Service-Oriented Automation

Industrial automation began in textile mills over 200 years ago with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and hit full stride in the last century with the evolution of machinery that could automate repetitive human tasks. The Information Revolution of the mid-twentieth century expanded the power of automation beyond manufacturing and across all parts of the organization, as one information technology (IT) innovation after another automated an increasingly expanding set of business processes. Each innovation, from the Jacquard loom to the transistor to TCP/IP, moved businesses up the spectrum of automation, from easily automated processes to processes that were increasingly difficult to automate. At some point, however, the effect of a given innovation peters out, and people must step in to manually handle the tasks that have been resistant to automation. That is, until the next innovation comes along and changes the game.

Today’s game-changing trend is Service Orientation — the broad business trend that considers IT resources to be available as discoverable, composable, loosely-coupled Services, enabled by Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). In SOA, all processes are composed of discrete Services, and those processes themselves are exposed and consumed as Services. This concept of business processes as Services is the essential innovation behind Service Orientation. Such Service-oriented (SO) processes are therefore the key to taking automation to the next level.

The Workflow Trap
A business process is a set of activities coordinated together for some particular business result. Some processes are entirely manual, while others are automated. Some business processes are workflows, which are processes that involve human interaction. It’s very rare to find a process that has no user involvement whatsoever, and also unusual (but admittedly, not quite so rare) to find a process with absolutely no IT involvement. Workflow, however, often specifically refers to otherwise automated processes that have human steps in them, as though people were plugged into the process. Just like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, people find themselves enmeshed in the gears of uncaring business processes as the wheels of automation continue to turn.

Whether a company considers a process to be a workflow that explicitly includes human activities, or simply a process that humans kick off and then deal with exceptions as they come up, such processes rarely have the flexibility and adaptability that businesses need to fully meet their objectives. The problem with today’s process automation is that process tools aim to fix processes in place — what we like to call pouring concrete on the business processes. As a result, most of today’s business process tools model the process as it was at some point in time, or how it should have been, but rarely as it currently is in operation. In situations where the business needs are unlikely to change, the poured concrete approach may be adequate. In reality, however, most businesses require far more flexibility from their processes, especially as they move up the automation spectrum to those processes that are more difficult to automate.

A Closer Look at SO Process
Service Orientation reverses the poured concrete situation. Instead of plugging people into rigid processes a la Modern Times, SO processes plug into people’s daily work routine. Once people realize that processes are available as Services that they can call upon as needed, rather than some automated taskmaster, they will be able to leverage the power of IT in a far more flexible manner.

This “on demand” view of process sounds promising, to be sure, but is still well out of reach for most companies who are still struggling with various integration issues. You can take heart, however, because it is possible to break down this vision of SO process into elements that companies can tackle as a straightforward part of their SOA initiatives. The first step in breaking down SO processes is to distinguish between composed processes and metaprocesses.

A composed process is made up of one or more Services and then exposed as a Service — the essential innovation of Service orientation that enables the recursive creation of increasingly complex processes in a loosely coupled fashion. Business users should be able to compose finer grained Services into business-level processes, which are in turn exposed as Services recursively. The loosely coupled nature of Services makes such processes flexible regardless of how complex they become.

A metaprocess, however, is a process for dealing with processes. If your assignment today is to compose a process, or maybe modify or manage a process, then the activities you will follow to complete your assignment constitute a metaprocess. A metaprocess might involve a number of different actions that people might take with respect to the processes they work with, including creating, managing, revising, improving, combining, or retiring processes.

People don’t talk about metaprocesses much today because they are very difficult to automate. The process tools on the market today generally make manual metaprocesses easier, but typically do not take the responsibility for metaprocesses out of the hands of the analysts who are typically called upon to execute them. In other words, metaprocesses are on the “very difficult to automate” end of the automation spectrum.

Here’s where the game-changing nature of SO process enters the picture: it is the challenge of automating metaprocesses that offers the greatest promise for SOA and the broader business movement to Service Orientation. Take exception management, for example. Existing process automation typically focuses on executing those processes under predictable conditions. When something unexpected happens, however, the process throws an exception that a human must deal with. The classic example of exception management in action involves merchandising processes — getting winter coats on a store’s racks, for instance. One early cold snap can cause a spike in demand that throws a wrench into the most carefully laid forecasts, and now people have to step into an otherwise automated process and deal with the situation. When these exception managers adjust or revise an existing process to deal with the problem, they are executing a metaprocess — an activity that is almost always handled manually.

Let’s say, however, that they have SOA in place, and the processes they are dealing with are SO processes. At the basic level, when the unexpected cold snap occurs, the managers can now call upon a range of processes at their disposal to deal with the exception. They can compose those processes in a flexible manner to reallocate IT resources as needed. They are still executing a manual metaprocess, but as part of that metaprocess they are composing SO process into new SO processes.

Now, let’s take this example to the next level. An enterprising solution provider realizes that exceptions are the rule in businesses like retail (or most other industries, for that matter) that are subject to the whim of outside forces. They develop an exception management system that automates the metaprocess of composing SO processes to respond to unexpected events. This solution provider’s customers can now handle exception management as though it were just one more set of automated processes. The exception manager’s role now moves away from fighting fires to more strategic assignments, like further removing costs from the merchandising/exception management system.

The ZapThink Take
The ongoing series of innovations that lead to increasing levels of automation clearly represent progress for the businesses that are doing the innovating. Such progress, however, comes at a price, as the humans involved in those processes find their daily work transformed or eliminated. People, of course, can only tolerate so much punishment, and as a result, the history of business through the last two centuries contains progress in the human condition as well, from the labor movement to occupational health regulations to the World Wide Web and the global community it fostered. Fundamentally, with each technical innovation, business can only progress so far before people require improvements in their working conditions.

The movement to Service Orientation and the eventual ability to automate metaprocesses represents the next step in this progression toward better work for people. No one wants to be a Charlie Chaplin plugged into some automated process, and likewise, people generally don’t enjoy jobs where they’re fighting the fires that various process exceptions set. As we move up the automation spectrum, work gets better as business gets more efficient.

The benefits to business are in fact multiple. Not only will improved working conditions lead to better productivity, but Service Orientation leads to more flexible, agile automation. Today’s poured concrete approach to process automation is nearing the end of its usefulness, as competitive pressures put companies with inflexible processes at a disadvantage. Instead, Service Orientation is gradually ushering in a new age of Service-oriented automation — or in other words, automation on demand.