Working with Processes

The project aims to enable emerging enterprise wide systems to improve the management, organisation and support of families of workgroups, some of which may be distributed. A key element of such systems is that they often embody explicit representations designed to support business processes and work processes. This project focuses on the ways in which users comprehend, relate to and utilise these process representations as a means of realising the promise of enterprise wide computing.

Using Representations

We know that making use of explicitly structured processes can make work more effective and can prevent the need for having to worry about many routine details. On the other hand, we also know that structured processes can get in the way of effectiveness and efficiency by being excessively rigid, by enforcing unnecessary overheads and by diverting attention from the work to the process. In the latter case, people tend to get work done in spite of the processes rather than because of them. The challenge we face is to understand how to develop appropriate process representations which provide enough structure to be helpful, but not so much that it imposes a burden on its user. We need to be able to develop and match process representations to their purposes and settings, and to represent processes within systems so that can be understood and used effectively.

We aim to develop a deeper understanding of how people do and can understand and use process representations in different situations so that they can be developed, presented and used more effectively. This will provide a basis for longer term developments as well as being prerequisites for meeting the Business Aspects of our work. There are four specific areas in which we need to develop knowledge:

  1. How people are able to use explicit process descriptions and instantiations to support their work.
  2. How to depict the relationship between explicitly expressed processes and the social and organisational environment within which they are used.
  3. How to represent process descriptions to their users to ensure effective uptake. This includes mapping between process descriptions at different levels of detail and how to match the level of detail of the description to the purpose for which it is to be used.
  4. How to design support tools employing process representations.

We are taking a two pronged approach to tackling the issues which emerge from these themes, one focusing on social and organisational issues and one on developing novel technical solutions to help address them.

We are currently beginning two studies looking specifically at the take-up and use of process representations in different work settings. One focuses on the introduction of pre-defined processes supported by an on-line tool to produce consistent structures across different parts of an organisation. The other focuses on an organisation which has reorganised itself along very strongly process oriented lines and has cascaded "process-think" throughout the organisation. It is now considering improving the support of these processes by introducing workflow technology.

Processes from "Within"

Organisations are increasingly looking to the explicit representation of business and work processes to structure, manage and enact their work. They are encouraged by claims of orders of magnitude improvement in productivity in some cases, but wary of warnings about very low success rates. It is widely acknowledged that the major reasons for failure are often human and organisational in nature. In particular, the business needs of efficiency and effectiveness need to be balanced with user comprehension of the processes in which they are involved and commitment to them.

Xerox has defined this as an area of strategic growth and is currently developing expertise in areas such as business process analysis and workflow to take advantage of this emerging trend. To realise the potential, Xerox needs to be a leader in fitting processes and technologies for supporting them to their eventual users to sustain a competitive advantage.

This project will add value to the development of Xerox expertise in business process re-engineering and workflow by improving the account they take of the ways in which people understand and use the processes in which they participate. This is being achieved in collaboration with the Xerox business community and their customers to leverage resources and ensure take up of the results, and is taking input from other parts of XRCE where appropriate (e.g. Grenoble Distributed Systems group and Cambridge field studies work). The value added will be accessed in three ways:

  1. Through a framework for specifying and evaluating appropriate process representations for different purposes and settings. For example, purposes such as the support of organisational design, the management of work or the enactment of work and settings such as intra-workgroup and inter-workgroup collaboration. This is being developed by drawing on in house expertise in work practices in large organisations and will involve collaboration with Xerox customers.
  2. Through developing a suite of metrics for measuring value of different process representations for various classes of user and purposes.
  3. Through producing and testing software prototypes built around the process representations (e.g. novel interfaces and architectures for modelling, simulating or enacting processes).

Researchers

  • Allan MacLean
  • Paul Dourish