Operational Business Artifacts and Agility: Comparison
Please note this is a comparison between Version 2 by Wendy Huang and Version 3 by Wendy Huang.

Agility, a necessary condition for sustainable performance, should be a key competence of organizations in dynamic markets today. Organizations have to move faster than the market around them, both in terms of decision-making and capability development over time, to maintain a competitive advantage. Agility should therefore not only be seen as a tactic, but rather as a strategic goal by itself. Aligning information systems and businesses at the strategic implementation stage (i.e., operational level) is reported to enhance organizational agility. More specifically, reengineering business behaviors as business services, similar to the service-oriented architectural pattern in software design, is also reported to lead to flexibility and agility in organizations, as long as business knowledge is adequately modelled and interfaces between services are clearly defined. Consequently, business artifacts at the operational level of the business, if adequately modelled, represent an operational agility capability of a business.

  • artifacts
  • agility
  • service organizations
  • managers
  • operational agility

1. Organizational and Operational Agility

1.1. Agility Facets

Today’s industries and markets continuously change by emerging, colliding, splitting, growing, and declining, hence organizations have to contend with perpetual uncertainties [1]. Therefore, regardless of their financial success, they face challenges in creating strategies to deal with such uncertainties. Agility refers to an organization’s ability to sense changes in the environment and to make qualitative/relevant subsequent decisions [2][3][4][5][6][7]. This means continuously adjusting strategies, supporting decision-making on challenging projects, effectively responding to ambiguity and uncertainty, and perceiving unanticipated change as opportunities for improvement [3][8][9].
Agility should be a key competence of organizations in today’s dynamic markets [10] [11][12][13][14]. It should be not only seen as a tactic, but rather as a strategic goal by itself. Managers thus need to understand what makes their companies agile, how agile they actually are, and how they can improve agility.
Agility is defined in [3] in terms of three dimensions: Customer responsiveness, operational flexibility, and strategic flexibility. Two dimensions of agility are described in [15]—speed and capabilities of an organization to use resources and respond to changes. According to [16], it consists of customer agility, partnership agility, and operational agility. In [17], two facets of agility are discussed: Operational adjustment agility and market capitalizing agility.
Agility should, as such, exist at any organizational level, from strategic/business/organizational level agility down to product or service, tools, and even (employee) personal agility. IWe focus in this research,article on the operational level of agility is focused on, i.e., the ability of a company to adapt its operations, technology, and information to perpetually changing business requirements [5][18], to allow managers to achieve the desired competitive advantages [16].

1.2. Service Organizations Particularities

In service organizations, process quality is usually managed via process KPIs, which rather reflect the performance level of activities, paying less attention to data aspects of business processes [19]. Additionally, the variability they face through either customers, service providers, suppliers, or unexpected events [20] results in less accurate business process models. As such, improving operational business processes may not impact agility.
In this light, management teams in service organizations may face challenges in understanding their agility-related assets and success metrics, and in defining the scopes of work for agility-related improvement initiatives.

1.3. Operational Agility Enablers

Agility is seen as a dynamic capability, differing from an operational routine in that it describes how resources can be reconfigured and integrated to respond to contextual changes [5]. To be agile, organizations need a set of enablers, which are capabilities that allow them to promptly respond to changing business environments [21].
Knowledge management, organization learning, leadership commitment, multidisciplinary teams, organizational culture, decentralized decision-making, or customer and stakeholder involvement are reported as generic agility enablers [22]. Information (including data architecture) is also reported as an enabler of agility [6]. Operational capabilities such as Enterprise Architecture can also enhance agility [23]. There is also a positive link between an organization’s information systems capabilities and its agility [24]. Moreover, operational agility requires building (at least) an information processing network and implementing organizational controls to enhance the right information processing capability [18].
To summarize, rather general answers can be found to the question of how to build agility in a particular organization. Managers need, however, to know what capabilities to develop, given different changes in their business environments, and what practices and techniques can be implemented in this respect [25][26].

2. Artifact-Centric Approach to Operational Agility

2.1. Business Artifacts as Operational Agility Capabilities

Traditional business process models based on activity flow seldom support the flexibility needed to deal with continuous change and uncertainty [19][27]. Managers need to communicate not only how they want things to be performed but also why, so data managed by processes become at least equally important as the activity flows. Employees can thus make smarter decisions in uncommon situations (change and uncertainty), as they better sense the context of their activities.
In this light, a different paradigm for managing processes should be adopted. One such approach focuses on business data records—called business artifacts—that correspond to business-relevant objects, which are updated by a set of services that implement business process tasks [19][27][28][29][30]. All organizations, regardless of their activity domain, rely on business records [27], which contain information on what they produce. Business artifacts enable recording this information so that they reflect the context of a business, while work tasks are defined by considering how artifacts are processed [19][30][31][32]. Business artifacts are concrete, identifiable, self-describing parts of information, combined into a persistent structure, that can be used to actually run a business [19][33]. Artifact-centric business process modelling has proven to be quite effective in practice [32]. It substantially enhances communication between business operations stakeholders as compared with the communication enabled by traditional activity-flow-based approaches [27].
Aligning information systems and businesses at the strategic implementation stage (i.e., operational level) is reported to enhance organizational agility [34]. More specifically, reengineering business behaviors as business services, similar to the service-oriented architectural pattern in software design, is also reported to lead to flexibility and agility in organizations, as long as business knowledge is adequately modelled and interfaces between services are clearly defined [35]. Consequently, business artifacts at the operational level of the business, if adequately modelled, represent an operational agility capability of a business.
While discussing service organizations’ particularities, ineffectively managed unstructured work and complex processes showed up as significant agility bottlenecks. In addition to that, approximately 60% of today’s work is unstructured, in the form of ad-hoc unique tasks whose outcomes require further interpretation and judgement. The more interactions involved, the more information is lost or interpreted differently. For this reason, to support operational agility, the focus on tasks and processes should be shifted from “conformity to a plan” to “building the result so that it fits other tasks”, i.e., the interfaces between business processes/tasks should be re-engineered so that they consist of/point to specific business artifacts.

2.2. Operational Vocabularies

Business users usually identify business artifacts as the key elements of the process; artifacts can be seen as a kind of vocabulary of the process, similar to the notion of domain ontology [36]. However, business processes and data models (the business artifact models) can evolve independently one from the other [32]. Business artifacts may be modelled ex ante, so that changes in these elements can be consistently measured across organizations [37], but this means that the same elements are equally central in any organization [36], which is rarely the case. As such, business artifacts can be derived from the particular operational information system of an organization (ideally modelled via a domain ontology). Having such an operational informational system is an enabler for operational IT application orchestration, which is reported to have a positive impact on agility [38].

2.3. Artifact Modelling

Artifact-centric business process modelling focuses on key business-relevant records that evolve by progressing through the process. Business artifacts reflect both data and process aspects and are used as building blocks in a process model [19]. A business artifact is described by an information model and an instance of it that reflects all the possible evolutions of the artifact over its lifecycle (in terms of activities or tasks acting on the artifact instance) [29][32][39]. Artifacts can be conceptualized as objects that are created and used in practice to facilitate work activities [40]; they are heterogeneous and dynamic. Artifacts should be mutable, i.e., able to accommodate informational variation after their creation [40]. Artifacts can also be referenced, by storing the identifier of another artifact [31]. This leads to the idea of modelling the business artifacts in the form of classes and objects (instances of classes), as in object-oriented programming. Process activities would be represented by calls of artifact “methods”. The quality of information conveyed through the artifacts becomes thus increasingly important, as collective tasks have to be supported as the process progresses [40].


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