What is workflow?
Most office tasks involve circulating documents among workers and among departments. In this process, documents get lost or take too long circulating, thus degrading efficiency. Moreover, even if one worker or department converts information to electronic data, unless everyone uses the same system, other workers or other departments will not be able to handle the same information.
Workflow management systems came onto the market to solve these problems.
Kinds of workflows and target businesses
There are many kinds of workflows, but one way to classify them is by whether the target business is fixed or non-fixed. Most workflow management systems now installed or already operating are targeted to fixed businesses. Typical fixed businesses are material purchases, preliminary examinations, and insurance examinations. The work in this kind of business is defined in advance as a process flow and is processed step by step following the process definition.
Examples of the non-fixed businesses are product development planning and project management. These businesses are difficult to define as business flows in advance, and the processing by participants is usually cooperative. There are no generally recognized definitions for this kind of workflow, but they will probably be generated in future by user's requirement.
The Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) is a non-profit international organization established in August 1993 set up to standardize workflow systems.
Participants include members from many fields, such as workflow venders, users, consultants, and professors. WfMC was established to promote the use of workflows through the standardization of workflow system terms and of commercial product interfaces. Currently 200 members from 25 countries are participating, and the number of participants is increasing. WfMC is becoming the principal standardizing organization in a rapidly changing software market.
In November 1995 the standard application program interface (called Interface 2) for workflow clients was released. Users can construct flexible systems based on this standard. In November 1996 the mutual connecting standard (called Interface 4) was released for connecting different types of workflow systems. In June 1996 in Toronto, Canada, and in October 1997 in Amsterdam, Holland, demonstrations based on this standard specification were held. A specification for statistical information is planned for release, as well as a standard for capacity data records of workflow engines early in 1997.
For more information about WfMC's activity, see the WfMC home page
Object oriented programming (OOP) is a recent technical trend. Object oriented technique is being introduced in workflows also. For example, WfMC is recommending Object Management Group's (OMG's) Interface Definition (IDL) format for standardizing workflow engines and client applications. Some workflow venders offer workflow systems which implement a workflow engine, itself an object, in a decentralized object environment. Other test models are available.
A research company in the United States has reported that object oriented programming is important for flexibility and for speeding up the development cycle of application programs, and that OOP will be even more important after 1997. That makes the combination of workflow systems and object oriented programming all the more important.