Why is workflow still so hard?

Almost 15 years ago I think I did my first bit of software that was called “workflow”. It was a Lotus notes application that today we would basically call “email with attachments”. OK, there were some automation bits in there where depending on some content in the document, it might get routed to this person or that. Not long after that I realized that it wasn’t much of coding effort to have a web page with a big ol’ chuck of code that went something like this:

if (field > 20) SendMailTo(boss) else SendMailTo(gopher)

Only a few years after that the industry created BPEL so you could take that and say it in 50 lines of xml text*. Now in the 21st century, you can do this with a graphical designer in SharePoint, Savvion, K2 or open sourced alternative that is supposed to be so much easier than hiring a developer to type that line of code above.

So why aren’t more businesses, developers, organizations lining up to buy or build workflow type automation? This question has started to bother me a lot.

One thing is certain to me now. Turning a flowchart into code solves the wrong problem, convenient as it is. How we represent the decision block,task, activity, state, value, or triangle on a whiteboard is NOT what is holding us back. That is a notation, nothing more, and people can learn new notations quite easily. At least they can learn a notation quickly compared to how fast they can learn to automate their business functions.

Experience that tells me workflow oriented systems are the right way to solve many types of systems problems. By systems, I mean organizing people and computers to get stuff done. But, all indications seem to say this isn’t going well at very many places right now. Why? Sounds like a lot of interesting conversations are in the works!

* I actually have no idea how many lines of bpel are needed to do this.

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