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Classroom and Community Intersect in Workflow Management

Integrating the classroom with the community to give students hands-on experience is a laudable goal, but not always easy to do. At the University of Arizona, J. Leon Zhao's upper-level and graduate business students gain an understanding of workflow management software and business applications through real projects in the surrounding business community in Tucson.

Workflow management, also called business process management (BPM) or workflow automation, is intended to help users catalog and manage the tasks, procedures, organizations, and people involved in business processes. The terms BPM and workflow are used interchangeably and have become the de facto platform in business automation using software. Besides business applications, workflow is also used in automating laboratory data processing tasks, referred to as scientific workflow.

The majority of students are taking Zhao's course as part of a business degree or MBA, but the course also draws computer science and engineering students. In addition to teaching, Zhao is the interim head of the Department of Management Information Systems and director of the Lab on Enterprise Process Innovation and Computer at the University of Arizona.

Courses that focus exclusively on enterprise workflow management are relatively rare these days. After business school numbers rose atop the dot-com bubble, attendance at many schools is now down as the economy has slowed. As course offerings are trimmed, subjects such as BPM and workflow management are often combined with other topics, such as systems analysis and design, or introduction to information technology. But because Arizona's graduate program is larger than many, Zhao said, the school has been able to maintain the program in its current state, including the course on workflow management.

Finding companies in the community who are willing to participate in his programs isn't difficult, Zhao said. He uses the same approach--sending students out to work with real businesses--in other courses, including systems analysis and design, and database management. "It adds value to the companies, and it's a good opportunity for exploration for both [sides]," Zhao said.

Many students in the graduate program work part-time in the business community already or have business connections that they can use to find a partner company. Zhao also maintains a number of contacts in the business community that he can call on. "Most companies are modeling their business processes or developing workflow," Zhao said, and therefore welcome the opportunity to try out a certain software package or approach. Students conduct interviews with the companies, either on-site or on campus. In some cases, departments on campus have participated, benefitting from student help with workflow modeling and prototyping.

"Many of them find jobs because of their skills [with workflow management]," Zhao said.

Zhao began offering his course, now titled Enterprise Workflow Management, in 2001. He said he believes he was one of the first, if not the first, in the country to offer a course with an exclusive focus on workflow management.

Zhao has taught the course using a range of BPM products, including those from Oracle, IBM, and BEA early on, then later, Microsoft, Ultimus, and an open source workflow management product based on J2EE called jBPM. He has watched the number of vendors offering stand-alone workflow management software shrink from a couple hundred in 1995 or so, to just a handful today. Major vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and SAP now include BPM software as a core component of their business software offerings, often in their eBusiness Suite.

Zhao favors the Adaptive Business Process Management Suite from Ultimus because its user-friendly interface makes it easy for students to master relatively quickly. He also includes Microsoft Windows Workflow Foundation, another BPM product. The usability factor of the Ultimus package enables students to move on to the substance of the course more quickly. "When you teach, you... don't want to scare students," Zhao pointed out. "You want to quickly get them into learning." Ultimus fits the bill because the brunt of the software runs on a remote server and is accessed through the Web. Students need only install a desktop component called Ultimus Process Designer to use the process modeling elements of the software.

"Ultimus is the most user-friendly software," Zhao said. "It's a little bit less flexible, maybe, but among BPM software, Ultimus is the only one I know with which you can develop a reasonable sophisticated business workflow [system] without writing a single line of code."

On the other hand, a limitation of Ultimus is that it is a Microsoft Window-based platform, he added. In the last several years, however, the company has added a Web services interface, meaning Ultimus can access other platforms if the database it is accessing has a web service handle.

At 20 to 30 students per class, Zhao estimated that he has trained some 300 students over the years in workflow management--including the community participation aspect.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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