The most interesting demonstration Ive seen in quite a while was the demo of the upcoming "Mendocino" workflow product at the recent Sapphire users conference in Boston. Mendocino, a product jointly developed by Microsoft and SAP, ties in to the back end of SAPs enterprise management system and promises to deliver familiar desktop management tools for the heavy-duty lifting of enterprise control systems. The SAP conference coincided with news that Bill Gates is planning to write another book, one that probably will look at the future of work. The conference also coincided with another Boston-area event, the annual MIT CIO Summit, where the role of technology in the workplace was a major topic. Why all the interest in work?
Theres interest in work because for the rest of this decade, that is where the enterprise action will be. Vendors will be judged by how well their products interoperate, how understandable their user interfaces are and how easily new companywide workflow systems can evolve to meet the needs of changing work conditions.
"The software challenges that lie ahead are less about getting access to the information people need and more about making sense of the information they have—giving them the ability to focus, prioritize and apply their expertise, visualize and understand key data, and reduce the amount of time they spend dealing with the complexity of an information-rich environment," Gates said in a recent Executive E-mail memo. Despite the verbose sentence, Gates is correct in identifying the issue. We really dont need one more search engine, one more data warehouse or one more way to create even more data. Before companies start to bring in geographic data, RFID inventory control or on-the-fly pricing data, they need to get control of what they have.
The development of those connected enterprise management systems promises a solution to information overload, but it also raises some interesting questions about who will design, deploy and maintain those systems. SAP—no big surprise—figures it can define just about every possible transaction type and allow users to find their way to systems that mimic their corporations methods of doing business. Companies such as Pegasystems envision a highly flexible system design built on real-time business actions.
At the MIT CIO forum, the most vibrant exchange of the day took place as Pegasystems CEO Alan Trefler took on SAP Chief Development Architect Lutz Heuser in arguing the merits of the flexible model versus the defined structure. While these disputes are usually something that only a software architect could enjoy, the direction of workflow development holds a lot of import for not only the tech vendors but also for users trying to decide which technology infrastructure is right for their company.
Critics such as Nicholas Carr contend that all computing infrastructure will eventually be a utility purchased the same way as electricity. While he is correct in looking at the rise of high-speed networks, data centers and outsourced computing as real challenges to the traditional model of an in-house infrastructure, his utility model breaks down when you look at workflow.
While companies may have business processes similar to one another, it is the variations in those processes, the ability to keep the data in those processes current, and the rights and permissions associated with those processes that give one company the competitive edge over another.
What made the Mendocino demo interesting was its ability to easily tie purchasing to manufacturing and financial systems. In the corporate world, the ability to know when an inventory shortage will stop your manufacturing line can mean the difference between quarterly profit and quarterly loss. No utility computing networks on the horizon will provide the broad-based enterprise infrastructure combined with the second-by-second corporate flexibility required.
The success of the new vision of work and workflow will depend not only on picking the right technology but also on making sure all of a corporations executives and employees are ready to embrace that new vision.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.