What’s The Connection Between Wearable Workflow Platforms and Health IT?

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In this case, the answer the question posed by the title of this post is literally about the “connection” between the gadgets we wear on bodies and the data stored in health IT systems. How do we get the right data to or from the right gadget on the right person at the right place and time to the right health IT system. And the answer to this question is: a wearable workflow platform.

I’m sure that “What is a platform?” will be adequate addressed at the Healthcare Unbound conference. But for this post to be self contained I’ll provide this short definition. A platform is an environment (operating system, hardware architecture, set of application programming interfaces) executing a piece of software. An environment does two things. It constrains software development, and it facilitates it. A science fiction fan, I sometimes think of platform as sort of like a holodeck program. Choosing a platform is like running a holodeck program. And once it the platform/holodeck executes, we’ve create a little mini-reality, with its own logic, which we must respect and leverage.

Software platforms have evolved greatly since the sixties. At one time the only platforms were the various hardware architectures. There were no database platforms and operating systems were rudimentary. So, many early software applications basically had to do so much themselves, without help from their environments. These early applications mixed data, user interface, business logic, and, notably for my purposes, workflow together.

The first major transition between software application architectures (made possible by complementary shifts in platform capability) was to take data out of the application and story it in a database. The next major transition moved responsibility for managing elements of the user interface (buttons, dialogue boxes, etc.) out of application into the operating systems. Now, there are lots of different “platforms” out there, natural language platforms, cloud platforms, mobile platforms, etc. But, at the highest level of abstraction we are now seeing the migration of responsibility for representing and managing workflow out of applications into someplace else. Increasingly these workflow platforms reside in the cloud. Increasingly these workflow platforms talk to wearable technology. This is the wearable workflow platform to which I refer.

Suppose you’ve got a laptop, tablet, smartphone, Glass, smartwatch, and smartring (several can vibrate to indicate high priority incoming notifications). Now, imagine all of them “going off” at once! By what means can this be prevented from happening, in a context aware, user customizable, usable user experience sort of way?

There are basically two choices: Orchestration versus choreography. Orchestration is like an orchestra, so there needs to be a conductor. In classic workflow management systems this conductor is a workflow engine. The workflow engine consults a representation of workflow, variously called a workflow or process definition, or sometimes a work plan, and tells everyone what to do. In the past, these models were drawn or constructed in graphical user interfaces. Increasingly these models are learned from actual user behavior.

In our multiple wearable gadget example, whichever device the workflow engine selects, based on a model of work, workflow, or “life flow”, is the device that delivers the notification. And then, if the notification is not acknowledged (perhaps because it’s battery died, or because the device has been temporarily removed), it may escalate.

On the other hand, choreography of wearable devices workflows might be more like dancers or jazz musicians consulting their own limited models of workflow to prevent six devices from buzzing all at once. You could think about this as being a sort of polite conversation, with shared rules of etiquette: “OK if I buzz?”, Might anyone else prefer to buzz instead of me?” “What’s your priority?” “Yes indeed that is higher than mine” “Please go ahead!” But let me know if you’re notification isn’t acknowledged, so I can give it a try!” “Thank you!” “Welcome!” “Think nothing of it!” “Until next time”, “Cheers!”, etc.

I think you can get from the above comparison of wearable workflow the basic idea. Here’s my occasionally tweeted “Mr. “Wearable Workflow” guy! A series of tasks, consuming attention, achieving personal and professional goals, facilitated by wearable technology (personified!). In my next blog posts in this series I’ll drill down into the kinds of process-aware technology we’ll need to be to bring Mr. “Wearable Workflow” to life!

The next post in this series is Where In Healthcare Will Wearable Workflow Emerge First?

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