Anemic Applications

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in September 2004.

Alan Kay is, among many other honors, a member of the Utah Information Technology Association's Hall of Fame. He even lists it in his bio. Kay's Utah connection is that he received his PhD from the University of Utah in 1969. If you've never heard of him, let me just say that many consider him among the most influential computer scientists alive. He invented or participated in the invention of the mouse, local area networking, overlapping window interfaces and object oriented programming.

In a recent interview with Fortune Magazine, Kay says "We're running on fumes technologically today, The sad truth is that 20 years or so of commercialization have almost completely missed the point of what personal computing is about."

Kay's chief complaint is that all we've done is replace business processes that were formerly done with pen and paper with computerized versions. Word processors are just fancy typewriters, email is just a substitute for memos, and so on. They're faster, but not really different.

What does Kay envision? He says: "If business users were less shortsighted, they would seek to create computer models of their companies and constantly simulate potential changes. But the computers most business people use today are not suited for that. The chances that in the last week or year or month you've used the computer to simulate some interesting idea is zero-but that's what it's for."

One of the few applications used by businesses that can do simulation is the spreadsheet. Creating models of business scenarios in Excel and then conducting "what-if?" sessions is a great way to understand business problems. Whenever I contemplate a new business, I create a free cash flow model of the business and run lots of scenarios. You'd be surprised at how many things that look good with a static analysis lose their luster after some simulation. The problem is that people have been trained to simply print the spreadsheet, creating a static snapshot, instead of a dynamic model.

The bottom line is that today's tools are great at creating and manipulating data, but they're almost worthless for managing process. Esther Dyson says that we should be paying more attention to getting control of business processes rather than business data.

Think about it this way: if you're in business, then it's likely that the most important process you have is your "order to cash" process wherein an order is received and, eventually, turned into cash. Who owns that process in your business? How was it created? When is it reviewed? Did someone build a model for it that can be simulated to test various scenarios?

If you're like most businesses, the answer to these questions is that finance owns the process, although no one's ever thought about it explicitly. The process was created in an ad hoc fashion and is never reviewed. Further, no one's ever thought of modeling the process and wouldn't know where to start if they did. Is that the kind of attention you'd like the most important process in your business to get?

I like to think of the IT side of this in terms of what I call virtual networks of demand, a term I first heard from Duy Beck. Anytime you get an organization of more than a few people, you start hiring people with particular functional specialties to perform specific tasks. Getting anything accomplished, requires that you have a workflow for getting things from one person to another in the right order, at the right time.

I like to think of every person representing a little bit of production capacity with their own supply and demand chains representing a "virtual network of demand." The goal of an organization is to find ways to efficiently and effectively service this network and keep it flowing.

Our current, industrial-era inspired viewpoint of the organization is a machine where employees are the cogs. Understanding processes and servicing the virtual network of demand requires instead that we view the organization as a big distributed P2P network.

When we install CRM systems, employee portals, ERP systems, personal computers, and office suites, we're trying to this demand network with the tools and service it needs to thrive. The problem is that we can't, yet, approach it from the standpoint of viewing each employee as a custom unit that has specific needs. We punt and simply give everyone a standard set of tools and hope they can figure the processes out.

Dyson asks the question "The first successful spreadsheet was called VisiCalc; where is VisiProcess?" The fact is, those tools haven't been invented yet. When they are, they will change business in ways we can scarcely imagine in our current data-centric perspective.

Phil Windley teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley writes a weblog on enterprise computing at Contact him at

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 23:21:28 UTC