Monday, December 6, 2010

Workflow Tools Workshop in Bath, 30 November 2010

On a freezing cold November day I travelled down to Bath to attend a one-day event run by UKOLN as part of the DevCSI program. Mahendra Mahey, Research Office with UKOLN, was our host for the day. What may seem like an esoteric activity for the few is actually a fascinating subject for those with a logical and ordered approach to things. We’ve used some business modelling techniques in developing the basic model for our Workflow Tracking System so the workshop was very relevant to us.

The aim of the day was to introduce a small range of open source workflow tools to a wider audience and to set out the role and value of using software to model business processes. The day consisted of a series of presentations and product demonstrations.

The event brought together vendors, users and project managers who are interested in learning more about workflow and business process modelling tools. In some way or another all attendees were involved in planning or developing workflows within their own institutions.

The day started with a presentation by Tammo van Lessen, who gave an overview of the basics of business process modelling, languages such as BPEL (Business process Execution Language) and BPMN 2.0 (Business Process Model and Notation). Business process modelling is just a formal way of describing the processes that a business uses to do what it does. It can be used to describe each step in a process, the interdependencies between those steps and sets out a sequence in which steps must occur. Tammo talked about the history of business process modelling and how the tools have become more interactive and how they can now be used to directly build web based interactive services.

Amol Vedak gave a demonstration of the Intalio Business Process Management System and discussed how it could be used to as a tool for business transformation. Intalio is designed to combine the skills of business analysts and IT people. Groups of experts can use their respective skills to design and build business processes using a common language and set of tools. The simplicity of the tools means that processes can be quickly designed, tested and implemented.

The WS02 Business Process Server, discussed by Paul Fremantle, is an open-source BPEL. Paul demonstrated the ease with which a workflow could be built diagrammatically. At the same time the software builds real web services that can be used by people or systems and integrated into an organisations business.

Of particular interest was the Taverna suite of scientific workflow tools, demonstrated by Stian Soiland-Reyes. This tool can be used to build the workflows that query public data sources. Taverna can use local tools or third party scripts to query services such as EBI’s BioMart. Taverna recognises that many scientists have data or their own tool sets that are held locally and it provides a means by which these can be used by others.

At the end of the day there was a series of ‘Lightening talks’ given by some of the workshop attendees looking at workflow related projects that they are currently working on. This provided a set of practical real-world examples of how business process modelling could be used.

The lessons of the day were quite clear. Using business process modelling tools is an effective way to help us better understand the processes that we use in our business, and it can help us design better more efficient processes. In better understanding how we do what we do we can better understand the risks to our business, design more efficient processes and do so relatively quickly and easily. We’re also able to use these techniques to run ‘what if’ scenarios and to test processes under different scenarios. All of which can be done in a virtual world before implementation.

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