Messaging and the end of workflows

Messaging and the end of workflows


The concept of workflows is well known in engineering, manufacturing and other domains of enterprise applications. Workflow mechanism is fundamental for many process management applications. As such, PLM always used workflow mechanism to manage processes such as lifecycle, new product introduction, engineering change and others. You can see workflow mechanism as a one of the fundamental technological pieces of every PLM technology and product today.

How to define a workflow? This question is usually very complicated and raises many questions and debates. This is where rubber hits the road in many PLM implementations. It brings debates about organizational processes, changes in many other related discussions.

Although, workflow mechanism is pretty much standard, you can meet variety of user interfaces allowing you to define workflow as a diagram (probably mostly common) as well as using other ways – written rules, message forms, etc. In my old blog PLM process: Flowchart vs. Rule-based I’m discussing what is the most convenient way to define process. Even this specific blog post is 5 years old, not much changed and you can see similar workflow definitions in PLM products – Autodesk PLM360, Aras, Dassault Enovia, Siemens’ Teamcenter, PTC Windchill and others.

The value of workflows and process management seems obvious. In many business situations, workflow mechanism is invaluable. But, here is a problem I can see in many manufacturing companies. Organizations are changing, becoming more transparent, agile and flat. In many situations, I can see how people are struggling with the complexity and rigidity of workflows. It makes user experience complex and changes expensive.

My attention was was caused by Intercom blog – Messaging is just getting started. The article speaks about growing trend in the way we communicate using short messaging. We know it originally as text messaging, but it is going much beyond the text. It turns in a very convenient way to communicate. It is actually not messages, but conversation. And it is becoming rich by adding additional contextual information – pictures, videos, maps, geographical locations, etc.

Language, drawing, writing, printing, television and nearly every other communication technology; they all emerged or were collectively invented to solve the problem of the previous method of communication not being fast enough, or robust enough, or of sufficient fidelity.

Just a couple of years ago we were sending clipped, plain text SMS messages back and forth. But today it’s common for a chat to consist of text, emojis, stickers, photos, videos, and audio recordings. Our digital conversations have almost imperceptibly morphed into a rich, evocative form of communication.

However, my favorite piece of the article is related to the definition of messages as an independent layer that is fluid enough to sustain between people, applications and devices. This is where it gets very interesting, since this is essentially kills the siloes existing in organization today. It is also the most efficient mechanism to communicate in flat and agile organization.

The interplay between new apps, their evolving features, and the content they contain: these are the overlapping layers that move freely enough to allow for rapid innovation. SMS wasn’t able to evolve quickly enough to suit the complex and changing needs of users, because it was too far down the stack, tied to a slow-moving layer. Native notifications are likewise part of the OS, also a relatively slow-moving layer.

On the other hand, messages in apps are part of the software features layer, a fluid substrate that can move and adapt much more quickly. Just as messaging apps were able to adopt the carrier’s own cellular infrastructure to deliver a better solution than native messaging, they may be able to co-opt the operating system’s notification system to deliver better real time functionality.

What is my conclusion? PLM applications must kill workflows as a way to manage communication between people. It might exist for some reasons and specific structured processes. But, I can see majority of communication will be converted into asynchronous, agile and nimble process supported by messaging layer with rich content. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Picture credit Intercom blog


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  • Hi Oleg, you gave me some thoughts on the PLM API project to add messaging features pretty quickly as part of the core objects.

  • Don’t agree with this one exactly. While workflows are typically too complicated, overly rigid, and far too difficult for non-experts to implement or modify, this doesn’t invalidate the need for a certain level of structure. Going to ad-hoc messaging threatens that structure in a way that’s OK for something like a startup but creates a huge problem for a mature companies making products where safety and reliability are important, especially in medical or transportation, when humans lives are at stake.

    Done correctly, some of the workflows in existing tools can manage to be asynchronous and nimble, but it has to be well thought out, deftly implemented, and in most tools the UI still stands in the way.

    Now that doesn’t mean messaging can’t be used as an element of that workflow – but something has to be there in the background to make sure the required things happen in an interaction with dozens or hundreds. What Kenesto has done is a step in the right direction, it just needs to continue evolving from there using messaging as one of many interaction layers.

  • beyondplm

    Ed, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I think, a concept of workflow and how to manage it is outdated. It is structured and rigid. In some situations it is a good thing, but in most of situations, it is just an old way to push data trough the lifecycle.

    It should be a better way – some aspects of a workflow can replaced by messaging (think Slack) and others can be replaced by elements of machine learning and AI (think M-Facebook).

    You probably remember my earlier blog- Future PLM assistant bot will help to manage ECO.

    Best, Oleg

  • beyondplm

    Hi Yoann, yes -messaging feature is clearly mechanism that people will be looking for. But how to make it run between applications? It can be a tricky thing to implement….