Next generation work management: Moving closer to the plant global village

What is next generation work-management technology and how does it relate to plant engineering? The short answers are "nothing" and "everything".
By Dr. Jay Ramanathan August 1, 1999

What is next generation work-management technology and how does it relate to plant engineering? The short answers are “nothing” and “everything”.

I’m not trying to be flippant, but work management , formerly known as workflow, is one of those enterprise-driven, mission-critical information system technologies that is often invisible to many but has an impact on everyone’s life. In this sense, it is equivalent to enterprise resource planning (ERP). Whatever your level or function in the plant, you are going to interface with it. You may be called upon to help select it, and you certainly will be involved in managing at least part of it once it has been installed.

Unlike many other applications, including the ERP backbone, work management may or may not be visible to the user. In this sense, it is like an operating system for the enterprise. It links functions and major applications, tying them together with documents, reports, and other data objects. And it does so within user-defined parameters of how the company works.

But it does not require its own user interface to do its job. Whether visible or invisible, work management is the “glue” that binds together the often disparate, sometimes large, sometimes small, software applications operating in the plant. Work management technology was created by the rapid advent of the many enterprise-level applications operating sometimes independently, sometimes together.

So what does this mean to you?

So what does this mean to the plant engineer? Or even better, how does work management technology have an impact on plant engineering? Again, there is a short answer: A plant is its own “global village.” Islands of automation are no longer possible as the information systems driving the enterprise become one.

But we can be more specific. Currently, day-to-day work may still be very much dependent on seemingly freestanding applications, or on ERP system front-end add-ons. However, what I would call “collaborative” work management represents the next major evolution in corporate IT systems.

For those of you who are working to integrate project management and maintenance scheduling applications with the corporate ERP system, collaborative work management is on the horizon just as that ERP system was a few years ago. The same regulatory pressures (OSHA, ISO, for example) that require audit trails and instant access to large data objects such as engineering documents or maintenance records will require or be facilitated by real-time access to process (workflow) and communications data. Work management accomplishes these tasks and more.

The “more” is really why I believe plant engineering management must understand this next-generation technology, what it can or should be able to do, and how it relates to current applications. Work management technology will not replace “documents” in the form of data objects, nor will it replace the specific applications currently operating in your plant. But sooner than you might imagine, current applications will be interfacing with new software at the work management level.

Why? Because it is an enabling technology. Because collaborative work management can literally unify an enterprise’s myriad of software applications with human work processes. It enables the enterprise to standardize and thus facilitate its internal and external operations. With that step, strategic initiatives, like true supply chain compliance, become possible.

The expanding global village

Notice that our global village has grown beyond the walls of the plant. Let’s draw another analogy, this time using document management. Your document management system is like a pair of eyes that lets you look at specific pieces of information or documents. The ERP system can be likened to the brain of the enterprise. It collects, processes, interprets, and delivers reports on all aspects of planning and production within the enterprise.

Work management technology is emerging as a large, flexible nervous system, linking, or cohering , disparate departments, functions, people, and software applications within the plant or facility. This nervous system standardizes data protocols, object management and delivery, and human work processes. It also enables communities of individual companies, each with its own diverse set of management software capabilities, physical processes, and work rules to communicate with each other and work together seamlessly and in real time. It is a technology level that will truly permit execution of supply chain programs.

Within the expanded global village, diverse corporate enterprises, as well as departments, groups, and individuals within those enterprises, should be able to work as they always have worked, interfacing with current software applications invisibly and seamlessly.

Unfortunately, all work management technology is not created equal. Some systems move documents around, but do not address the inter and intra -organizational integration issues required to really support that global village.

Identifying evolved systems

How then does one identify truly evolved work management? Three broad capabilities characterize the evolved system: openness, interoperability, and unobtrusive power.

Openness. In truly open, collaborative work management, the process model is liberated from the data objects (including documents) managed by the system. Document-based , serial processing is replaced by collaborative processing. That change means that any document attached to any phase of a process is accessible independently of the actual work process or from the stage at which it is in the process. The software supports but does not change or obstruct the way the enterprise works.

In addition, the system handles external applications, data objects, or even lower-level workflow data seamlessly — that is, without requiring additional programming by the end user. In other words, state-of-the-art work management should have flexibility invisibly embedded into or attached to other software applications.

Interoperability. At the highest level, work management should comply with standards developed by the Consortium for National Industrial Information Infrastructure Protocols (NIIIP). NIIIP has outlined an architecture that supports the virtual enterprise, including supply chains. It is both CORBA and COM compliant to ensure application interoperability over the internet. Other standards bodies are also driving requirements into the marketplace.

Unobtrusive power. Look for a system with complete and open logic that molds to your processes, rather than forcing you to change the way your operation works to adapt to the software. Insist on the ability to handle multiple external applications such as document management. Require a graphic tool that eliminates software coding and permits process changes at definition and run times to allow the optimization of all processes.

This sophisticated level of IT management is already appearing in many manufacturing enterprises. Selecting the right work management system should make work more efficient without introducing any nonproductive or awkward changes. A true work management system adapts to the way the user works. It does not require the user to adapt to the system.

Dr. Jay Ramanathan has more than 20-yr experience in computer science research, technological transition, and product development. She is responsible for the establishment and operations of Concentus, including development of the company’s work management software. The company was founded on the basis of the commercialization of a software research project that she managed while a faculty member at Ohio State University. Questions about this article may be directed to Dr. Jay by phone at 614-793-2561 or e-mail at The company web site is located at