Archive for the ‘workflow automation’ Tag

Social Networking and BPM of the Future

A couple of months ago, I saw an online video by Google about their upcoming Google Wave platform for social networking. As I watched it, my mind raced back to the early 1990s when Lotus was the rising star and was introducing Lotus Notes as a revolutionary new groupware platform. Lotus was a pioneer and coined the term “groupware” to define Lotus Notes as it was a new paradigm in those days and could not be defined using the IT lingo of the day. Lotus defined “groupware” as a solution that empowers teams of people to work together by giving them three capabilities in a unified package, namely communications, collaboration, and coordination. Lotus called these “the 3 Cs of groupware.”  In those days, the hot technologies were primarily email for communication, document management for collaboration, and workflow for coordination. Notes provided a single platform for all three of these capabilities, which was its key strategic differentiator.

 As I watched the Google Wave introduction, I was intrigued by Google’s definition of Google Wave as a platform for real-time communication and collaboration. The fact that Google Wave offers very impressive communication and collaboration capabilities in real-time over the Internet was impressive enough. However, what was even more impressive and intriguing to me was the fact that Google Wave is offering two of the “3 Cs of groupware.”  What is missing from Google Wave is “coordination,” or workflow. If one could add coordination, it could become a true and rich groupware platform. Indeed the vision of the early pioneers of workflow/BPM, such as Ultimus, which I was starting at that time, was to provide this third capability for coordination, and complete the groupware offering. Digging deeper into the technical details of Google Wave, I found that it has an interesting feature called “Robots,” which are essentially “automation agents” that participate like individuals in Google Wave. Again, I was intrigued by the similarity in name and functionality to the Ultimus feature called “Flobots,” or workflow robots, which we developed in the early 90s and introduced with the Ultimus version 1 in 1995. Google Robots, like Ultimus Flobots, can do many automated things without human involvement. Certainly one of the things a Robot could be developed to provide would be “coordination,” or workflow capabilities. Google is not doing this, but there is nothing stopping someone else from doing it by using the capabilities provided by Google Wave.  This will result in a workflow/BPM solution built on Google Wave that leverages the full power of Google Wave.

 Social networking has become one of the most dynamic phenomena and technology in recent years, and the Internet provides a cost-effective and far-reaching network to facilitate it. While it started as a consumer phenomenon, social networking is now making inroads into the business world as corporations recognize its power for sharing information and enabling people to work together. Working in a modern organization is also “social” in nature, especially for knowledge workers who have to share information and ideas, and build value in a collaborative and iterative way. The increasing sophistication of social networking tools, as exemplified by applications such as Google Wave, certainly makes this even more attractive as a business solution.

 Participation in a business process, too, is “social” in nature. The participants of the process are members of a team who often want to discuss and collaborate with each other and want to know what other participants are thinking. In many case they want the ability to use the thoughts and feedback of others to change and improve their own actions in a process. Today, most BPM solutions provide a structured way of doing work, using a factory automation metaphor. But knowledge workers who participate in processes are not automatons working on a factory floor. Instead they are humans with the need to learn and to satisfy emotional needs.  They find too much structure imposed by rigid BPM solutions to be an impediment rather than a facilitator. When the process becomes an impediment, these knowledge workers will find ways to bypass the rigidity of structured BPM and work around it. This defeats the whole purpose of BPM.

 It is for this reason that we find more and more social networking type capabilities creeping into BPM offerings of different vendors. This includes the integration of instant messaging, Wikis, discussion forums, and collaboration. However, these are all patchwork; at their core most BPM offerings are highly structured in nature. These ad hoc collaborative capabilities are added on top of a structured solution to leverage some of the benefits. At the core, they remain rigid solutions that are difficult to change.

 I believe that in the near future we will see a new generation of BPM solutions that are built on top of social networking platforms such as Google Wave. These solutions will have some unique characteristics:

  •  Rich, real-time communication and collaboration among participants will be a given, instead of something that is added on as an afterthought. 
  • The solutions will be dynamic in nature in the sense that the process will define itself as it is being used. It will adjust and adapt to changing needs. Since the process will define itself, it will be continuously tested in real-life situations. 
  • The solutions will use integrated BI capabilities to express the flow or map of the process and extract key performance indicators. The structure and the key performance indicators can be used to model and optimize the process, thus providing the ingredients necessary for BPM. 
  • Since Google Wave and other similar products are cloud-based, these BPM solutions will be cloud-based. 

I am convinced that such solutions will be the predominant paradigm for BPM of the future.

 Note: This post is adapted from my columns in VP Trends (www.bptrends.com ) of the same name.

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Human-centric Business Process Management (BPM) and Web 2.0: A Perfect Match

After reading numerous articles, blog posts and definitions of Web 2.0, and separate hype from reality, I have concluded that there are three essential ingredients of a Web 2.0 application:

 

i.             A rich user experience in an Internet browser.

ii.           “Mashups”, or the ability to pull together information from various sources that is relevant to collaboration.

iii.         Strong emphasis on collaboration, or sharing information and ideas.

 

When I look at Web 2.0 and BPM, and the underlying objectives and challenges of each, I find a perfect match that can greatly boost the acceptance and usefulness of BPM.

 

First, let’s look at rich user experience for Internet applications,  also called Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). RIAs are developed using new technologies such as Asynchronous Java Script (AJAX), Adobe Flex or Microsoft SilverLight. Every BPM product in the market today does not use these technologies. Only a few do. However, there is no doubt in my mind that BPM vendors, like other software vendors, will all rollout new versions of their products that use these technologies. I can safely predict that in the next 2 years or so, most vendors will have their user interfaces as RIAs, some moving faster than others. Indeed, the sheer benefits of an RIA from a usability and customer satisfaction perspective will make it a competitive advantage, compelling BPM vendors to accelerate their development efforts so as not to be left behind. As I pointed out in another blog “What it will take to deliver BPM SaaS?” (https://leadershipbpm.wordpress.com/2008/10/06/bpm_saas/), if BPM SaaS is to be widely adopted some key components of BPM have to be exposed in browsers so that users with rights can not only participate in processes but also configure and adapt them to their changing needs. Converting these components of BPM into an RIA will go a long way towards BPM SaaS.

 

Second, with respect to mashups, I would strongly argue that BPM is one of the first application categories to offer mashups even before Web 2.0 was popularized. Think of the modern BPM “client”, or the application that users use to participate in a business process and do their work. The BPM client is a classical example of a mashup. It pulls information from a number of sources such as databases, Web Services, EDMS (for document attachments), the BPM server (for status information), and often from other enterprise applications such as ERP and CRM. This information is collected in real-time and then presented to the user in a manner that is conducive to quick decision making and getting the job done. Of course, the ease and flexibility with which BPM applications allow these mashups to be created depends on the capabilities of the underlying BPM software that is used. However, the point is that the BPM client is a mashup used by all the participants in a process. Likewise, other BPM suite components such as BAM/reporting and administration have attributes of a mashup.

 

Finally, with respect to collaboration, I think it is clear to everyone that BPM for system-centric processes, also called straight-through processes, is optimized for speed and has little human involvement. By their very nature, these system-centric solutions are not collaborative and they do not need to be. They are automated production lines which are fully robotized. Then there is another class of BPM solutions, called “production workflow” in the 1990’s, that do involve humans but are for high volume, fairly rigid processes for claims processing and call centers, etc. Again there is not much need for collaboration in such applications, and the focus is on structure, compliance and speed. So neither of these two types of BPM solutions need Web 2.0 characteristics.

 

On the other hand, there are a large number of business processes that involve humans, and especially knowledge workers. In the early days of BPM/workflow, these processes were classified as “administrative/ad hoc”. The word “ad hoc” tried to capture the collaborative nature of these processes, even though technology at that time did not provide much opportunity for collaboration and ad hoc flow of processes. These human centric processes is where BPM truly has the potential for becoming a stellar Web 2.0 application for the simple reason that humans work in extremely complex ways, and the way they interact can often not be anticipated and programmed in advance. Here are some uniquely human things that people do when they work together:

 

i.             Confer: Knowledge workers often want to discuss an issue with others before they make a decision

 

ii.           Inform: Knowledge workers want to let others know why they made a specific decision.

 

iii.         Assign: Knowledge worker often wants to assign tasks to others in the case of work overload or absence.

 

iv.          Reject: Knowledge workers often reject a task they are assigned because it has incorrect of incomplete information.

 

v.            Validate: Knowledge workers want to review other information in order to validate and support the decision they are making.

 

vi.          Share and Assimilate: Knowledge workers want to share the decisions they are making or the information they have gathered, not only with the participants of the process but with a larger community or co-workers. This sharing and assimilation fosters organizational learning.

 

All these actions, and you can probably think of others, are ad hoc and collaborative in nature. Many BPM clients offer some of these capabilities. However if BPM is to truly address the needs of knowledge workers, the BPM client will have to offer all these capabilities in the future. The rapidly growing popularity of Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, forums, Internet document sharing etc., means that BPM solutions can leverage these technologies to provide similar capabilities to BPM users.

 

So my bottom line is that Web 2.0 is a perfect match for human-centric BPM. By the very nature of their core purpose of enabling people to work together, human-centric BPM solutions must become even better in collaboration, mashups and RIA technologies. Vendors who are nimble and deliver BPM as a Web 2.0 solution will have a significant competitive advantage, and will have the best opportunity for transforming their end customers and creating sustainable value.

 


NOTE: This post is an adaptation of my October 2008 column in BP Trends (www.bptrends.com )

Hello world!

Welcome to my first post on my Leadership BPM blog!

I have spent 14 years in the BPM/workflow industry fighting in the trenches from the very early days as the founder and CEO of Ultimus Inc. During this period I was involved in 100s of BPM deployments worldwide and collected a wealth of experience. Now that I have retired from Ultimus, I want to leverage this expeience and help senior executives to learn about and benefit from BPM and related technologies. I have a unique perspective and I have been very focused on the practical, nuts-and-bolts issues about BPM that senior executives have to understand if they are going to fully realize the potential of BPM.

In this blog I will write regularly about my experiences with BPM and also share what I find when I look at the BPM world from the other side of the fence!