Scott's Workblog

scott.bradley.wilson@gmail.com


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November 08, 2005

Workflow, power, and negotiation

I've been delving into the literature of workflow a lot recently as part of the work on the Personal Learning Environments project. It strikes me that there are competing underpinning philosophies of workflow that are going to have a big impact on how we use workflow technology in education.

This was brought home to me recently by this quote:

BPEL should allow "each participant" in a business process to "understand and plan for conformance to the business protocol without engaging in the process of human agreement that adds so much to the difficulty of establishing cross-enterprise automated business processes today" (emphasis added). That's an interesting claim, especially for a technology that is meant to be situated very near, indeed, to the user and to the user's business processes
(source: XML.com

This also strikes a chord as most of my research on workflow has concentrated on speech-act theories such as Winograd and Flores Conversation For Action model (described here) which explicitly takes as its model that workflow is primarily about the negotiations that take place between people in relation to units of work.

Looking at things from this perspective, and using the CFA state diagram as a starting point, it soon becomes obvious how many workflow specifications and technologies omit negotiation and counter-proposal from the process, and go straight for a command-response process. For example, IMS Learning Design is no more "progressive" in some ways than any business workflow language, in that there is no means of modelling a resource bargain between a learner and teacher for an activity.

This one-way approach to workflow doesn't seem to suit the way people collaborate where there isn't an implicit power imbalance in the participants. Power is assumed by most workflow modelling to exist in sufficient amounts with the requesting party to override the need for negotiation mechanisms. This is a very dangerous assumption to make in education.

I'm sure this isn't how the technologies are envisaged by their creators, but it does stem from an underlying conception of work which requires critique. Its interesting to read how Flores' work was influential in IBM, and yet the BPEL4People proposal from IBM lacks any actions that challenge the old command-response workflow approach. Well, its a big company :-)

The pessimistic view is that workflow automation is "considered harmful", but if dealt with in a sensitive way it can be a powerful tool for assisting collaboration. This is especially going to be the case where cultural and logistical barriers affect communication, so making action statements explicit can reduce misunderstanding and empower participants.

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