Creative Destruction — What Came Before, What’s Coming Next
Prior to the beginnings of Internet-based e-commerce, the computer was essentially a filing cabinet, handling the affairs of the back office, programmed under the file clerk metaphor: capture, storage and retrieval of records. Today, however, we are not only seeing Sun Microsystems’ early vision that the network is the computer, now we can observe that the network is the business!
To participate in the digital economy, the business tasks we must ask of computers move from the back office record keeping to the frontline operations of the business. We are automating very different kinds of things: business processes and workflows that are human, knowledge-based phenomena; and opening our core business systems for direct interaction with customers, suppliers, and sometimes with competitors (i.e.,. the airline industry combining flights to complete an itinerary). New forms of pervasive communications have allowed forward thinking business people to blur industry boundaries and create virtual corporations, whose core competencies are information and knowledge management, taking much of the operational information once in workers’ heads and codifying it into executable software.
The new realities of business have created new imperatives for business information systems. Today’s business systems must provide enterprise (and inter-enterprise) reach so that islands of disparate information can be integrated into a meaningful whole. They must be able to cope with the overwhelming complexity of distributed technology and an inter-enterprise information base. They must be open to survive in a network-centric ecosystem. Rapid applications development is understood, and applications must be designed to embrace constant change. Business systems must be knowledge-based (not just information-based) if they are to cope with the incompleteness and ambiguity of real business processes and workflows. Moreover, they must be adaptive to meet the needs of the moment and bring productivity to an increasingly overwhelmed business user, and self-service to our customers. That’s what is being asked of IS today, a very tall order.
Both Business Process Management (BPM) technology and agent paradigms focus on addressing change and complexity. Intelligent agent technology is the next logical step in moving the BPM technology paradigm forward and overcoming some of its shortcomings. Both technologies have been around for quite a while but only now are they being repurposed for business in response to a rapidly changing world.
While the retail industry was slow to grasp the significance of the Internet—until it got Amazoned, today we are witnessing a seismic shift in information technology. It’s called the Cloud, and cloud computing has been unleashing a perfect storm in business. Unlike the retail industry that got Amazoned, the Cloud will affect every industry and go beyond enabling a virtual company and on to multi-company virtual business networks and ecosystems. Moreover, it won’t involve just a single Cloud. Just as the Internet is a network of interoperating networks of computers, the “Intercloud” will be an interoperating network of Clouds: private, public and hybrid. Complexity will grow exponentially, and tools and methods are desperately needed to build businesses that are complex, adaptive systems capable of bringing order out of the chaos (chaordic systems).
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Today businesses are grappling with how to make software accommodate change and thrive in the complex Intercloud economy. Business leaders know all about rapid change and increasing complexity, and some are now asking, “Why can’t software change itself to keep up with the changes in the business?” This business case is bringing intelligent agent technology out of the research lab and military establishment and repurposing it for competitive advantage.
Few in IT have not heard of software agents. Thanks to the dramatic growth of the Web, computing literature is replete with discussions of software agents. Like technology terms, however, the term is weary from overuse and misuse. Various names have been used — knowbots, softbots, personal assistants, software agents and intelligent agents. Various layman definitions have been offered: software that thinks, software with a head, and a smart computer program.
Backing away from technology for a moment, the everyday term, agent, provides a starting definition: “one who acts for, or in the place of, another.” A software agent is a software package that carries out tasks for others, autonomously without being controlled by its master once the tasks have been delegated. The “others” may be human users, business processes, workflows or applications. If you use a word processor such as Microsoft Word, you are a user of autonomous agent technology—the spelling and grammar checkers are carrying out those tasks for you, autonomously, as you type!
Is it a software agent or just another program? A basic software agent stands on three pillars, three essential properties: autonomy, reactivity and communication ability. The notion of autonomy means that an agent exercises exclusive control over its own actions and state. Reactivity means sensing or perceiving change in their environment and responding. Even the most basic software agents can communicate with other entities: human users, other software agents, or objects.
Add to this definition the ability to plan and set goals, to maintain belief models (their own and other agents’ beliefs), to reason about the actions of itself and other agents (including humans), and the ability to improve its knowledge and performance through reinforcement learning, you then have the core ingredients of an “intelligent agent.” An intelligent agent represents a distinct category of software that incorporates local knowledge about its own and other agents’ tasks and resources, allowing it to operate autonomously or as a part of a community of co-operative problem solvers (including human users), each agent having its own roles and responsibilities. All these agents need to be tied together into a dynamic, meaningful, often-changing whole. Say hello to goBPM.
The goal-oriented BPM system (goBPMS) with choreography(not just old-fashioned process orchestration) will be at the heart of multiagent systems that seek the common goals set by the goBPMS. An informative goal-oriented method is described in the BPTrends Column, Goal-Oriented Organization Design(GOOD).
Goal-Oriented BPMS with Agent Choreography
With careful planning, and armed with a solid understanding of the current limitations of intelligent agent technology, powerful business information systems can be developed that exploit the Internet and distributed objects to gain strategic business advantage. Although the tasks of designing and building them are not trivial, information systems based on intelligent agent technology are inevitable. Learning to harness this emerging technology should be a top priority of today’s business and technology leaders. Companies can go it alone but those that face immediate mission critical requirements will be well advised to seek outside assistance from those who have gone before.
Confession and Some Conclusions
First the confession: Portions of this column were written over 20 years ago by me and Faramarz Farhoodi (formerly with Logica, UK, where he had extensive experience with the distributed intelligent agent system, CADDIE) as a two part article for Distributed Object Computing Magazine (I did change some words such as BPR to BPM). What gall!
Well, thanks to Larry Roberts and his work with GTE Data Services, I had the opportunity to work with a packet-switching network that let computers communicate with one another in the early 1970s (no, this was not the Internet, but the X.25 protocol let computers share packets of information)! Our whole team was full of excitement and wonder, as described in this must-watch one-minute clip by futurist Arthur C. Clarke in 1974, long before the Internet and Cloud revolutions.
Oops. Nothing seems to happen as soon as it’s “invented,” so we had to wait until Jeff Bezos “Amazoned” the retail industry before the Internet (invented 20 years earlier)became the backbone of ecommerce. Amazon is a marvel of a “virtual company,” one that taps intelligent agent technology including its early use of Eyes and Ears, to deliver services that once before only humans could deliver. In addition, of course in 2018 it delivered the earth’s wealthiest human at $157 billion in September 2018 (Forbes)! Oh, and Amazon just became the second company ever with a market cap over $1 trillion! Hmm, … remember Borders Book Stores?
Why do I bring back this material now? Well, as William Gibson once wrote in The Economist, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.” It is now time for Intelligent Agent technology, a technology that’s been around and advancing for years, to take center stage in the world of business in general, and specifically in the world of BPM, for business processes are how work got done in the horse and buggy age and how work gets done in the emerging Intercloud economy. Don’t just take my word for the “nowness” of this. Here’s an upcoming 2019 MIT event: Artificial Intelligence is Changing Every Business: Don’t be Left Behind! For a new comprehensive guide, feel free to refer to the book (written by Jim Sinur, James Odell and Yours Truly):Business Process Management: The Next Wave (Harnessing Complexity With Agent Technology).
Carpe diem!…. or else!
Peter Fingar, Editor-in-Chief, is an author of 26 best-selling books, most recently Cognitive Computing, a Brief Guide for Game Changers. Peter has delivered keynotes globally, written numerous articles and papers, and remains an internationally recognized expert on business strategy, globalization and business process management (BPM). He's a practitioner with over 40 years of hands-on experience at the intersection of business and technology.