Workflows can be infinitely flexible when they are modeled the way work is really done. What’s needed is a model that more accurately reflects how people naturally work.
I think linear workflows are inherently flawed by design. Even in the most extreme example of linear work, a manufacturing assembly line, workers typically have the ability to stop the line and reject an item outright or request rework. But often the rework is something more complex than simply passing the item back to have it worked again.
When these kinds of exceptions occur in most workflow systems today, users create workarounds to the system to get their work done.
About 8 years ago I used a different kind of workflow engine at KMPG when Kevin Parker and I were helping creating an HR outsourcing center. We used a product called Action Workflow to handle all of the transactional items in and out of the center. Action is based on the ActionWorks Business Interaction Model which more realistically models how work is really done. Take a look at the model to see how different it is than the standard linear approach.
The Action model treats work the way it really lives, organically in a cycle of negotiations and performance. New cycles can organically recur in the parents. It’s a completely different (more effective and realistic) way to look at workflow.
I know James and Jeff were trying to keep this product-agnostic. But Action is the only example I know that’s using the cycle-approach. Everything else I know of is linear.
We need ways to systematically track the work that we do. The more accurately they model the way we do work, the less people will use workarounds, and the happier everyone will be.