking and writing. What are we doing that is of value? We are synthesizing, restructuring information. It is our information restructuring that is of value.

A major part of our information structuring is to take the bits and pieces of e-mail and use them in organizing our work, which frequently means sending off e-mails to other folks for information or delegation of tasks and subtasks. If this sounds familiar to you, then you see where this is headed. A great deal of our "mind burden" goes into organizing work. You can only do so much, and right now, you are near the limit.

Now flash to companies and business-to-business (so-called "B2B") commerce. Companies have to organize their work, too. And they too are limited in what they can manage, even internally. External relations with customers and suppliers complicate matters further and make it even more difficult to manage. Our inability to manage work across interorganizational boundaries limits the complexity of the work we can manage and makes that work slower and more costly than it need be.

This applies to you at your terminal because you are now getting requests and information at an ever increasing rate from people all over. It applies to companies as they struggle to compete in commerce dominated by those who can respond agilely not only to the marketplace but also to changes in the electronic supply chain. The necessity to seize opportunities - missing no chances - is just as important as that of ensuring quality. Companies increasingly outsource functions as readily as they buy supplies. What they need is the ability to take advantage of the "sea of services," which means organizing external services for local use.


We have nearly ubiquitous digital communications today. The Web provides a common platform for document sharing, above the seventh layer ( ). What's missing is the next Internet layer for work sharing. That is the target of the four articles in this special issue.

Hayes et al. cover the current effort by existing workflow vendors to establish a common Internet-based framework for their systems. Bolcer proposes a new Internet protocol for supporting distributed workflow. Kim describes a new Internet-based workflow system, perhaps typical of a new generation. And Maurer describes how a workflow system can be integrated with project management for even greater control of work. Of course, these articles are but a small sample of efforts in this area. Moreover, they represent just the beginning.

One day, your e-mail will include XML-based process descriptions that enable your personal workflow client to graph just how overcommitted you are over the next three months. And the same descriptions will allow other engines to dynamically optimize supply chains as well as replan and reschedule large projects, such as the international space station, that are barely possible today.

We can no more foresee what this new workflow technology will bring about than the early users of accounting computers could have foreseen today's Web-based information systems.

Charles Petrie is executive director of the Stanford Networking Research Center. His research interest is distributed process coordination, with emphasis on concurrent design, planning, and scheduling. He also works on the use of XML for open, interoperable workflow. Petrie has a BS in mathematics from Louisiana State University, and an MS and a PhD in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the editor-in-chief emeritus of IEEE Internet Computing.

Sunil Sarin is a principal architect with TIBCO Software Inc. He received an undergraduate degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, and MS and PhD degrees in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has served as chair of the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) Interoperability Working Group, and received an AIIM International Standards Excellence Award in 1999.

Article Summaries


James G. Hayes, Effat Peyrovian, Sunil Sarin, Marc-Thomas Schmidt, Keith D. Swenson, and Rainer Weber

Companies such as FedEx and Dell have shown the value of providing process information in user-readable form over the Web. In 1994, the Workflow Management Coalition laid the foundation for providing it in machine-readable form. The Workflow Reference Model established a basis for developing standards of interoperability that could support Internet-scale workflow across companies.


Gregory Alan Bolcer

Automated workflow systems do not yet adequately address information mobility or tasks disconnected from the rest of a business process. While the current Web infrastructure lends itself to disseminating information, it also inhibits process definition decentralization and execution through workflow systems. The Micro-Apache Generic Interface is an architecture that can overcome some of these limitations.


Yeongho Kim, Suk-Ho Kang, Dongsoo Kim, Joonsoo Bae, and Kyung-Joon Ju

Runtime encapsulation of nested process models supports flexible workflow management in a distributed heterogeneous environment. Through its modular design, the WW-flow system provides a hierarchical control scheme over complex processes and subprocesses. Implemented in Java, the workflow engine and client interfaces are portable and platform-independent.


Frank Maurer, Barbara Dellen, Fawsy Bendeck, Sigrid Goldmann, Harald Holz, Boris Kötting, and Martin Schaaf

The MILOS system supports dynamic coordination of distributed software development teams by integrating project planning and workflow technologies over the Internet. The three-tiered Java architecture enables plan refinements to be made on the fly, and a change management component automatically creates traceability relationships between project entities.