Is Lightweight Workflow Here at Last?

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and your company’s pricing data has been changed, you’ll be in the loop instead of unintentionally giving the client outdated information.”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).