Many people who encounter Consilient have trouble (as I did when first reading their marketing material) understanding what the company is purporting to do. Their product is quite visionary, and substantially different from the usual run of software products -- even while it tries to fit in non-disruptively with the current, everyday work habits of its users. I hope this article clarifies what they're trying to do and how they are bringing their vision to fruition.
Everyone can remember times they got workflow wrong. (Some people can't even identify a workflow in what they're doing.) For instance, you might forget whether you're supposed to send a project plan to your manager first for approval, or to a financial person for budgeting. And when it's done, you entirely forget that you were supposed to send it to your PR person, so the public never knows about the great work you did.
What people might fantasize about at a time like that is some kind of intelligent, under-the-counter agent that controls the workflow. Wissssst! Your plan goes to the financial department, presenting the person who receives it with a template for approving it. Zip! Back to your manager for approval. Vrooooomph! To the PR person for publication.
This fantasy may soon be emerging into consciousness as a reality, thanks to Consilient. They have a Java-based framework for developing projects that control their own workflow. Everything -- documents, workflow information, tools for handling the material -- is bundled up into a self-contained package called a sitelet. This enables different people to work on the project in a peer-to-peer fashion. While programmers can set constraints (such as saying that a financial planner has to do a budget at a certain point), the sitelet is flexible and lets you add tasks while you go along. In fact, it's intelligent enough to capture what you're doing and add it to the sitelet for reuse in future instances. Each tool used by a sitelet is called a "solution component."
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In perhaps its simplest form, a Java programmer uses the Sitelet Development Kit to create a solution component in the form of a Java servlet that resides on a company's Web server and is visited by staff working on the project. Each staff person is shown just the data required to do his or her task, and is given the necessary questions as well as the tools to answer the questions. If someone does only part of the work, a journaling facility remembers what was done and lets the same person (or a different one) pick up from the same point. Java Server Pages (JSP) provide all the logic to support this intelligent activity.
Let's suppose that some participants are outside the company or just can't get to the web site because they're on the move. In that case, the sitelet can travel over email or some other transport to the mobile person's laptop or PDA. In this case, the participant needs to have a Personal Peer installed, a small component provided by Consilient that handles the JSP activity. Now the participant can do all the work required by the sitelet and send it off to the next person.
Simultaneous access by multiple participants is supported; journaling and version control allow the instances of the sitelet to synchronize and resolve differences in what the people did. Programmers and managers can look at sitelet log files generated by the journaling layer to see where things went wrong or what was successful and could be incorporated into future sitelets. The logging also lets managers trace what happened in the sitelet for the purposes of accountability. Additionally, when somebody does something the sitelet detects as a violation of its constraints, it can notify a manager.
The Personal Peer is sufficient for a self-contained sitelet that has all its solution components and data. But often, an organization wants a sitelet to coordinate with some outside data store like a corporate database. This is also possible, but instead of a Personal Peer, the system hosting the sitelet needs a larger Consilient product called a Metro Peer.
The business model of Consilient, therefore, is to be a provider of a highly sophisticated piece of infrastructure that works with databases, workflow tools, and other software at the customer site. People can use existing tools like SAP or PeopleSoft to handle the workflow. Erik Freed, Consilient president, CTO, and co-founder, would like to view other tools in similar spaces not as competitors, but as pieces of the customer environment that Consilient's products can tie together and enhance.
There are many points of commonality between Consilient sitelets and the spaces set up by the well-known new company Groove Networks. In both cases, people can be detached and can work in self-contained spaces; both products offer powerful forms of synchronization and security. But the type of information conveyed by Consilient and by Groove is entirely different; so are its ways of managing information. In Consilient, the sitelet provides some high-level structure, whereas Groove offers a free-ranging space.
Freed has spent many years researching how people work together on large projects, and he wants Consilient to support their current work styles in all their diversity. A sitelet can be as loose or as constrained as its creator desires. People can add tasks as they go along and have them incorporated into the workflow automatically. As requested by the application, a sitelet can record all interactions between people, systems, and applications.
Any Java programmer who knows how to work with JSP can learn fairly quickly how to program rules and workflow information. Consilient hopes to win over third-party software vendors who create new tools (solution components, in their terminology) to be included in or work in conjunction with sitelets. Information on workflow and on how to display data is stored in XML.
Freed started developing the prototype for Consilient's product in June 1998. He and co-founder Jonathan Hare incorporated the company in August 1999; it now has over 110 people and substantial venture capital backing. They have several customers among energy and financial institutions; Freed mentions the resetting of derivatives as an area where Consilient can aid a complex process. They also have a contract with British Petroleum.
Freed thinks that one of the key advantages that will allow them to ride out the current dot-com downturn is that they fit in with companies' existing procedures and software; they don't require a customer to throw out a lot of what they already have. The low barrier to adoption was also planned carefully so they can benefit from network effects. For example, a company that uses Consilient can ask suppliers and customers to adopt it as well; merely using a Personal or Metro Peer requires almost no training.
In the future, Consilient plans to add higher-level services that essentially provide customers with simple workflow solution components so they don't have to do all the programming and testing themselves. For instance, the company might offer a set of solution components that support contract negotiations.
Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.
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