Is Lightweight Workflow Here at Last?

by Andrew McAfee on March 30, 2010

Way back in 2006 I wrote about the talks Esther Dyson and I gave at the inaugural Office 2.0 conference. She predicted that ‘lightweight work flow’ or ‘lightweight project management’ would become an important enterprise application category. I seconded her by talking about the need for technology that spans the highly structured interactions baked into classic enterprise apps like ERP (in other words, their pre-defined workflows) and the totally unstructured interactions enabled by the 2.0 toolkit as it then existed (blogs, wikis, facebook, etc.).

Recent releases and announcements indicate that we’re not the only ones who saw a need for such tools. Google Wave, SAP Streamwork, and Salesforce Chatter, among others, are aimed at facilitating enterprise collaborations (disclosures at end of post). Wave is out; Chatter is in private beta and Streamwork is in public beta.

I’ve been messing around with Wave and Streamwork a bit and have been reading about Chatter. None of this qualifies me to write a review of any of them; instead, I just want to highlight two smart innovations I’ve noticed in these tools so far. Both of them are big steps toward toward the goal of using technology to more effectively support how knowledge workers actually work, and work together.

The first of these innovations is clever bridging between the realms of structured and unstructured data. A review of Chatter in Infoworld states that “Chatter offers a Twitter-style “following” mode, but with a twist: Instead of just following people, you can also follow data sets like price lists and client lists. When a data set you are following gets updated, you are immediately notified of the change. If, for example, you’re about to make a presentation to a client and your company’s pricing data has been changed, you’ll be in the loop instead of unintentionally giving the client outdated information.”

I like this idea a lot. Instead of requiring people to access or look up a bit of structured data, it instead puts the information where they’re looking anyway: in the middle of their steady stream of updates. Facebook, Twitter, and their relatives have conditioned a lot of us to keep checking that stream throughout the day, so it makes a ton of sense to include machine- and event-generated updates along with the human-generated ones we’re already used to.

Streamwork and Wave do something similar by allowing users to drop enterprise IT widgets into the middle of human conversations. For example, a widget could be a live look into the ERP system at the status and estimated ship date of an important customer order that’s going to be late because of a problem. While a team is using Streamwork or Wave to work on the problem, the widget will let them know if what they’re doing is working — it’ll automatically update the estimated ship date every time it changes. Such live windows into structured systems and their data can be tremendously valuable. They put relevant information directly in the flow of work, and in the environment where the work is taking place, letting everyone involved be better informed and more productive.

The second helpful innovation I’ve seen with Streamwork and Wave is the ability to add elements to a given collaboration on the fly, as opposed to defining them in advance. ‘Elements’ in this context can mean new data feeds or widgets, as described above, and/or new people. Both technologies let you bring someone into the collaboration at any point with very little effort. And if these people are brought in in the middle of an effort, they can easily review what’s already taken place, and so get up to speed quickly.

As I read about this ability to add stuff on the fly, I was reminded of wiki inventor Ward Cunningham‘s great insight on project support technologies:

For questions like, “What’s going on in the project,” we could design a database. But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what’s not important about what’s going on in the project. What’s important about the project is the stuff that you don’t anticipate.

That seems exactly right to me, and I’m glad to see smart technologists now rolling out support technologies that support the inherently emergent nature of collaborative work instead of assuming it away.

My biggest question about these lightweight workflow technologies at present stems from another great Cunningham quote: “What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?” If these tools aren’t highly intuitive and about three times better than email from the users’ perspective, many people will ignore them and just keep collaborating via emails and attachments. Mandates from the boss can have some positive impact on adoption, but the best way to succeed with lightweight worfklow tools is to make them as powerful and easy as any of the Web 2.0 classics.

Are they there yet? What do you think of Wave, Streamwork, Chatter, or any of the other new lightweight and emergent project management tools out there?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know…

(Disclosures: I have no professional involvement with Google. I have been a paid speaker for both Salesforce and SAP. SAP is a sponsor of the Center for Digital Business at MIT, where I work, and has also been a consulting client of mine).

  • http://www.pretzellogic.org Sameer

    Like the notion of 'lightweight workflow' – offers palatable nomenclature and definition for terms such as like microblogging and activity streams.
    Folks often struggle with what these terms and technologies displace. Workflow gives them something to hold on to.

  • http://enterprise20.squarespace.com Saqib Ali

    Activity streams, and more importantly the ability for “other” apps to feed into and feed off these streams in the key.

  • http://www.twitter.com/sameerpatel Sameer

    Activity streams (follow people and data sets) has existed for a while. Companies such as Socialcast have been doing this for a while.

  • http://enterprise20.squarespace.com Saqib Ali

    indeed

  • http://www.TractionSoftware.com grlloyd

    I also like the term “lightweight workflow” for the concept. For Traction TeamPage we've had fine grain activity streams for years – and we're making them much more prominent in the Proteus preview user interface we're now shipping and using.

    With respect to the “simplest thing that works”, one suggestion: leverage email.

    Last summer we added two-way email and Jabber notifications to follow a page (edits, comment, tags), person, or content of a workspace. This provides a simple shoulder tap message that can be routed using email rules and discarded rather than filed. The conversation is on the server and email / Jabber is a shoulder tap with a link back to the server, which also keeps a permanent record of the activity stream.

    Email notification is formatted to show an automatically generated comment thread that looks good on a Blackberry or other mobile device. A reply to the email is automatically added to the right thread.

    Pretty simple but it works well. The capability was added in response to a request from a major consulting firm – and rolled out to everyone.

  • http://twitter.com/yatman Yatman Lai

    “What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?” #yam

  • http://twitter.com/rawn Rawn Shah

    I'm not sure if activity streams by themselves qualify as a lightweight workflow; they imply content / information exchanges, but not necessarily where action steps are taken (as in any workflow). That may be me limiting the concenpt. We use activity-based computing to include many ideas, but this isn't necessarily a single activity stream a la Twitter.

    When I think of this notion of lightweight workflows, I consider it a more freeform system. Traditional workflows and business processes take a lot of analysis, testing, vetting and so on before they even become adopted. They are designed beforehand before any content even enters the flow. This approach focuses on “iterative refinement” on a selective basis to an existing information stream to “build it up” into a more formal system of a workflow. It can also change and evolve, which suggests to me some versioning issues, and possibly negotiating with other members on “what is appropriate”

    -rawn

  • utalkguy

    I though that it is the most important thing but most tough thing that we need to consider.

  • http://twitter.com/i_saw Stephen A. Williams

    Activity streams are a simple yet powerful concept, and Chatter's implementation is a very elegant model. The real value is enabled when these tools are tightly integrated into a business process/tool – e.g., using Chatter as part of CRM activities. The value is lost when the tool is standalone (even if it's “integrated” with other tools). These collaborative capabilities need to be a seamless part of the user's primary task, not a separate tool to which the user must switch back and forth.

    Even more powerful is the ability to add to the collaboration on the fly. You nailed this concept as the “inherently emergent nature of collaborative work instead of assuming it away.” However, I don't see the tools out there yet that fully support this way of working. Wave's ability to add collaboration elements (in the form of widgets) is a step in the right direction, but there are two capabilities that are missing:

    1) an easy way to create new collaboration elements (i.e., without programming and based on previous collaborations)
    2) an automated learning system that suggests/recommends collaboration elements based on previous collaborations.

    These capabilities would enable collaboration to evolve constantly & easily over time. Now the question is whether enterprises are ready to accept lightweight processes that evolve based on the participants' actions, as opposed to the pre-defined, rigid workflows typical today…

  • jbholston

    Event-rich, API-driven, microblog-UX activity streams … from mobile devices … are driving a lot of our growth (#newsgator).

    People pointing to people and content == gestural KM 2.0 (or something along those lines).

  • http://www.InformationArchitected.com dankeldsen

    Lightweight workflow is finally rearing it's head, and has certainly been a missing piece in E2.0.

    This is why we were specifically calling out, in 2007/2008, certain use cases where more traditional content management (with it's own workflow capability) or business process management (BPM) systems (that are better are bridging multiple systems) could be *very* useful for integration cases where E2.0 tools are used as the flexible front-end, and then run through a workflow to publish into a larger, perhaps compliance-driven publishing application (translated into multiple human languages, different formats for unique devices or output, etc.).

    Many E2.0 purists claimed the death of all things workflow, and that it was wholly unnecessary to do any such thing as manage a process. When the economy turns south, seems we all focus a bit more on the knitting, eh?

    As with many areas of maturity, particularly in this last year, it's seems we're finally getting solutions on the low-end (lightweight) of workflow, the traditional high-end (far more flexible than *most* need), but have instead of the classic bell curve bump in the middle (with a notch taken out for the chasm), well, we have essentially no-mans land.

    I've never seen anything like this in 16 years in the enterprise software world. The chasm that normally shows the leap from early adopters to mainstream is a giant black hole. Let's call it the anti-chasm.

    What's the path from no workflow, to lightweight workflow, and on up to heavyweight workflow? I very seriously doubt that SAP is capable of bridging that gap, and the usual suspects of “classic” E2.0 are only grudgingly adopting the lightweight end.

    Who will fill this gap, or does it not yet matter to the majority?

    Incidentally, ran into two very tech-savvy people in Boston today (one at MIT actually), both of whom had never heard of Enterprise 2.0, not at all, nor any of the people or companies involved. Our echo chamber may be much smaller than we'd thought.

    I'd suggest we make 2010 the year that everyone focuses on speaking everyman in translating E2.0 into real world, bottom (and top) line impacting results. It's certainly my mission, but it will take quite an effort to break through the ignorance/bliss barrier on this.

  • Hutch Carpenter

    Gotta agree with you there Rawn. Activity streams are an awareness feature, not a workflow feature.

  • bkeinan

    I think that what you said: “…the question is whether enterprises are ready to accept lightweight processes that evolve based on the participants' action” is the key
    It seems that big enterprises started to think “simple” and are less eager to get a tailored solution just for them…

  • http://www.TractionSoftware.com grlloyd

    Good point, I agree with you and Hutch that activity streams (or notification based on activity) is helpful but more aligned with awareness. “Lightweight coordination” may be more accurate – but less snappy – term than “Lightweight workflow”.

    Basecamp and similar “light weight scheduling” systems add state to items that describe tasks or deliverables, and make it simple to see what's in process, when its due, who's involved and high level dependencies. That's a good start, and makes dependencies very simple to visualize and use.

    This isn't workflow either, but coordination. It captures what's the state of the world in a dashboard sense: what issues are open, what needs to be done, when is it needed and who's responsible. The difference between this approach and project modeling (MS Project or more sophisticated systems) is that it's not a separate and highly detailed project model focused on time and resource modeling – but state embedded in collaboration system.

    That's the path we're taking – based on R&D in partnership with customers and experience using tags for simple coordination (e.g. “to do” or “done” tags attached to pages or paragraphs with automatically generated rollup lists).

  • http://www.chainofasker.com/ doc_usui

    I also have been thinking what way of support style best fit to manage our daily job and I noticed that all our cooperation start form asking someone to do something.

    Here “asking” means when we try to do something which we can not handle alone we need someone’s help. To get someone’s help we must ask someone to do something. So I think the act of asking is the start point and elemental act of cooperation. “Act of Asking” is simple activity but when we ask big request, it works like self propelled work planning agent as follows.

    To ask something, we must divide the job into the portion of which we handle by our self and the portion to ask someone. This means that we are doing one step of work breakdown when we ask something. And the same things will happen in the person who is asked some part of the job. So asking will create a chain of asking and reproduction of asking will continue until the entire job is broken down into small tasks and accepted by final task executors.

    Based on this idea I developed ChainOfAsker. ChainOfAsker use this chained asking procedure to develop entire project plan and schedule. So user can develop whole project plan by simply asking what he/she want and can monitor of its progress by Gantt chart.? For detail, please visit http://www.chainofasker.com/.

    It has work brake down and Gantt chart function so it looks like project management system and also it has ability to find out of its workflow by itself. So it looks like add-hoc workflow system. So How do you think of this approach?

  • http://twitter.com/briantullis Brian Tullis

    Dan – I love the comment here. In my own work life, I have tried in the last year or so to implement the “lightweight workflow” concept, or as Greg Lloyd also calls it, “lightweight coordination”. There are real people in real companies trying to do what you describe. I'm one of them.

    Practically speaking:
    -There is a generic need to pose a problem or define some “thing” to be done
    -The person who poses the problem or defines the thing, depending on the specific case, prescribes some steps or perhaps leaves it open ended.
    -There is some systematic or programmatic way to define a open/closed, to do/done state, or maybe there isn't. Sometimes it doesn't matter.
    -Colleagues (or heck, the Internet…) comment, modify, edit, add to, take away from, “approve” in some form. In my case, this is a wiki edit or a comment on a wiki/blog hypertext article
    -The thing is done at some perhaps very arbitrary point when the defined process is consumed. The state is changed to closed or done.

    This generic pattern I have applied with modest success in the following use cases:
    -Project proposals
    -Compliance testing
    -SLA/contracts with internal customers
    -Ad hoc surveys on various topics
    -Project management deliverable tasks
    -Wiki document collaboration
    -Crowdsourcing meeting notes compilation

    All of the above has been in the spirit of Cunningham's “what's the simplest thing that could possibly work”? None of the above required flow charts, modeling software, or heaven forbid armies of business analysts or programmers to implement. The workflow model is prescribed in a line or two of text, then I stand back and watch the coordination happen. Are there cases where this isn't adequate? For sure. But mostly, it just works.

    It's been successful enough that the experiment will continue and I'll try to blog in some more detail later.

  • http://twitter.com/Qontext Qontext

    Matthew Cain, vice president at Gartner, as part of (erstwhile) META Group research, believes that collaborative tools will achieve their true potential when they are embedded directly into software applications instead of residing in a separate program or infrastructure. He calls this concept contextual collaboration.

    Making business applications social, as referred by @amcafee here as the “clever bridging between the realms of structured and unstructured data” revolves around this concept of 'contextual collaboration', which allows end-users to seamlessly wrap social (unstructured) conversations around (structured) business data, all this from within the business application itself!

    The answer to @amcafee question “Are they there yet” the answer is Yes!

    Innovative products like Chatter, Qontext, and others are making this ‘concept’ a reality and taking it further. (Structured) Data set changes for a transaction within business application can trigger an (unstructured) Action Stream or ‘lightweight workflow’ which shows up in the corporate social network (what we are now fashionably referring as ‘Facebook for the enterprise’) as an Activity Feed/Stream and is visible to all the involved stakeholders of the transaction, with all the relevant contextual (business) data automatically captured as part of the unstructured information. The stakeholders can involve/invite more knowledge workers (‘Elements’) to alerts received from the Action Stream.

    -Ajay

    (Disclosures: I work for Qontext – http://www.qontext.com)

  • Mike

    I can’t comment on the viability of the tools you cite, However, I completely agree that the ability to ‘follow’ unstructured content is invaluable in both lightweight and also structured workflows. As a Documentum user for the last decade, I keep tabs on documents two ways. First, is the ‘let me know when this content changes’ and I get an email everytime this happens, along with the comments regarding the version (so that I can decide whether it’s something that warrants my attention). Second, and just as critical, is keeping track of who’s following my content. Getting notifications whenever somebody views the project schedule or meeting minutes let’s me know who’s engaged and, as important, who isn’t. It also helps get out in front of potential issues.

    This is, I think, the simplest thing that could work: add intelligence to the content. Versioning, collaborative redlining, usage statistics, touches, views, comments and marginalia: if done correctly, the meta-content becomes as valuable as the original content itself.

  • mikedolbec

    SupportCentral, at GE has had light weight workflows, since 2000.

    They have an enormous number of internal communities and many of them use the workflows. See:
    http://supportcentralenthusiast.blogspot.com/
    http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=126

  • http://twitter.com/roii roii

    I wonder, folks, it's not really the subject of this discussion, but when we see big vendor's like SAP etc. E2.0 offerings popping up, and we're trying to select E2.0 tools among the myriad of offerings out there, and we know the pull big vendors have among manager communities in the corporate world, and of course they want to be in on the E2.0 bandwagon, and for an E2.0 illiterate management corps, we may very well arrive at the conclusion/answer given to us by SAP's sales people: “E2.0 for you, that means Streamwork”, and similar conclusions from other vendors, ending up with a myriad of E2.0 tools inside the company.

    Being so unconscious and having so many E2.0 tools under the hood – Does that seem like a good E2.0 strategy? I know Bill Ives define Enterprise 2.0 as: ““Enterprise 2.0 is about applications where business value is determined through the contributions of participants.” (http://bit.ly/90LjI), but come on – how can we do this practically? Looking from an IM point of view it's madness to disperse info again over several E2.0 tools.

    For many of us the daily data we work with are scattered in email boxes and document/files here and there, not even 50% of the workable data comes from central ERP or CRM solutions. It's this major part of unstructured data we want to handle better in a unified, simple, hypertext-ed E2.0 tool (in line with what masters Bush/Engelbart/Berners-Lee tried to teach us) – and yes it should be able to connect to / use output from ERP/CRM and do lightweight workflow/coordination.

  • sathiyanamasivayam

    I am using Wave for last 4-5 months both personally and for business. I think the collaboration in this tool is really great.I thoroughly enjoy playback. Also from my point of view if you have large group of people and you're brainstorming, this tools helps get idea from everyone. Sometimes even in face to face meetings(large group), we light not hear everyone's opinion(sometime stronger personality people take over the meeting) but wave is not like that, everyone opinion will be heard .

  • jupiter0508

    Please watch the first video which is a perfect example of a lightweight workflow: http://www.adhocworkflows.com/display/WWW/Videos. This is a plugin for Confluence and I think it is a lot closer to the concept of socially constructed workflows than Google Wave and SAP Streamworks.

  • jupiter0508

    Please watch the first video which is a perfect example of a lightweight workflow: http://www.adhocworkflows.com/display/WWW/Videos. This is a plugin for Confluence and I think it is a lot closer to the concept of socially constructed workflows than Google Wave and SAP Streamworks.

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