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Workflow Modeling: Tools for Process Improvement and Application Development

Just when process orientation has become mainstream thinking for business people and
systems people alike, it seems that the flow of process-oriented literature has pretty well
stopped. So here we are, thousands of us, up to our necks in process improvement and
information systems projects, finding that there is a real shortage of practical, how-to
information. The irony of this situation was described in Howard Fosdick’s terrific 1992 article,
“The Sociology of Technology Adaptation. Our book isn’t a book about technology, but
there is a connection—the article dealt with the adoption of new technologies, and this book
deals with the adoption of new methods and approaches for solving business problems.
The article begins with the observation that when any significant new technology appears on
the scene, it receives widespread publicity in the information technology (IT) arena.

Fosdick made his case using examples such as relational databases and expert systems, but
the relevant example in our case is, of course, the emergence of business processes and
business process reengineering (BPR) as important topics. The first references to crossfunctional
business processes appeared in the mid-1980s, and by the early 1990s, BPR was
without question the next big thing. It was attracting the attention of executives, managers,
consultants, pundits, academics, IS professionals, and, of course, writers of books and articles
from both business and IS orientations. These first publications covered the problems
encountered by functionally oriented organizations, the justification for becoming processoriented,
a few soon-to-be-familiar examples, some introductory process concepts and
terminology, and if we were lucky, some actual how-to advice. Some of this how-to-do-it
material was really just an attempt—sometimes sincere, sometimes a bit cynical—to capitalize
on BPR by recasting older methods such as business systems planning or information
engineering with a process-oriented spin. This was a familiar pattern, and as usual, the results
were not terribly useful. The other how-to material really tried to describe the new
BPx approach, but in the end provided little more than a high-level or broad-brush outline.
The focus was on what had to be done, but the method was unproven and there was precious
little guidance on how to actually do it. Practitioners the world over read about identifying the
core business processes, mapping the as-is process, or creatively rethinking the process, but
when they tried to put this guidance into practice, all manner of issues and problems arose.
However, those early works did serve a purpose. In fact, they were invaluable. They paved the
way for widespread adoption by promoting process orientation with a key audience of early
adopters—executives and other decision makers—and making it familiar and acceptable to the
rest of us. Besides, how much practical advice could we realistically expect? At that point,
there simply wasn’t a large enough base of experience to draw on, and without those books
and articles to promote the concepts, there might never have been.
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