Office Automation 25 Years Later

At the last WfMC committee meeting, we were honored by a visit from Skip Ellis, a luminary in the field for 25 years. Huh? I hear some of you exclaim. There wasn’t any BPM 25 years ago! Let me explain.

During the 1970’s people got the idea that information technology (called simply “computers” back then) could be used to support people at work. The idea is that the computer would figure out what needs to be done, and tell people when they needed to do something, and to provide the tools to easily accomplish the task. There was no internet (well, there WAS an internet actually but it was really really unknown) so it was not clear at all how to accomplish this. Local area networks were virtually unknown except in the rarefied air of places like PARC. But still there was the dream that computers could be used to organize human work and make things easier. It was called Office Automation.

In 1980 Skip was working on the Office-Talk system at Xerox PARC. Read this abstract from his 1982 paper about OfficeTalk-D and see if it seems familiar:

WHAT: Herein is described an experimental Office Information System designed and built at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to allow multi-computer experiments in distribution and sharing of control within an office environment.

WHY: Current office systems go a long way toward aiding the individual user to transact his/her personal office work. Future office information systems need to aid tightly coupled communities of users. Thus, this investigation into communal computing systems is motivated.

HOW: Using the Alto/Dorado machines, and the Cedar database and programming environment, we have devised a system which allows the flexible manipulation of electronic forms on the display screen of users and helps to coordinate and control the flow of forms between user workstations. Novel facilities implemented in the system include distributed schedulers, dispatchers, office observer workstations, alerters, a data dictionary synthesizer, change agents, and on-line office modeling, simulation and design facilities.

Many of the terms have changed over the years. We no longer talk about “schedulers and dispatchers” but instead “back-office integration” which is accomplished today with web services. It speaks of forms that are displayed to users, and routed between users. Most notably, it has what we would today call business process modeling, design, and simulation. All this in 1982. Mind you, the hardware and software were very primitive but the dream was there and executed to the extent that the technology of the time would allow.

The term Office Automation (OA) makes me shudder with visions of a Jetson lifestyle where each office has a big red button, and worker’s job is to press the button. The term was popular in the 1980’s but faded when people found that work was just plain hard to automate, or if you did automate it, you were stuck doing something that was not quite what you intended, or you were unable to respond to change. Soon, the inflated expectations turned into disappointment, and the term Office Automation became “the old stuff that we no longer do”.

The new term for the 1990’s was “Workflow”. The goal was pretty much the same: use information systems to help people figure out what needs to be done, and tell people when they needed to do something, and to provide the tools to easily accomplish the task. The best summary for the 1990s is the WfMC Workflow Architecture document by another luminary, Dave Hollingsworth. Another organization promoting the study of Computer Supported Cooperative Work was the ACM SIGGROUP with which both Skip and I were associated in the early 1990’s.

Dozens of workflow products appeared in the 1990s. Also, the Internet happened. Forward thinking people jumped into workflow and many expected their workplace to become more or less instantly automated. As you can imagine, they were disappointed when their inflated expectations were not met, and the term “workflow” became “the old stuff that we no longer do”.

But the dream was still there, and rose from the ashes in the form of BPM for the 2000’s. Wikipedia offers this description of BPM:

Although it can be said that organizations have always been using BPM, a new impetus based on the advent of software tools (business process management systems or BPMS) which allow for the direct execution of the business processes without a costly and time intensive development of the required software. In addition, these tools can also monitor the execution of the business processes, providing managers of an organization with the means to analyze their performance and make changes to the original processes in real-time. Using a BPMS the modified process can then be merged into the current business process atmosphere.

The activities which constitute business process management can be grouped into three categories: design, execution and monitoring.

If you disregard the changes in the terms over 25 years, you find we are still we are struggling to support the same goals, but now we can do it on hardware and systems that seem infinitely more powerful. The technology today is so much more powerful than it was back in 1980, and a BPMS today does so much more much more easily than was possible with OfficeTalk-D. Still, our offices are not instantly automated. The inflated expectations of BPM are beginning to fade, and people are looking for something new, or at least a new term, and BPM will become “the old stuff that we no longer do”.

After 25 years, Skip is still working on BPM/Workflow, now as a professor at at University of Colorado in Boulder. He contines to work on some really interesting things, including some recent papers with Kwanghoon Kim (the WfMC Country Chairperson for Korea) and Jacques Wainer (another luminary) on the subject of analytical mining of the monitoring event data from a BPMS. There is some related work on standardizing those events so that they can be collected from multiple different BPMS and search or alayzed together.  Skip wrote a chapter in the 2006 Workflow Handbook. and came to present at the WfMC speaker session at the Philadelphia AIIM show.

He has a really great perspective on practical aspects of supporting office work: the real work going on at offices is surprisingly complex and rich while at the same time being intuitive to the workers. It is clear that no technical fix will make all work automatic anytime soon. While we have come a long way in making workers more effective in the workplace, even to the point that a many modern enterprises would not be viable without BPM and Workflow, but there are still many more opportunities for improvement to be found, maybe in the next 25 years.

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2 Responses to Office Automation 25 Years Later

  1. John says:

    The technology advances but the challenges remain largely the same. Wonderful post!

  2. Great Review! Well written and quite descriptive as well.. If any item or topic comes out then you should be the one releasing it to the public and make it known! The way you describe it is very intriguing and feels like candy to my ears, if that really makes any sense 🙂 but you catch my drift.. In one of my classes, we were given a paper with instructions of how to build a swan made of aluminum foil and we had to explain to our group verbally how to construct the swan.. It was difficult! But, manageable and we came second in place, but it was tasky 🙂 Nevertheless if you post anything else up I will most definitely check it out! Great review!

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